But what about porridge?
This is a question that I get asked all the time, so I thought it was about time I wrote a quick post on it.
Although the conventional wisdom holds all wholegrains in high esteem, most people seem to acknowledge that wheat might not be the health food it’s cracked up to be (in fact, perhaps more people are choosing to avoid it than is really necessary).
It’s also now fairly well accepted that most breakfast cereals are little more than junk food in disguise.
A breakfast of porridge oats, however, has become synonymous with a healthy diet. Promises of “slow release energy”, “heart healthy oats”, “breakfast of champions” and the like have become ingrained the conventional wisdom surrounding diet.
Is there any justification for this belief however? As we have seen in many of these diet debates, often much of what we believe regarding nutrition has no actual basis in fact!
A Closer Look at Porridge Oats
In order to try and answer the question of “Is porridge healthy”, I’m going to take look at it under the criteria I outlined in my article on Making Decisions on the suitability of foods.
Porridge oats are renowned as an excellent source of slow release energy, which will keep you going throughout the day.
I would have to agree, that porridge is a good source of energy. Whether this is a good thing or not however, all depends upon your individual needs.
If you are highly active, have low body fat, and/or are looking to gain weight, getting sufficient energy should be a high priority, and oats can be a cheap, convenient, relatively sustainable, and tasty way to supply it.
If however, you are largely sedentary, and are happy with your current body fat levels, or would actually like to reduce them, eating high energy foods may not be the best solution, no matter what rate it is released at!
Perhaps switching to another plant food with a lower energy density might be a better option?
Much of porridge’s good reputation has to do with its high soluble fibre content. Soluble fibre has been shown to reduce levels of bad ldl cholesterol. While there is much controversy over the whole cholesterol debate, I think there is probably some truth in the benefits of soluble fibre, most likely due to its probiotic effect.
Fibre is not an essential nutrient, however, so what about porridge as a source of raw materials?
Check out the nutrition data for porridge oats on nutritiondata.com.
At first glance, porridge looks like a pretty nutritious food, with a broad range of vitamins and minerals, fairly decent protein score, and plenty of fibre.
Porridge Oats are very high in phytates. Phytates are found in many plant foods, as they are the principal form of storage of phosphorous in plant tissues, particularly in grains, legumes and seeds. Phytates are indigestible to humans and other non-ruminant animals however, and therefore are not a dietary source of phosphorous.
Further to this, phytates chelate to other minerals in food such as zinc, iron, calcium and magnesium, thus preventing them from being absorbed via digestion!
The potential negative effects of high phytate foods such as oats are highlighted in this article by Stephan Guyenet: Reversing Tooth Decay.
In the article, Guyenet reviews research from the 1920s where the effects of oats on cavities in the teeth of children were studied.
In group 1, oatmeal prevented healing and encouraged new cavities, presumably due to its ability to prevent mineral absorption. In group 2, simply adding vitamin D to the diet caused most cavities to heal and fewer to form. The most striking effect was in group 3, the group eating a grain-free diet plus vitamin D, in which nearly all cavities healed and very few new cavities developed. Grains are the main source of phytic acid in the modern diet, although we can’t rule out the possibility that grains were promoting tooth decay through another mechanism as well.
To reiterate – adding oats to the diet of children significantly increased their rates of tooth decay! Removing oats and other grains, and adding vitamin D, not only prevented new cavities, but actually caused existing cavities to heal.
Though sugar and starch are generally labelled the culprit for tooth decay, this study points to the contrary, as the tooth healing diet still contained foods such as jam, sugar and potatoes.
(One caveat – the study appears to lack a control, or at least it is not shown in the graph published on Whole Health Source, so there are some serious problems with the data. What effect would Oats + Vitamin D have had? Or removal of grains without VitD? How did the diet plus extra oats compare to the standard diet etc)
If Dr Mellanby’s theory is correct, that tooth decay is a problem of mineral availability and utilisation, it is equally likely that bone health is also at risk from the same factors.
In short, oat porridge is potentially bad news for your bones and teeth!
I really like porridge, and always have done. Or do I? What I really like is porridge with dried fruit, bananas and honey. I.e. porridge with lots of extra sugar!
Plain porridge made with just oats and water? Not so much, and I’m sure that’s true for most people.
Is Porridge for You?
Whether porridge is a suitable food for you depends largely upon your goals.
If your goal is weight loss, or weight maintenance and health, it is probably best to keep porridge oat consumption to a minimum.
Porridge may be filling, but if you consider that 100g of oats contains around 350-400 kcals, you could eat 3 x large 50g eggs (200-250 kcals, and around 400g of Spinach (approx 200 kcals), nearly 1/2 a kg of food for the same amount of energy.
This increased food volume, and the higher protein content will fill you up just as long, if not longer than the porridge with fewer calories, and also provide much more essential nutrition, in a more easily digestible form.
Alternatively if eggs and spinach aren’t your thing, how about 250g Natural Full Fat Yoghurt (approx 150kcals), with 250g Fresh Strawberries (approx 75kcals). Again around 1/2kg of food but with just a little over half the calories, and packed with bio-available nutrients.
(All kcal values based on information from http://nutritiondata.self.com/)
If you want the increased energy density, because you are highly active and/or want to gain weight, porridge can be a good choice, but it is probably worth ensuring you soak the grain overnight first, ideally in some live dairy (think natural yoghurt or buttermilk), and some buckwheat which is high in the enzyme phytase, which helps break down phytic acid (thanks to this recipe on paleohacks for this tip).
(Exactly how effective this technique is I can’t really say, but it takes little effort and significantly improves the taste, so there are no drawbacks from doing it).
Once the phytates are broken down, oats are a relatively “safe starch”, they do contain a gluten like substance, avenin, but it seems much less problematic, and it is low in fructans, the indigestible carbohydrates in wheat which often cause digestive distress in I.B.S. sufferers and those sensitive to FODMAPS.
Combine it with some nutrient dense, low toxin foods such as Raw Organic Grass Fed Milk, Grass Fed Butter, Organic Eggs, Organic Fruits and Berries etc, and you’re onto a winner.
Oats also have the advantage of being relatively cheap, and fairly sustainable, being one of the crops most naturally suited to the UK climate.
Si’s Properly Prepared Porridge Recipe
Here is my famed (in Whalley Range at least) Properly Prepared Porridge Recipe:
- Organic Scottish Oats
- 2Tbs Live Yoghurt or Buttermilk
- 2Tsp Buckwheat
- 1 Large Organic Egg
- Knob of Grass Fed Butter
- Dried Fruit
- Brazil Nuts
Place the oats and buckwheat in a bowl and stir well with the live dairy and water.
If using dry fruit and/or nuts add these now (the soaking will help neutralise phytates in the nuts also, and make the dry fruit nice and plump)
Cover, and leave to stand for at least 12 hours at room temperature.
After at least 12 hours of soaking, add any additional ingredients, and either eat cold, or heat on the hob (if you’re adding the egg, I’d strongly recommend cooking it). I like to add a splash of creamy full fat raw milk too, mmm.
You’ll never want to eat un-soaked oats again, trust me!
Image courtesy of Grant Cochrane / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
1) Improved zinc and iron absorption from breakfast meals containing malted oats with reduced phytate content. Larsson M, Rossander-Hulthén L, Sandström B, Sandberg AS.