An Ode to Oatmeal

Breakfast is my favorite meal of the day. I wake up hungry every day and there’s nothing I look forward to more than a big ol’ brekky: warm croissants, buttered toast, bacon. Mmmm! My absolute favorite breakfast though (and I’m not including brunch here) is oatmeal.

I didn’t buy into oatmeal until pretty late in life. It wasn’t all that popular when I was growing up in England and, even if people ate it, they called it porridge and it was a nasty looking thing that reminded me of gruel a la Charles Dickens. When I first started working, I spent a few months in New York and was surprised to discover that a large chunk of my “Analyst class” bought fresh oatmeal at the company cafeteria every single morning. I finally tried it. Bland, watery and cardboard-like in texture, it wasn’t something I felt like pursuing.

After a year working in London, oatmeal grew on me. As it turned out, its popularity stretched beyond the New York office and, with some nicer-tasting British oatmeal and the right combination of toppings, it was actually kind of good. Besides, I discovered there were other advantages to this quaint old breakfast (note that I’m not talking about any of that instant stuff, I’m talking real steel cut and traditional rolled oats).

Here are Five Reasons You Should Eat Oatmeal:

1. For starters, it is FILLING. Oatmeal has a very low glycemic index, which means that it breaks down and releases glucose slowly and steadily. That feeling of elation (sugar high) that comes after ingesting large quantities of sugar and starch is a result of elevated glucose levels in the blood stream. High levels of glucose trigger the release of insulin, a hormone produced by the pancreas. Insulin directs the body to take the glucose in the blood stream and store it as glycogen. The sugar “crash” that follows a “high” is a sign that your body’s insulin has reigned in the glucose. This sudden depletion often results in a wave of fatigue and hunger!  Frequent and sudden rises in glucose can have terrible effects, including straining the pancreas, insulin resistance (leading to hyperglycemia and type II diabetes) and oxidative damage to the heart (encouraging heart disease).

Consuming low GI foods like oatmeal have two blood sugar benefits: first it keeps you feeling full for longer periods of time, curbing the urge to snack on sugary treats and, second, because a moderate and sustained rise in blood glucose is easier on your pancreas, it reduces the risk of type II diabetes. Starting your day with a blood sugar stabilizing food like oatmeal may make it easier to keep blood sugar levels under control the rest of the day.

2. It lowers CHOLESTEROL and the risk of heart disease.  Oatmeal contains high levels of (water) soluble fiber, known as beta-glucan.  Soluble fiber becomes gooey when dissolved in water, allowing it to travel slowly through the digestive tract and to attach to bile acids in the intestine and escort them out of the body as waste.  Since bile acids are made from cholesterol, the liver then has to pull more cholesterol from the blood in order to continue producing these acids.  Foods like oatmeal, which are rich in soluble fiber have been proven to reduce total and LDL (bad) cholesterol without affecting the levels of HDL (good) cholesterol, thus lowering the risk of heart disease.

Studies show that in people with high cholesterol (above 220 mg/dl), just 3 grams of soluble oat fiber per day (an amount found in one bowl of oatmeal) will lower total cholesterol by 8-23%. This is highly significant since each 1% drop in cholesterol translates to a 2% decrease in the risk of developing heart disease.

3. It helps prevent CANCER.  Oatmeal is rich in a variety of antioxidants including vitamin E, tocotrieonols, selenium, phenolic acids, and phytic acid. It is also rich in protein, calcium, manganese, magnesium, phosphorus and B vitamins such as niacin, thiamin, riboflavin and vitamin B6.  These vitamins and minerals, together with the fiber present in oatmeal have been shown to result in reduced risk of cancer, particularly colon and breast cancer.

4. It boosts IMMUNITY.  Studies have shown that beta-glucan helps immune cells to speedily reach the site of infection and locate the germs present there, rapidly healing infections. Moreover, oat also contains zinc, a prominent trace mineral needed to boost immunity. For more on this, click here.

5. It is HOT and delicious!  Now, you might underestimate the value of a hot breakfast, but if you’ve ever lived in a climate as dreary as London’s you will know that it is indispensable. Besides, hot meals are thought to have healing and strengthening effects on the digestive system. If you don’t like the taste of plain oatmeal, try making it with milk.  Soy or almond milk especially help make it creamy. Berries, walnuts, pecans, cinnamon, green apples, brown sugar (in moderation) – these are all delicious and healthy ingredients you can use to spice up your oatmeal, so don’t give up!

Click for Recipe

The best oatmeal I have ever had was at Frog Hollow Farm Market in the San Francisco Ferry Building.  Imagine the most luscious, creamy oatmeal groats you can and add to it fresh apricot jam and perfectly toasted walnuts – yum!  If you live in the area and haven’t tried this, go check it out now!

Vivo, in downtown NYC, also makes a mean oatmeal – it can cost a pretty penny but for a little extra, they’ll make it with soy milk, decorate it with mangoes, enhance it with strawberries or blueberries or granola and even bolster it with whey.

Lastly, regardless of where you are, Starbucks has come up with a pretty good oatmeal offering.  For just a couple of bucks you get fresh oatmeal, a packet of dried berries, a packet of walnuts and some brown sugar – not bad if you are on the go and want something healthy (and certainly better than their other, sugar-laden breakfast foods).

Of course, if you plan to make steel cut oats by yourself, it can easily take 30 minutes (but it’s worth it!).  I’ve also heard great things about using a crockpot and leaving it overnight.  What’s your favorite breakfast?

One thought on “An Ode to Oatmeal”

  1. I’ve always thought ‘steel cut’ was an amazing marketing phrase. Kind of like ‘Peekytoe’ crab, which is an amazing marketing story unto itself. any HBS studies on food marketing?

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