Most of us love oatmeal — particularly in cooler weather, and especially when we’re feeling in need of comfort and gentle nurturing.
Alas, the kind of oatmeal most people eat — sugar-sweetened instant oatmeal or homemade oatmeal cooked in water and topped with berries and honey or maple syrup — is not very satiating and can cause your blood sugar to spike.
Indeed, during a two-week trial of a continuous glucose monitor, I was stunned to discover that “classic” oatmeal cooked to the instructions on the Quaker Traditional Oats container, caused my blood sugar to soar to almost 200 mg/dL before gradually returning, over nearly 2 hours, to around 90 mg/dL. (Dietitian Lily Nichols RD had a very similar experience; read her article and see her blood-sugar graph here.)
Here’s what I’m talking about:
So does that mean you should cross oatmeal off your menu? As someone who doesn’t like to issue dietary prohibitions and who often works with seriously ill folks who crave familiar comfort foods at a time of need, I don’t think you need to banish oatmeal. However, I do recommend you make it more nourishing.
One solution could be to eat an oatmeal-inspired dish of seeds and nut flours cooked in plant milk, often referred to as “noatmeal” (geddit? “no-oat-oatmeal”). This oat-free breakfast gruel is made with ingredients like hemp hearts, chia seeds, flax meal, almond, and coconut flours. This is an excellent option for anyone eating a grain-free, low-carb, or keto diet. However, the taste and texture of “oatmeal” can be iffy; mucilaginous seeds like flax and chia can give it a slimy texture, and several of the above-listed ingredients have a slightly bitter flavor. Moreover, many people don’t tolerate nuts, or need to limit oxalates (which nuts and seeds tend to be high in), or have trouble digesting large amounts of fat in one sitting.
For them and other folks who don’t love noatmeal, I’ve devised a different approach to oatmeal: keep the oats (but less of them), and add more protein and fat. Here are just a few reasons why protein and fat are a game-changer:
- Satiety: Protein and fat are more satiating than carbohydrates alone (“naked carbs,” as carbs eaten on their own are often described). Adding protein and fat to your oatmeal can help you feel full and satisfied for a longer period, reducing the likelihood of snacking or feeling hungry shortly after eating.
- Blood sugar regulation: Adding protein and fat can help slow down the digestion and absorption of the carbohydrates in oats. This results in a more gradual rise in blood sugar levels, which can be beneficial for individuals trying to manage their blood sugar levels, especially those with (pre-)diabetes.
- Nutrient balance: Oatmeal alone may lack certain nutrients, such as essential fatty acids and specific amino acids. Adding protein and healthy fats can help balance the nutrient profile of the meal, providing a wider range of essential nutrients for overall health.
- Muscle repair and maintenance: Protein is crucial for muscle repair and maintenance, making it an essential component of a balanced diet. Adding protein to your oatmeal can contribute to your daily protein intake, which is important for those engaged in physical activities or looking to build and maintain muscle mass.
- Flavor and texture: The texture is very similar to that of regular oatmeal, but the taste is richer and creamier thanks to the addition of milk, nut/seed butter, and protein powder.
Try to choose nutritious sources of protein and fat, such as nuts/seeds and nut/seed butter, eggs or egg yolks (beat raw egg, mix with 2-3 tbsp hot oatmeal to temper, then return to the pot and cook for 1 minute, stirring, to thicken — tastes like egg custard!), Greek yogurt, and kefir, to maximize the nutritional benefits. As individual dietary needs vary, tailor your choices to your specific health goals and preferences.
Soaking grains to remove antinutrients
You may think I’m being overly demanding by suggesting that you soak the oats before cooking them. However, oats — like most whole grains — contain compounds that block the absorption of essential nutrients such as calcium, magnesium, iron, and zinc in our digestive tract (which is why they are often referred to as “antinutrients”). Antinutrients in grains can include gluten, phytic acid (phytate), lectins, and two enzymes called alpha-amylase inhibitors, and protease inhibitors. (Check out this article about antinutrients in food and how to reduce them, and this one about phytic acid in oats.)
Soaking (overnight is fine, but even longer may be even better), fermenting, sprouting, and cooking grains can reduce or remove these antinutrients, making the nutrients in the grains easier to absorb. They can also make grains easier to digest, which is helpful for anyone struggling with digestive difficulties. Lastly, soaking significantly speeds up cooking time, a boon to all you busy cooks out there.
In this recipe, I soak the oats for 12-18 hours (incl. overnight so they’re ready in the morning) and add live bacteria to promote fermentation — usually a splash of kefir or a blob of yogurt; a capsule of a probiotic supplement works, too. Soaking a double or triple batch of oats saves time, and if you find your plans changing, soaked oats will happily sit in the fridge for an extra 2-3 days before you get around to cooking them. And if you don’t have the time to soak your oats, that’s OK too — the earth will not open up and swallow you.
- ⅓ cup old-fashioned rolled oats if you have a gluten allergy/sensitivity, make sure the package states they are gluten-free
- ⅓ cup water
- 1 tsp kefir plain, unsweetened, unflavored. Or use a different probiotic food, like yogurt or fermented coconut water
- 1 cup whole milk or nutritionally similar plant milk; compare protein, carb, fat, and calcium contents on the labels
- a pinch salt
- ½ tbsp almond butter or any other type of nut or seed butter you like & tolerate (sunflower seed butter is lower in oxalate)
- ½ tsp vanilla extract preferably alcohol-free for improved taste
- ½ serving protein powder unflavored, unsweetened; my favorites are this hemp protein powder or this whey protein powder
Optional Toppings may include any of the following:
- a pat butter
- ⅓ cup berries such as raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, blueberries
- ¼ to ⅓ cup stewed fruits such as plums, apricots, peaches, pears
- coarsely chopped nuts such as walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts, almonds
- a dusting of cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, nutmeg
- Place the oats in the small saucepan you’ll use to cook them in, add water and kefir (or other probiotic food), stir, cover, and let soak for 12-24 hours in the fridge (overnight is ideal so they’ll be ready to cook in the morning.)
- When you’re ready to cook the oatmeal, drain the coaked oats through a strainer and press out the excess soaking water with a rubber spatula or the back of a large spoon. Return the oats to the pot, add the milk and salt, and cook over low-medium heat, stirring steadily, until the oatmeal starts to thicken (3-4 minutes).
- Stir in the nut or seed butter (whichever you're using) and cook for another minute, stirring steadily.
- Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla extract and protein powder. If using whey, let the oatmeal cool for 3 minutes before adding the powder as it curdles when added to hot liquids. Hemp protein powder can be added right away.
- Depending on the type of nut butter and protein powder you’re using, the oatmeal may become quite thick; add a little more milk or water to achieve the desired consistency.
- Spoon the oatmeal into a bowl and garnish with desired toppings.
- You can double or triple (etc.) this recipe and store it in the fridge for up to 3-4 days in a tightly sealed container; tastes great when reheated in the microwave.