Did you hear this? Oatmeal is now your enemy

by Carolyn Thomas    @HeartSisters    July 1, 2018

Screen Shot 2018-06-25 at 7.49.53 PMDoctors, are you frustrated by failed attempts to convince your heart patients to follow your sound advice on lifestyle improvements? Are you exhausted from trying to figure out why they won’t stop eating junk and start eating heart-healthy foods just like you are recommending?

Stand back, please. I think I have finally figured out WHY YOUR PATIENTS WON’T LISTEN!

It’s because no sooner do doctors start advising that something is good for heart patients, that it seems other doctors start advising that not only is it NOT good for us, but it might even be downright dangerous! And vice versa.

Eggs are bad for us. No wait, eggs are okay after all.

Fat is bad for us. No, wait…

Oatmeal is a healthy breakfast food. No, wait…

You read that right, my heart sisters. Oatmeal! Oatmeal is now apparently off the ‘nice’ list, according to Dr. Mark Hyman, author of many best-selling diet books, and somebody who calls himself a functional medicine specialist at the Functional Medicine Clinic at Cleveland Clinic (where you can order his $300 10-Day Detox Combo supplement pack from the Dr. Hyman Store). Hyman has now decreed that the humble bowl of hot oatmeal, long beloved by Grandmas and expert dietitians alike, is no longer a good breakfast food choice.

He seems to base this warning on a small 1999 obesity study(1) that he called “amazing”, a study undertaken with 12 boys (did I mention that this study was small?) Twelve boys is hardly a study, by the way. At my house, it is a birthday party.

I first learned of this study in an online oatmeal warning on Twitter based on Hyman’s latest best-selling diet book, that essentially warned:  “Oatmeal is not health food. Oatmeal spikes your sugar and makes you hungrier.”

So I asked Dr. Glen Pyle, University of Guelph Professor of Molecular Cardiology, about this theory. He told me about a number of scientific studies that had found just the opposite of what Dr. Hyman’s anti-oatmeal warnings claim:  specifically, that oatmeal can actually decrease glucose spikes. For example, he cited one 2015 paper published in the food science journal Nutrients (Hou et al) that reviewed nine separate studies, each suggesting that “oatmeal reduced post-meal glucose and insulin responses compared to other control meals.”

I am not a research scientist (but I did spend 20 years of my life living with one – does that count at all?) 

I am however a heart patient who has fretted about how I can personally make better decisions about choosing better food – and eating far less sugar – while at the same time not turning into a preachy food nag nobody wants to sit beside.

It’s all about small steps. As the late tennis legend Arthur Ashe once advised:

“Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.”

Using a methodology that researchers would call n=1 (studying just one person – me!), I concluded that my own bowl of steel cut oatmeal with milk, fruit and assorted nuts and seeds easily keeps me going until 1 p.m. with nary a hunger pang, no matter how busy I am that morning.

But could I be unwittingly spiking my blood sugar, as Dr. Hyman insists? And what does that mean anyway?

Where I live (in British Columbia, Canada), my go-to resource for nutrition or food science questions is our 811 Dial-A-Dietitian information phone line (it’s a free public service, along with 24/7 Dial-A-Nurse).

Thank you Canada, commie pinko land of socialized medicine!

The registered dietitian on the phone explained to me that glycemic index (GI) is a value out of 100 that scientists assign to foods based on how slowly or how quickly those foods cause increases in blood glucose (blood sugar) levels. The higher the GI numbers, the more they can impact those blood sugar “spikes”.

My steel-cut oatmeal has a GI of 42. Compared to many other breakfast options, that’s pretty good (e.g. instant oatmeal =79, watermelon =79; a slice of white bread =75; Special K cereal =84).  But as those living with Type 1 diabetes already know, other factors like stress, illness, exercise, excitement – even weather! – can also have an effect on blood sugar levels, so focusing only on GI numbers and sugar spikes may not be entirely useful.

And as the dietitian reassured me, my steel-cut oats are a complex carbohydrate high in B-Vitamins, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, manganese, selenium, iron, calcium and protein, while low in salt, sugar, and fat. As if that’s not already great enough, oats also contain both soluble and insoluble fibre, which helps to reduce low-density lipoprotein (LDL, the “bad” cholesterol), and makes us feel fuller, not hungrier when we finish eating them.

When I say “oatmeal”, by the way, I don’t mean those little packages of instant oatmeal, which are a highly processed food-like material that can contain up to four teaspoons of sugar in a single serving package. I look at instant oatmeal as the gateway to real oats down the road (much like Baby Duck was my sicky-sweet wine of choice back in art college until I graduated to dry reds). 

I also view my bowl of oatmeal as a base (in the same way you might look at rice as the base for a chicken stir-fry). Once the oatmeal is in the bowl, it’s a blank canvas, awaiting a colourful load of fruit (e.g. mine always includes a chopped-up apple and berries), almonds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, and any other heart-healthy addition I can find in my kitchen.

