UPDATE: I have received numerous comments on this post from angry folks telling me I’m crazy, that there’s nothing wrong with oatmeal. PLEASE READ THE ENTIRE POST BEFORE YOU MAKE A COMMENT. There is no one food that is right for everyone. I mention in the post that I don’t have any problem with regular, plain oats as long as they work for your body (and I explain how to know if they do or don’t). Thank you for reading! Now, back to our regularly scheduled content.
Is My Oatmeal Making Me Feel Terrible, or Am I Crazy?
If you enjoy oatmeal for breakfast but can’t understand why you crash afterwards, or why it makes you feel bloated, brain fogged or irritable, you’re not crazy. The simple answer is your physiology may not thrive on a high carb, grain-based breakfast. There’s nothing wrong with you! Your body just has different requirements, and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to diet.
Let’s use me as an example. When I was in high school, I regularly fell asleep in class. Sometimes after lunch, sometimes mid-morning. It wasn’t because I was bored or didn’t get enough sleep (though I probably wasn’t getting the 8+ hours teenagers need), it was because I ate oatmeal for breakfast every morning and a sandwich at lunch. I didn’t know it then, but carb-rich meals knock me out. I’d pass out on the couch after biscuits for breakfast (I grew up in the south), or fall asleep watching a movie after pasta for dinner. I struggled with sugar cravings, intense irritability, and always felt bloated.
What I didn’t know then is that I don’t tolerate high carb meals well. I am carb and sugar sensitive, meaning I experience a blood sugar spike followed by a swift crash in response to high carb meals. Grain- or refined carb-based meals usually make me irritable, tired, and fat. I wish I could explain that to Mr. Tuzeneu, my high school French teacher. I loved his class, but I wasn’t eating the right foods to stay awake for it. When I finally understood I needed protein and healthy fats instead of cereal or oatmeal in the morning, my energy and productivity soared, and I stopped falling asleep at inopportune moments.
Eat More Grains! (says the USDA)
How did oatmeal become the breakfast du jour (Hi, Mr Tuzeneu!) in the U.S.? Well, we all grew up with the USDA food pyramid telling us oatmeal and cereals were a healthy, fiber-filled breakfast fortified with synthetic vitamins and minerals that make us big (the irony) and strong. Grains, bread, rice, pasta, and cereals were at the base of the pyramid, and we were told to eat more of those than any other foods group, even vegetables. Problem is, grain-based diets cause fatigue and weight gain in certain individuals. It depends on your unique genome and physiology.
As kids, we were bombarded with images of happy tigers or other costumed and cartooned animals dancing around, happily chomping on breakfast pop tarts and cereals in colors that don’t exist in nature and that turned your skim milk bright blue and pink when you ate it.
The food industry is marketing these fun fake foods to your children (and to you as busy parents), so your kids grow up thinking that Fruit Loops are actually “food.” What they really contain is a bunch of genetically modified corn flour, refined grains, and hydrogenated vegetable oil. That is not food, folks. Big Food has created an entire world of easy-to-grab overly refined “food” products that offer no nutritive value other than calories. They’re engineering these foods to taste good and marketing them to you based on convenience and ease. (source)
But oatmeal is still healthy, right? I mean, it’s just oats! And it keeps you super full for hours! Until you crash at your desk from the carb hangover.
Why Oatmeal Doesn’t Work for Every Body
Carb-heavy meals cause fatigue for certain individuals. In this study, researchers continuously monitored blood sugar levels of more than 800 participants. Between the participants, more than 46,000 meals were tested to see the effect on each individual’s blood sugar. Researchers found that the blood sugar reading between individuals varied widely, even if they ate the exact same meal. This is a classic example of certain foods having a positive impact on blood sugar and energy for some people and a negative effect for others. But why?
If you are sugar sensitive and you eat a carbohydrate source that your body doesn’t tolerate, or if you over-consume carbs at a meal, you’ll experience a rapid rise in blood sugar levels shortly after eating. In response to high blood sugar levels, your body will release a hormone called insulin. Insulin helps to lower blood sugar levels. You experience fatigue after your blood sugar levels rise and then drop again rapidly.
Grains are high carb/low protein and can potentially cause an energy crash a few hours after eating in carb and sugar sensitive individuals who experience the rapid blood sugar rise and crash after consuming higher carb meals. Additionally, this physiology type has a greater need for protein and fat to keep their blood sugar levels stable. Higher carb meals just don’t make them feel as good. These people (I am one of them) do best with much lower than the 300 recommended grams of daily carbs. They feel best making vegetables–not grains–the base of their diets and including more protein than the average recommendation.
1 cup of cooked oatmeal has 32 grams of carbs, 6 grams of protein, and 4 grams of fiber. You’re probably not eating it plain, so let’s say you’re adding a banana and maybe some honey to it. That is an additional 44 grams of carbs for the banana and a tablespoon of honey. That puts your breakfast at 76 grams of carb and about 32 grams of sugars. That’s 8 teaspoons of sugar for breakfast! Your body breaks down all those carbs into sugars, uses what it needs for energy, and the excess is converted to and stored as fat.
