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. 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.
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.
What I didn’t know then is that I don’t tolerate high carb meals well. I am pretty carb and sugar sensitive, meaning I experience a blood sugar spike and then crash in response to high carb meals. Grain- or refined carb-based meals usually make me irritable and tired. 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)
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. 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
1 cup of cooked oatmeal has 32 grams of carbs and 6 grams of protein. 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!
Here is what happens when you eat a grain-based meal with added sugar: because there is little protein and fiber in this meal, the grains break down quickly into sugars, and the refined sugar is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream, raising blood glucose levels, and triggering the pancreas to release insulin to move the glucose into cells so blood sugar doesn’t rise too high.
Since only so much glucose is needed in the cell, the rest is converted to fat and stored. You only need around 2 teaspoons of circulating glucose in your bloodstream, so the excess is stored as fat if you don’t burn it off. This is why sugar makes you fat. Even if you do burn all that sugar off, you’re still not going to be burning any stored fat, because you have a steady supply of glucose to burn, so higher carb diets are not ideal for weight loss.
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, are prone to binging on it, struggle with weight and have energy fluctuations, especially the 3pm crash), a grain-based breakfast is NOT for you. Grains are high carb/low protein and can potentially cause an energy crash a few hours after eating. Additionally, this physiology type has a higher 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 a lower than the 300 recommended grams of daily carbs. They feel best making vegetables–not grains–the base of their diets.
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.
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.
Unfortunately (because I like oatmeal) this is what happens to me when I have oatmeal (or any higher carb breakfast) for breakfast or lunch. It’s filling, but I crash 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.
Even worse is instant oatmeal in the packets. I ate my fair share of that growing up, too. So many fun flavors. A lot of sugar.
1 packet of Quaker Oats Maple & Brown Sugar instant oatmeal has
- 157 calories
- 2 grams of fat
- 4 grams of protein
- 32 grams of carbohydrate ( incl 3 g fiber / 13 g added sugar)
Similar in macronutrient profile to
- 4 Twizzlers, or
- a cup of Kellogg’s Scooby-Doo! Berry Bones breakfast cereal, or
- 2 fat Free Fudgesicle bars, or
- a York Peppermint Patty, or
- a Klondike, Slim-a-Bear Chocolate Sandwich, or
- a cup of Kellogg’s SpongeBob SquarePants breakfast cereal
There is very little protein (or enough calories to keep you full, for that matter) in this “meal,” but a lot of carbs and refined sugar.
What Should I Eat for Breakfast?
If any of the above sound like you, focus on protein and vegetables for breakfast, or if you’re in a hurry, try a protein smoothie. 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).
HERE IS THE CAVEAT: 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, 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 (<–vegan option, or non 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, instant packaged oatmeal, 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.
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