When I asked Dr. Yoni Freedhof (founder of Ottawa’s non-surgical Bariatric Medical Institute, a teacher of medicine at the University of Ottawa, and a blogger on his highly recommended Weighty Matters site) what he thought about this oatmeal warning, here’s what he tweeted back to me:

(To read more about quackademic medicine, and Hyman’s definition of functional medicine as “a hidden movement sweeping across the globe!” – which, honestly, must be a pretty slow sweep if it’s hidden – plus his argument with basic germ theory, read this).

Here’s the thing: oatmeal for breakfast is not necessarily what I want to eat. It’s what I have decided to eat, upon thoughtful reflection, because it’s healthier for me than what I really want to eat for breakfast, which includes things like fluffy cinnamon peach pancakes piled with whipped cream and lots of pure Canadian maple syrup – maybe with a side of nice crispy bacon. Now, THAT is the breakfast I dream about. . . 

Oatmeal may not be healthier for me compared to a (*gag*) kale smoothie, but it’s a significant improvement compared to what I really wish I could eat every morning.

Keep in mind, my heart sisters, that I grew up in a big Ukrainian family in which my entire childhood was fueled by our traditional dietary trinity based on butter, bacon and, of course, sour cream (finished off with a gooey homemade butter tart or two).

We considered dill pickles to be a vegetable dish in our family.

Later, as a grown-up newlywed, my idea of breakfast was picking up a sweet coffee and a Tim Hortons maple dip on my way to work. Paradoxically, as a Mum of two children several years later, I fed my kids super-healthy homemade everything since the day they first started eating solid foods, thanks to my well-loved and dog-eared copy of La Leche League’s classic Whole Foods for the Whole Family. But I lived with a double standard for myself whenever left to my own culinary devices (or when out with my girlfriends celebrating anything!)

INTERESTING BUT SLIGHTLY IRRELEVANT FUN FACT: My own grandmother in Manitoba (ditto on the Ukrainian diet preferences, of course) lived well into her 90s, having outlived three husbands. Almost until the very end, she did her own gardening, home baking and canning as if she were still on that prairie farm taking care of her family of 12 children! And I’d bet my next squirt of nitro spray that not for one single moment of her entire life did that woman worry about whether or not she should eat fewer carbs. . .

Meanwhile, thanks to learning more about the joys of the delicious Mediterranean diet since my heart attack, I have been making small but important changes to the way I shop and cook, little by little. Yes, even vegetables! A significant improvement!

But now this doc is telling all of us that oatmeal is no longer good for us?!

Here’s my own takeaway message for now: the way to convince people to adopt heart-healthy options is NOT to issue sweeping anti-oatmeal blanket warnings based on a 12-boy study.

And we’re talking about oatmeal here. Not Pop Tarts. . .

CAROLYN’S ‘NIGHT-BEFORE’ OATMEAL RECIPE

Well, actually this is my dear Seattle friend Tony’s recipe, passed on to me. Steel-cut oatmeal and oat groats (the least processed kind of oats) generally take a lot longer to cook than highly processed instant oatmeal (just add boiling water) – but Tony’s recipe speeds things up by starting the night before at bedtime: for each serving, boil one cup of water with 1/3 cup of steel-cut oats. As soon as the water comes to a rolling boil, take the pot off the stove, put the pot lid on, and go to bed. Thank you, Tony! 

The next morning, perfectly cooked oatmeal is ready to reheat and top with berries, almonds, any other heart-healthy stuff you can find. It is easy, colourful and absolutely yummy.

And as my grandmother would say: “This will stick to your ribs!”

(1) David S. Ludwig et al, “High Glycemic Index Foods, Overeating, and Obesity”.

SHAMELESS PLUG FROM CAROLYN:   I wrote more about how and why heart patients tend to respond to behaviour change motivators (or not!) in Chapter 7 of my book, “A Woman’s Guide to Living With Heart Disease” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017).

Q:  Do you still consider oatmeal to be part of a healthy breakfast?

See also:

66 thoughts on “Did you hear this? Oatmeal is now your enemy

  1. It amazes me humans have never been sicker but you laugh at Mark Hyman who’s able to heal patients traditional doctors have only made sicker. Equally baffling is you attribute your grandmothers health not to non processed food/growing her own food but only highlight you assume she ate carbohydrates. You’re approach to knowledge is sloppy, lazy, and dangerous. You’re a joke.

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    1. Oh, Roni, Roni, Roni… I’m not simply assuming that my Baba ate carbohydrates. I can guarantee this reality is as factual as it is among all old country Ukrainian grandmothers… I may be “sloppy, lazy and dangerous”, but thank goodness I know how to use an apostrophe…

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  2. I read this article because i am looking for answers to why my blood sugar seem to crash every time i eat oatmeal for breakfast. I will get hungry and shaky within 2 hrs of oatmeal.
    My oatmeal is cooked from steel cut oats. I only add water to cook it. I do not put sugar nor any fruits. Just plain oatmeal. I still cannot find an answer to this strange body reaction of plain oatmeal.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Tina – a mystery! Your reaction may seem strange but it’s likely “normal” for you! Every person is different, so every person’s body can react differently! Although the research generally reports “oatmeal can actually decrease glucose spikes” (which are what cause those shaky and hungry feelings), it may be that your body prefers a high-protein breakfast instead to prevent those big glucose spikes. Other factors can include portion size, or if you eat a late dinner the night before.

