Healthy Eating Tips

6 Vegan Foods Packed with Beta Glucan, a Type of Fiber That’s Key for Maintaining Heart and Gut Health

Photo: Stocksy/Nataša Mandić
As ingredients like functional mushrooms are becoming more and more popular, so are the powerhouse nutrients they contain, like beta glucan. A type of fiber, beta glucan boasts an impressive number of health benefits.

When looking at fiber as a whole, only about five percent of Americans eat the daily recommended amount per national consumption surveys. You can bet that beta glucan intake is much lower than that.

The world of fiber is wide—there are many different types, each with their own health advantages. Eating enough of each type will help you achieve your total daily fiber goals, reaping all those important heart- and gut-health benefits.

How beta glucan benefits your health

First things first: Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that is primarily broken down into two groups: insoluble and soluble. When consumed, insoluble fiber won’t dissolve in water and moves through the gastrointestinal (GI) tract intact. Soluble fiber, on the other hand, does dissolve in water to form a gel-like substance as it moves through the GI tract. Both types of fiber serve very important purposes and improve health in unique ways. More on that later.

Beta glucan is a kind of soluble fiber that is typically found in the cell walls of fungi, bacteria, yeasts, and some plants. It is also a polysaccharide, which is a long chain carbohydrate and the most abundant type of carb found in food.

So what’s all the hype about? Beta glucan has been shown to benefit our health in a variety of ways. One of which is heart health maintenance and improvement. Similar to other types of soluble fiber, beta glucan actually binds to cholesterol in the small intestine, moves through the rest of the GI tract, and is disposed of—as opposed to being absorbed by the body. Beta glucan intake has also been associated with blood pressure reduction.

Beta glucan is also a potent immune booster. As a type of fiber, it helps to build a healthy gut microbiome, which we know is a key component to overall immune health. Beta glucan has also been used as an effective treatment aid in wound healing, allergies, respiratory infections, and even cancer. So much so that beta glucan isolates were licensed as immune-adjuvant therapy drugs for cancer in Japan in 1980 and are still used today.

What's more, beta glucan is associated with improved outcomes for those with type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome. This is because it increases insulin sensitivity while reducing blood sugar spikes after eating. Beta glucan also contributes to overall glycemic control, meaning that individuals that consume this type of fiber tend to have an easier time managing their blood sugars over an extended period of time.

Because of these findings, beta glucan has become a go-to nutrition recommendation for metabolic syndrome, cancer, diabetes, heart disease treatment, and more. But it is also a great dietary complement for those already leading a healthy lifestyle without illness.

Foods rich in beta glucan

Depending on your goals, consuming at least four to eight grams of beta glucan per day is ideal. While there are beta glucan supplements available, it is always best to get your daily dose from food. Here are six foods that will help you do just that.

Mushrooms

Mushrooms are really getting the attention they deserve these days. Filled with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and unique compounds like adaptogens, there are so many reasons to include them in your diet. Reishi and shiitake mushrooms are particularly high in beta glucans, delivering up to half of a gram gram per 3/4 cup (uncooked).

Oats

As if you needed more reason to love your morning bowl of oatmeal, oats are one of the most nutrient-dense foods out there. In addition to beta glucan, oats are loaded with protein, B vitamins like folate and thiamine, and minerals including manganese, phosphorus, and magnesium. This combination offers lasting energy and optimal health. Oats are also one of the best sources of beta glucan available to us, with three grams per 1 1/2 cups cooked.

Nutritional Yeast

Your favorite popcorn topper has so much more to offer than just dairy-free cheesy flavor. It’s super popular among vegans because it provides important B vitamins that are hard to find outside of animal products including riboflavin, vitamin B6, niacin, and most notably, vitamin B12. A mere two tablespoons of nutritional yeast can offer up to a half of a gram of beta glucan.

Wheat

Wheat has gotten a bad rap over the years; the important nutrients it provides often get overlooked. For those who can tolerate gluten, wheat is packed with manganese, B vitamins, and the ever elusive selenium. Plus, it’s an excellent source of beta glucan, with one cup of whole wheat flour providing an impressive two grams. Hot take for those who are sensitive (not allergic!) to gluten: try sourdough bread. The fermentation process helps to predigest gluten, making it much easier on the tummy.

Seaweed

Seaweed is all the rage right now, and for good reason. From nori to wakame, kombu to kelp, sea lettuce to spirulina, and everything in between, it’s undeniable that seaweed is downright delicious. But beyond its taste, edible seaweed is incredibly good for us. Seaweed is actually one of the best available sources of iodine, essential to healthy thyroid function. It is also, of course, a great source of beta glucan, with the amount depending on the type of seaweed and how it was grown.

Barley

It’s time to pull that barley out from the back of the pantry, because it has one of the best sources of beta glucan available to us. Its beta glucan content can be up to a whopping 11.5 percent of total volume, with one cup of cooked barley containing two and a half grams of beta glucan. Plus it's full of antioxidants, making barley an immune health powerhouse.

With all the benefits it offers, it would be silly not to bet on beta glucan for your health. Start by trying to include at least one beta glucan-rich food in your diet per day.

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