Whenever I mention in my health talks that oats aren’t ‘all that’, people are often shocked and horrified. ‘But oats are really healthy aren’t they?…’ I hear over and over again.
Well, yes and no. There is something useful, even healthful in oats; a very specific type of soluble fibre called Beta Glucan. It has been well studied and thought to help manage levels of fat in the blood.
Some products like yogurts, spreads and those expensive, sweet yogurty drinks proudly include beta glucan, making the product a ‘Functional Food’ that apparently does you good. The reality is, we need very high levels of beta glucan on a daily basis to have any bearing on blood fats. The amount would challenge even the most ardent porridge fan, so the reality is that most people are in no way eating the levels required to have any real effect on cholesterol… and just to confuse further, there is still a huge amount of debate regarding the merit of lowering blood cholesterol levels any way – low does not necessarily mean healthy (that’s a different blog!). So to be doggedly eating oats for their cholesterol-lowering benefits and certainly choosing to eat those highly processed ‘functional foods’ that are full of nasties, in the belief you will help your health, I think you need to re-think.
So, why not have oats anyway? Surely a daily dose of oats, a big steaming bowl of creamy, warming, filling porridge sweetened with a big spoon of honey, must be doing some good, right? Well, it all depends. If you have been working the land for a few hours before breakfast or chopping down trees, or have been training for a marathon, then yes, your body would welcome the massive hit of carbohydrate (read: energy for your body to replenish what you’ve burnt up from working the body hard) that the oats and honey (or any sugar) will offer and as a bonus, there will be a decent dose of fibre to help with digestive function and feed your beneficial bacteria. Fibre is extremely important and often lacking in the diet, so yes, go for fibre-rich foods, but they come in may shapes and forms and diversity is absolutely key.
But, and it’s a big one, if you are making yourself a big bowl of porridge, cooked in water or skimmed milk (aka sugar water) for breakfast and then spending the day in a fairly sedentary way, then there’s a huge amount of fuel in your body that is not being put to good use, so will be stored for later – as body fat.
Oats are grains. Grains are seeds of grasses. That means every single oat, or grain of rice, wheat, rye, barley, corn (they are all grains) is a seed that can grow in to a plant. That means there is a lot of energy stored in that seed to feed that plant as it grows. Think how many grains are in your breakfast bowl… that’s a huge amount of energy going in to you and there’s only so much your body can burn before storing it away for later use – that’s body fat.
If you really want your oats, here are a few must dos:
• Use whole / jumbo oats. These are minimally processed. Porridge oats or flaked oats are whole oats that have been cut up to cook more quickly and make a smoother porridge. That means less chewing and digestion is required from you and the energy in the oats is therefore released more quickly. This results in a more detrimental effect on blood sugar, triggering a quicker response to turning the energy from the oats in to energy stored as fat. Especially undesirable are the sachets of quick cook oats. They are highly processed, pre-cooked and are almost always laced with sugar and artificial flavorings.
• My mantra for health eating is to focus on FAT, FIBRE & PROTEIN. The carbs come effortlessly in our food these days in the form of fruits, veg, grains, starchy veg and sweet foods, so no-one I ever meet struggles to get enough of the carbs. Instead think, ‘where’s my healthy fat, where’s my fibre, where’s my protein?’… In oats, you’ve got some nice fibre, as I’ve said, but virtually no protein and no fat. To make a balanced breakfast, have a small amount of whole oats, ideally soaked overnight in water (super-charges the fibre). Cook slowly with some whole organic milk, or full-fat coconut milk (it won’t need much cooking if pre-soaked) and then add in more fat and some protein with some organic full-fat natural yogurt / coconut yogurt and mix in a range of nuts, seeds and a little fruit, or follow with a couple of eggs. Now you have a balanced, highly nutritious, blood sugar balancing breakfast that offers a great range of fats, fibre and protein and ensures the energy in the oats are released slowly in to the bloodstream to provide your body with long-term energy rather than adding to your waistline.
Click here to find my ‘What’s in This’ video on oatcakes.