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By Michael Merschel, American Heart Association News
Let’s admit it: Oatmeal is a total nerd. It lacks fashion sense – the color they named after it is somewhere on the drab side of beige. It’s often seen with Sesame Street’s Bert, who also loves bottle caps, paper clips and pigeons.
But when it comes to healthy eating, oatmeal and the oats it comes from can definitely hang with the cool kids at the breakfast table.
“It has many, many good qualities,” said Candida Rebello, director of the nutrition and chronic disease research program at Louisiana State University’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge.
Extensive studies have associated oats and oatmeal with plenty of heart-healthy benefits, such as lowering cholesterol (both total and “bad” LDL cholesterol) and helping with weight control.
Oatmeal has a host of vitamins and minerals. Two examples: According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a one-cup serving of cooked oatmeal has about 1.8 milligrams of vitamin B1, or thiamin. That’s close to 15% of what an adult needs each day. It also has 1.36 mg of manganese, which is 59% of the daily recommendation for men and 76% for women. Manganese has roles in immunity, blood clotting and the way cholesterol and blood sugar are metabolized.
But that’s not what makes oats stand out, Rebello said. That same cup of cooked oatmeal has just 166 calories and nearly 4 grams of dietary fiber.
And the type of fiber is where oats start to distinguish themselves. It’s called beta-glucan. Put that in the conversation, and it’s like the scene in a movie where oatmeal takes off its glasses and everyone realizes just how beautiful it is.
Not literally. It’s a soluble fiber, which means it dissolves in hot water, where it thickens. “When you eat oatmeal, the kind of sliminess that you see – that comes from this viscosity that beta-glucan generates,” Rebello said.
That helps you feel full longer, she said. And it helps undigested food travel farther down your digestive tract, where it feeds the friendly bacteria living there.
Beta-glucan is abundant in oats and barley and has been shown “quite unequivocally” to help maintain healthy cholesterol levels, Rebello said.
Oats also are rich phytonutrients – plant-derived substances that may boost health. One class of such phytonutrients is avenanthramides, which are found only in oats. Avenanthramides may have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, although Rebello said their possible benefits are not as well-researched as those for beta-glucans.
Oats have been linked to heart-health benefits since the 1960s and come in many forms. The differences involve levels of processing.
Oats grow in an inedible casing called a hull. Inside the hull is a seedlike groat. That groat is encased in bran. “In other whole grains, like in wheat, you can remove that bran layer,” Rebello said. “But in oats, this groat is very soft, so that bran layer cannot really be removed.”
That means oats are almost always a whole-grain food, and those are a key part of a healthy eating pattern.
If oats are labeled “steel cut,” it simply means they were processed with a steel cutter, Rebello said. Rolled oats are steamed first, then pressed with a roller. “If the roller crushes it into thinner flake, then you get quick-cooking oats,” she said. “If it is then rolled into an even thinner flake, you get your instant oats.”
Rebello said that nutritionally, there is little difference between steel cut and rolled oats. Instant oats, however, have a higher glycemic index, meaning they raise your blood sugar faster.
When oats are ground to flour, the coarser portion is extracted and called oat bran. The beta-glucans will be concentrated in the flour rather than the bran, she said.
Oat milk is derived from oats and water, but processing may add ingredients such as sugar, salt, oil and more. Oat milk has some dietary fiber, Rebello said – commonly 2 grams per cup – but the amount of beta-glucan is rather small.
Unfortunately, Rebello ruled out sugar-filled oatmeal cookies as a healthy food (although she’s not averse to having one as a treat now and then).
How, then, to embrace oats? “Just eat regular oatmeal,” she said. Half a cup of rolled oats cooks up quickly and will keep you full a long time.
Oatmeal with your favorite fruit can be a sweet way to start the day. Cook it in low-fat milk for creaminess and add unsalted nuts to bolster its heart-health value. If you’re time-pressed in the morning, try a healthy version of overnight oats, which can be prepared the night before.
It’s important to remember that no single food, even oats, can do it all, Rebello said, noting that if you eat a nutritious breakfast but then load up on sugar and fat the rest of the day, “that’s really not going to help you much.”
But you should go ahead and invite oatmeal into your breakfast club, Rebello said. “I definitely recommend eating oats.”
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Cucumbers are abundant in silica, too, a trace mineral that may actually increase skin elasticity and help keep you looking young.
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
1 teaspoon olive oil
1/2 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
1/2 teaspoon soy sauce
Dash cayenne pepper
2 cucumbers, cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices
1/2 bunch chives, minced
1 teaspoon sesame seeds
- Combine vinegar, olive oil, sesame oil, soy sauce and cayenne pepper in a medium bowl. Mix well.
- Add cucumbers, chives and sesame seeds.
- Mix well and serve.
Nutrition information (per serving)
Makes 2 servings
Therapy animals have long been the trusted companions of people with disabilities. Now, animals of all kinds are proving their value to individuals dealing with a wide range of mental health conditions, including depression and even dementia.
Physiology helps explain why animals are such effective therapists for all of us, says Marwan Sabbagh, MD, Director of Cleveland Clinic’s Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health: “Simply petting an animal can decrease the level of the stress hormone cortisol and boost release of the neurotransmitter serotonin, resulting in lowered blood pressure and heart rate and, possibly, in elevated mood.”
Pets can bring calm and companionship
Whether you’re an older adult, a patient dealing with mental health conditions or a caregiver, it’s easy to feel alone and overwhelmed. Depression isn’t uncommon, either, a byproduct of isolation and loneliness.
In these cases, bonding with an animal can help fill this void with social support and, from dogs in particular, unconditional love.
