Maybe it’s the oatmeal


I get messages all the time from frustrated dieters asking me why their weight loss has stalled. They all tell me how they’re eating right and exercising every day and for some reason it just stopped working. There are all kinds of possibilities and I try to address many of them throughout this blog, but one common problem I encounter all the time is that big bowl of oatmeal they eat every morning.

Isn’t oatmeal healthy?

Short answer, yes it is. Oatmeal is high in fiber so it slows gastric emptying which controls your blood sugar levels. This reduces your likelihood of storing any fat you consume and it fills you up and provides long-lasting energy. It also feeds the good bacteria in your microbiome so it provides all the benefits I mentioned last week like improved blood sugar control, reduced blood pressure, improved mood, and improved longevity. Oatmeal has rightly gained it’s reputation as a healthy food because it has helped millions of people lose weight or maintain a healthy weight long-term. If that’s the case, why am I singling out a daily breakfast of oatmeal for causing weight loss plateaus? Several reasons, but one of the biggest problems is because of the fact that we’ve labeled it as healthy.

I can eat as much as I want right?

When it comes to eating vegetables, I do tell people they can eat as much as they want of this “healthy” food group. You’ll fill up long before your can overindulge. The problem is that most people also think this applies to any food labeled as healthy. Research has shown that when a food is labeled as healthy, people not only feel they can eat larger portions of it without issue, but they also think they can reward themselves with something “unhealthy” later on. Foods like grains and nuts do contain healthy fiber, but they are more calorically dense than vegetables so you can overdo it if you’re not careful. What I’ve found commonly happens with oatmeal is that people start with a larger serving size than what’s on the label, and then by the time they finish throwing in everything they need to make the taste enjoyable (more on that below), they end up turning a 200 calorie breakfast into a 500 calorie one. The problem is that mentally, they still think of it as only 200 calories.

I need to improve the taste

I don’t know anyone that enjoys plain oatmeal. Most people sweeten it with added sugar, brown sugar, maple syrup, etc and typically prepare it with water or skim milk to save on calories and keep it “healthy.” The problem is that people are upping the added sugar content and trying to keep the dietary fat low. Keeping the fat low and the sugar high counteracts the filling effects of oatmeal and makes you more likely to crave a snack within the next hour. Since you had something “healthy” already, you’ll be more likely to have that snack instead of holding out for lunch.

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Analysis of all the food tracking at MyFitnessPal shows that it’s a pretty common practice for people to pile on the sugar and avoid the healthy fats. People are consuming more than half (14 grams) of the World Health Organization’s recommended 25 grams of added sugar with their healthy breakfasts and keeping the fat totals as low as possible.

As I’ve mentioned before, fat has it’s place in a healthy diet. Like fiber, it also slows the release of sugar into your bloodstream and helps contribute to long-term satiety. Don’t be afraid to throw some full-fat milk, yogurt or even butter into your oatmeal if it helps you reduce the amount of added sugar. Low-fat dairy has actually been shown to contribute to obesity more than full-fat dairy, so you’re not doing yourself any favor by switching to skim.

Your enjoyment may vary

Many people enjoy their morning oatmeal, but I’ve found some people seem to really pour on the extra sugar in order to choke down their “healthy” meal. I always tell people to stop forcing yourself to eat healthy foods you hate. This is not a long-term strategy that ever works and it typically ends one of two ways: either you eat something “unhealthy” to reward yourself for suffering through a meal you hate or you simply give up completely and return to your old habits. No one said you have to eat oatmeal, if you’re not a fan, find something else. There are plenty of options to start out your morning, so don’t try and turn that bowl into an oatmeal cookie by piling on enough sugar to help you get through it.

Your glycemic mileage may vary

A new study making the rounds in the media raises another problem with trying to have a low glycemic index oatmeal breakfast. The numbers that we take for granted to represent how fast your blood sugar rises after consuming a food are really only just averages. We’ve known for a while that not only can this number vary greatly across individuals, but even the same person can have different measurements from the same food. The glycemic index is set using pure glucose as the standard (which has a value of 100). The higher the number, the faster the food is broken down into glucose so it can enter the bloodstream.

This latest study out of Tufts University found that while the average score for white bread among the study participants was 62, it varied as much as 15 points between individuals. This effectively placed the same food into three separate glycemic categories (low, medium, and high) depending on the individual. Even more impressive was the fact this number changed for each individual when they ate the same white bread on different days. With some people it varied by as much as 60 points.

As I’ve said before, there are all kinds of factors that can influence how your body will process carbohydrates from meal to meal. The study’s authors aren’t saying high-glycemic foods are now healthy and that low-glycemic foods aren’t (and neither am I), but as I said in the article on how to structure your diet, pay attention to how your body feels after your carbohydrates. If your energy drops soon after and you’re hungry within an hour, then that food was basically a high-glycemic food for you. If this keeps happening with certain foods (like your morning bowl of oatmeal), you should consider switching to something else or adjusting what you mix into the bowl to find an option that will satisfy you long-term without drastically increasing the calories.

Suggested alternatives

Try to limit the amount of added sugars and syrups that you pour into your oatmeal and instead switch to natural sugars from fruits like berries, bananas, or natural apple sauce. They are low in sugar and they provide additional fiber and nutrients that will help your body to better process any sugar that you do consume.

Cinnamon is also a great compliment to oatmeal that has huge health benefits. Cinnamon has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity, reduce inflammation,, and it slows the breakdown of carbohydrates which will help reduce blood sugar levels and keep your appetite in check.

Don’t forget the fat. Like I said, don’t be afraid to mix in some full-fat milk or yogurt, try some all-natural peanut or almond butter, or add in some walnuts or almonds. I also recommend a little MCT oil to help people break their fat-phobia. Your body has a difficult time storing it so it’s mostly converted into energy-providing ketone bodies. It’s a good way to control your appetite and increase your energy levels, and it’s basically flavorless so it won’t interfere with the taste.

And finally, if you hate oatmeal, don’t eat it. In case you haven’t heard, eggs are back on the menu as a healthy superfood. Load up your eggs with peppers, onions, greens and all kinds of vegetables to get even more fiber than you would from that oatmeal and you’ll find it will fill you up and get the scale moving again.

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