Oats are touted as a marvellous breakfast, as the above rather yummy mummy video testifies. Shame her husband doesn’t like his oats since oats are touted to be cholesterol lowering, fibrous, long lasting, low fat, and containing no nasty animal proteins. Could such a super food possibly have any problems? Short answer, yes. In this age of dietary confusion, when people come in to discuss diet with me, as a start point, we go through what they are currently eating. And what I frequently hear is this:
Client: ‘I have a healthy diet.’
Me: ‘Good. So what’s for breakfast?’
Client: ‘Porridge with skimmed milk. I can’t stand full fat milk. Bleurggh! I gave up coffee because it is bad for you’.
People who don’t eat oats for breakfast rarely claim to having a healthy diet, interestingly enough. So what is my beef with oats? In a nutshell, lack of variety and phytates.
In our pre-farming days and in the early days of farming, we ate an enormous variety of different foods. On the 23,000 year old site near the Sea of Galilee, archeologists found 92,000 individual plant remains. Now we would find the remains of packets of industrial foods – cup-a-soups, crisps, snickers bars. All based on an astonishingly small variety of foods: wheat, potatoes, tomatoes, lettuce, onions. Proteins: dairy, tuna, salmon, chicken. Nuts: peanuts. The problem with eating the same thing day in day out is that we develop intolerance to those foods. There are a couple of reasons; vegetables and fruits contain natural toxins to prevent themselves being eaten. We do have immunity against them or we would all be dead! But keep eating them again and again and we overload that immunity. Also oats, like all grains, are developed grasses and we do not have the digestive fire to cope with grasses, as a brief look at the picture below confirms. There are the cows, big of belly and then there are the humans, slim of belly.
Now oats are more digestible than wheat, rye or barley and so suit us flat bellied humans more, but this does not mean that they can be eaten every single day without problems of intolerance building up. When we become intolerant of a food, we do get a few symptoms: sleepiness about half an hour afterwards; bloating and wind; and addiction, so the thought of not eating the food feels unbearable or even ridiculous. When we eat foods that are causing us problems, the body produces opioids to help reduce the resultant inflammation in the guts and so we essentially become opium addicts, which I hope explains why it is so hard to not eat these foods.
The second problem lies in molecules called phytates which are found in the bran of the oats. Oats are particularly rich in phytates. Phytates get called anti-nutrients because they attach themselves to minerals such as zinc, calcium or iron making them resistant to digestion and so they get removed from the body along with other waste. Actually, it is very easy to get rid of the phytates – simply soak the oats in water over night with a little added lemon juice, throw that water away, then cook the porridge as normal. What amazes me is how resistant people are to this. To put one’s oats in a bowl and pour some water over them before going to bed does not seem that onerous to me. Particularly when we look at the symptoms of shortage of, say, zinc: hair loss, breaking nails, poor skin, lowered immunity, weak teeth, eating disorders and prostate cancer.
It occurs to me that people do enjoy eating oat cakes. If we want to eat them with any regularity, then it would be best to make them ourselves using soaked oats.
People who can’t eat wheat/rye or barley can usually tolerate oats. However, when going gluten free, it is advisable to eat truly gluten free oats, the reason lying in cross contamination. Standard oats are carried in the same lorries and milled in the same mills as wheat, rye and barley, so can contain small amounts of their gluten. Oats that are sold as truly gluten free will have no contact with these other difficult grains.
So yes, we can enjoy our oats, but not every day (to the husband in the above video’s relief, maybe). To avoid intolerance building up, it is generally advised to eat them every 4 days and not more frequently. On porridge mornings, soak the oats the night before to get rid of the phyates. For best brain function and least hunger, the best breakfast is a high protein one with some fat and no carbohydrates. And even with such a breakfast, we still need variety. Bacon and eggs every day will still lead to intolerances – of eggs in particular. After a high protein breakfast, the next best is oats – but oats treated with respect.