An Australian study of 199 patients who were dealing with mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder found that 94% reported a “reduction of anxiety through tactile stimulation” thanks to a psychiatric assistance dog (PAD). Additionally, 51% of the patients reported that their PAD was responsible for “interrupting undesirable behavior.”
Pets can also foster human connections for their owners. Take a dog for a ramble and strangers who would never dream of approaching you in other situations will strike up a conversation centered on the animal. Even a mere smile from a passerby is a connection that can brighten your day.
A survey of 14 community-dwelling adults aged 65 or older with pets by the journal Aging & Mental Health found that their pets might benefit them by “providing companionship, giving a sense of purpose and meaning, reducing loneliness and increasing socialisation.”
But besides living up to the billing as a human’s best friend, there’s yet another benefit that pets, particularly dogs, can bring owners.
The extra benefit of exercise
If your pet is a dog, especially an active one that loves walking, that can yield a second, equally important benefit: physical exercise, which is also key to a brain-healthy lifestyle.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adults need at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity for good health and double that amount for greater health benefits. Brisk walking (at least 3 mph, around 20 minutes per mile) qualifies as moderate-intensity activity.
The payoff extends beyond enhanced brain health to weight control, improved cardiorespiratory fitness and muscular strength and reduced risk of chronic diseases and killers such as heart disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes.
“We know that physical exercise, and aerobic exercise in particular, is very beneficial for maintaining brain health, even in people who are at risk for developing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease (AD),” says neuropsychologist Aaron Bonner-Jackson, PhD. “You can make a major difference in terms of how your body is functioning and, as a result, how your brain is functioning.”
If you suffer from back pain, you’ve probably heard that strengthening your core can bring you some relief. But is this always true? And if so, how do you do it? Physical therapist Patti Mariano Kopasakis, PT, DPT, SCS, answers common questions about what we should know about strengthening your core muscle group.
Q: What is your core?
When most people think about the core of the body they think of the abdominal or six-pack area just below the ribs. While the abdominal muscles are an important part of the core, we consider other areas important, too.
Your core includes:
- Front abdominal muscles — the rectus abdominis.
- Muscles along the side of your body — the internal and external obliques.
- A deep muscle that wraps around the front — the transverse abdominal.
- Muscles in your back that are located between your spine bones and run along your spine — the erector spinae and multifidi.
Your core also includes your diaphragm, muscles of the pelvic floor, hip flexors, and gluteal muscles.
Q: What is the relationship between core strength and back pain?
Theoretically, if your muscles around the low back are weak, your body will rely more on passive structures for stability, including ligaments — the tissue that connects bone to bone — as well as the spinal bones or discs which lie between the spinal bones. This can cause pain.
But some studies have shown that specific core exercises are not any more beneficial than general exercise for low back pain. What we know is that exercise in general can help, and focusing on core muscles may provide some additional benefit.
Q: What are some exercises for the core that can help with back pain?
Here are my top five:
- Side plank — Sit on the floor with your right hand below your right shoulder and feet stacked. Lift your body, keeping your legs long, abdominals engaged and feet stacked. Hold. Repeat on the other side. You can modify this pose by dropping your bottom knee to the floor for extra support.
- Plank — Kneel on all fours. Pull in your abdomen and step your feet behind you until your legs are straight. Keep your hands directly under your shoulders and your neck straight. Hold your abdomen and legs tight and avoid letting your lower back sag. Hold and breathe for 30 seconds. You can modify this pose by lowering your knees.
- Bird dog — Kneel on all fours. Reach one arm out in front of you, draw in your abdomen, and extend the opposite leg long behind you. Repeat on the other side.
- Marches — Lie on your back with knees bent. Take a deep breath in and as you breathe out draw your belly muscles in as if tightening a belt. As you do this lift one leg a few inches from the floor. Return to starting position and switch sides. Repeat for 8-10 repetitions on each side. 3 sets.
- Upward dog — Lie face down with head slightly lifted and hands palm-down under your shoulders. Point your toes. Exhale, then press through your hands and the tops of your feet and raise your body and legs up until your arms are straight and your body and legs are off the ground. Keep your neck relaxed and long and thigh muscles tight as you hold and breathe.
For the plank exercises, start by holding them for 15 seconds to 30 seconds. For bird dog and scissors, try three sets of eight or 10 repetitions. For upward dog, do one set of 10 repetitions.
Q: Can you injure your back by trying to strengthen your core?
Any exercise performed incorrectly, whether it is core-strengthening or otherwise, has the potential to cause discomfort.
Twisting exercises or even incorrectly completing the exercises cited above can cause pain in the low back. But it’s highly unlikely that one repetition of an exercise will seriously harm your body, unless it’s an exercise using a very heavy weight.
The best way to keep your body safe is to listen to body cues such as pain during and immediately after an exercise, and the next day after exercising.
Q: When should you talk to a doctor about your back pain?
If any of the following is going on you should consult with your doctor:
- Your pain has been going on for longer than a month, despite resting from activities that make it worse.
- Your pain is getting worse.
- Your pain wakes you from sleep.
- Your pain is in your low back but also is going down one or both of your legs.
- You notice that one leg is becoming weaker than the other.
Q: Where should you turn if you want help in creating a plan to address back pain?
Physical therapists train as musculoskeletal experts — they are the experts on muscles, bones and human movement. These professionals are the most qualified, aside from an orthopedic doctor, to assess back problems.
Since there are many factors that impact low back pain and many types of low back pain, it is a good idea to visit at least one time with a physical therapist for an evaluation and subsequent plan of care. This will give you an individually tailored plan with exercises that progress safely. The idea of core strengthening, while beneficial, is just one piece of the low back pain puzzle.