Even if you’re not adding additional sugars to your oatmeal, it still clocks in as a high carb, low protein breakfast. If you have sugar sensitivity (meaning you tend to crave sugar and carbs, are prone to binging, struggle with weight and have energy fluctuations, especially the 3pm crash), a grain-based breakfast is NOT for you.
If you struggle with GI issues like bloating, reflux, IBS, Crohn’s, or other inflammatory conditions, oatmeal and grain-based breakfasts are not for you, either. Grains can be very irritating to your GI tract due to the lectins and phytic acid, which contribute to more inflammation. Gut irritants like grains and legumes may contribute to flares.
If you suffer from the 3pm energy crash (or the mid-morning crash), a grain-based breakfast isn’t for you. The higher carb meals = zzzzzzz.
How Do I Know How Carbs Affect Me?
If you want to know exactly how carbohydrates affect you after meals, get a glucometer and test your blood sugar before and after you eat. Fasting glucose should be around 85mg/dl. Post prandial (after meals) it should be no higher than 140mg/dl. If yours is too high, reduce higher carb foods like starches and grains and focus on lower carb veggies (they grow above the ground) and protein. Then test your blood sugar again and compare. Be aware that certain even healthy foods like legumes and sweet potatoes can spike a carb sensitive individual’s blood sugar.
Additionally, if you have the symptoms I mentioned above, like sugar cravings, hypoglycemia, binge behavior, energy spikes and crashes, or difficulty losing weight, you are likely carbohydrate sensitive.
Unfortunately for me (because I like oatmeal), I crash when I have oatmeal (or any higher carb breakfast). It’s filling, but I feel like crap a couple hours after. Also curious is how I *feel* full, but not satisfied. This means there’s not enough protein for me. Now if I had oatmeal for dinner (but I’m really never in the mood for oatmeal for dinner), I’d probably sleep well. Oatmeal is relatively high in tryptophan, another reason it makes some people sleepy. Regardless, if higher carb foods elevate your blood glucose, you should avoid them, because over time, high blood sugar levels cause insulin resistance, a risk factor for diabetes.
What Should I Eat for Breakfast?
If you suspect you are sugar and carb sensitive, focus on protein and vegetables for breakfast, such as eggs with avocado or chicken sausage with spinach. Or if you’re in a hurry, try a protein smoothie, which can be made vegan. Oatmeal and grain-based refined cereals lack certain key macronutrients (though oatmeal does contain beneficial fibers and beta glucan). If you’re going to eat food, make it count; focus on the biggest nutritional bang for your buck: antioxidants, proteins, beneficial fatty acids. If you really miss your oatmeal, there are tons of grain-free porridge recipes out there that won’t give you a crash. I have quite a few on my pinterest breakfast board. Or here are some alternative breakfast suggestions for you.
To be clear, I am not demonizing carbohydrates! It’s just that we all have different physiologies and carb needs. Foods that make you feel good won’t work for your neighbor and visa versa. The majority of Americans are overdoing carbs, especially refined carbs (think bagels, bread, pastries, pasta).
So Who Should Eat Oatmeal for Breakfast?
If none of this sounds like you (you’re not trying to lose weight, you have stable energy, no GI issues, and no sugar cravings), and you don’t crash after eating a bowl of oats OR your glucometer tells you that your blood sugar isn’t soaring post-oatmeal, you’re ok eating oatmeal for breakfast!
I often recommend overnight oats to those who tolerate them. Add collagen peptides or protein powder and make it with almond or coconut milk. Don’t add sugar to it. You can soak the oats (hence overnight oats) for better digestibility and add a little apple cider vinegar to neutralize phytic acid.
In general, I don’t recommend daily grain-based breakfasts, because there are far better nutrient dense options out there, like protein and veggie-based meals that provide you with adequate protein, good fatty acids, and plenty of antioxidants to fuel you for your day. If you do choose oatmeal, I recommend adding protein powder (this is a vegan option) or an egg to it for added protein. Don’t load it up with excess fruit sugars or sweeteners. Berries are a good option because they are a low sugar fruit. Walnuts add some great fats. Try adding chia seeds to overnight oats for beneficial fiber.
That said, please avoid boxed convenience cereals, bars, and instant packaged oatmeal, which has 3 teaspoons of sugar added to it (12 grams), at breakfast. This is not real food, having been refined, adulterated, and pumped with synthetic ingredients your body doesn’t recognize, not to mention the added sugar. It won’t keep you full for long, and you may actually end up hungrier later.
It’s a simple choice: just eat real food. Understand that the food industry is a profit-driven industry just like any other for-profit business, and they don’t have your best interests at heart. Keep eating the food your body was designed to eat: food in its natural state. And understanding which foods and protein-fat-carb ratios work best for your body will help you make the best choices at mealtime.
Mary Vance is a Certified Nutrition Consultant and author specializing in digestive health. She combines a science-based approach with natural therapies to rebalance the body. In addition to her 1:1 coaching, she offers courses to help you heal your gut and improve your health. Mary lives in San Francisco and Lake Tahoe in Northern California. Read more about her coaching practice here and her background here.