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  3. I only know this: my total cholesterol a year ago was 300. My doctor suggested I eat oatmeal, which I have eaten every morning for an entire year. (And I never put sugar on it, I usually cook it in chicken broth, drizzle on a little olive oil, and sprinkle it with salt, pepper, and a little parmesan cheese. Or else I make overnight oats with cinnamon, chia seeds, and unsweetened almond milk.)

    Well after a YEAR of daily oatmeal, and otherwise watching my diet, exercising, and maintaining a healthy weight my cholesterol decreased by ZERO %. It is still 300. My doctor is still nagging me to take statins since I am “unable” to control it with diet (her implication being that I am not really eating as well as I say I am – but she’s wrong!)

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  4. Thanks for the very well written article Carolyn. I appreciate all the tips, as I have a variety of ills that are helped by sticking to an anti inflammatory diet and made worse by eating processed foods. Did Dr Mark Hyman’s says that oatmeal is so bad for you? I read up on him, and it appears that he recommends against starting your day w/ a big bowl of carbs. Makes sense to me. That’s a great way to feel low on energy and hungry by 10. Carbs at night, protein and fat (within reason for morning w/ some nuts, fruit, etc. You can pack a whole lot of nutrients into a bowl of oatmeal w/ fruits and nuts, but you are still stuck w/ a big carb breakfast.

    What isn’t talked about here is that we should choose our meals and beverages wisely early in the day. Many of the amino acids and other food substances that put our brain receptors into gear will naturally set the mood day toward action or sedation. Eating a turkey sandwich on whole wheat bread with cheese and having a beer for breakfast is not going to give you the same result as a breakfast of coffee or green tea, an egg, 4 oz of salmon, and some nuts.

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  5. It’s title choices like these that spread mis-information. Why try to be cheeky about it? Guarantee 90% of the ppl that saw your article with the title only, didn’t read it and now think oatmeal is bad. That’s a super sad truth.

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  7. Given your genetics (and the longevity of your grandmother), I think you should eat like her.

    My greatgrandmother also lived to 98 and then only died because she “decided to” and a few months after saying goodbye to all of us gradually. She ate the Mediterranean way, but then we are Mediterranean, so that makes perfect sense for us.

    As to Dr Hyman, he would tell you to eat fat without the carbs. That definitely would avoid sugar spikes. So eggs with avocado, veggies and even olive oil for breakfast would probably sustain you longer than oatmeal.

    Personally, I find oatmeal not very satiating. If what satiates me is the nuts (or the olive oil added to it, as per one comment), then why not just eat the nuts? But I don’t like nuts that much so… and don’t digest fat that well… eggs seem ok though.

    I have several friends who did like you: they fed their children perfectly and they themselves ate whatever they fancied (in one case: cheese on toast, for every meal!) I had to help one of them overcome non-alcoholic fatty liver disease due to her too many carbs, not enough veggies (though she is a vegetarian)…

    Good luck!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hello cis,
      Deciding what works best for us and in our specific families can vary widely, as you say. In terms of feeling satiated, I think what makes many people swear by oatmeal for breakfast, as Dr. Pyle found in his research is that oatmeal contains both soluble and insoluble fibre “which makes us feel fuller, not hungrier when we finish eating them.”

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  8. I converted my particle number from pattern B to pattern A, and I eat a huge bowl of steel-cut oatmeal with frozen berries every morning. I also have a few eggs, little bit of spinach, and half of an avocado with it.

    This may sound weird, but I started adding 1 to 2 tablespoons of olive oil to my oatmeal. Took a few days to get used to, but I don’t even taste the olive oil anymore. I think the added fat from the avocado and the olive oil is what blocked my blood sugar spike, resulting in a cholesterol particle number pattern change from B to pattern A.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It does sound a bit weird, Michael but it seems to be working for you. I’m wondering why you don’t just add the olive oil to your scrambled eggs or spinach, which seems slightly less “weird” than adding it to (yikes!) oatmeal!?

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    2. I also add olive oil to my oatmeal – along with freshly ground pepper and a little parmesan. (I cook it in chicken broth, too.) It is a delicious savory meal, that tastes a little bit like risotto. For those of us who don’t like sweet foods.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Maybe the Doctor did not use the real old fashioned Oatmeal. Anything other than old fashion oatmeal would make the Doctor results invalid. For over 50 years I have eaten oatmeal with never a sugar spike. So doc., let’s redo your study and this time use the real old fast oatmeal.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Old-fashioned oatmeal (that’s rolled oats with the least amount of processing) is the BEST! Many people use ‘lack of time’ as an excuse not to try them, believing that it means endless time stirring a pot on the stove. But my ‘overnight’ recipe takes just minutes the night before, and less than a minute the next morning – it’s delicious, healthy and EASY!

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