Porridge is a delicious, hearty and warm comfort food which makes it a great breakfast option for cold winter mornings. But did you know that a bowl of oats can also help improve your heart health?
We caught up with Vitasoy ambassador and nutritionist, Zoe Bingley-Pullin, to find out the importance of adding oats into your diet.
What makes oats such a healthy breakfast option?
Oats are a healthy breakfast option for a number of reasons. Traditional oats are low GI, meaning they release energy at a gradual rate, keeping us sustained throughout the day. Furthermore, oats contain a soluble fibre called beta-glucan, which helps lower cholesterol, stabilise blood sugars and boost our immune defences. What many people don’t know is oats are a natural nervine, meaning they contain magnesium that helps to produce dopamine, which regulates emotions and has a calming effect on the brain.
The average cholesterol level of New Zealanders is one of the highest in the world -what are we eating more (or less) of than people in the rest of the world?
Like many countries in the world, New Zealand has adopted a typical Western diet high in processed foods. Identifying whether a product is overly processed might seem tricky, as most products in the supermarket undergo some sort of process. Even fruit and vegetables are washed, graded and packed. Next time you’re shopping, look at the ingredients label and if you spot an ingredient or a number that you don’t recognise or can’t pronounce, don’t buy it. Look for foods that are in their natural state or include a high percentage of fruits, vegetables, wholegrains or lean meats.
What is beta-glucan and why is it important?
Beta-glucan is a soluble fibre that binds to bad cholesterol (LDL) in the gut. Once attached, it passes through the digestive system and flushes the cholesterol out the body as waste. Preventing a build up of bad cholesterol in the blood is important because it can lead to narrowed or blocked blood vessels that can cause health problems, such as heart disease.
How can we get more beta-glucan in our everyday diet?
Foods such as oats, barley, wheat, baker’s yeast and shitake mushrooms are all good sources of beta-glucan. There are a number of simple and practical swaps you can make to weave these types of foods into your day-to-day diet, for example:
- Start the day with a bowl of oat-based breakfast cereal or porridge, instead of toast
- When you’re baking, substitute regular flour for oatmeal
- Drink oatmilk rather than dairy or other plant milks
- Add barley to your soup, stews and casseroles rather than lentils
What is the recommended daily intake of oats to help lower cholesterol?
The recommended daily intake of beta-glucan to actively help lower cholesterol is 3 grams. To put that in context, a 40 gram standard serving of traditional oats contains up to and around 1.6 grams of beta-glucan. So if you have porridge in the morning made with regular milk or water, it only provides half the daily-recommended intake of beta-glucan. What many people don’t realise is, if you switched to oat milk it would provide the whole 3 grams in one sitting.
What other things can we do to lower our cholesterol levels?
Keeping active is also really important if you are looking to improve your cholesterol levels. When it comes to heart health, any exercise is better than none, so take every opportunity to increase your physical activity level. For instance:
- Walk up the stairs instead of using the lift
- Cycle into town on the weekend, rather than driving
- Or get off the train or bus a stop earlier and walk the rest of the way home
One thing I find really helping is wearing a pedometer: it helps me keep track of how active I’ve been during the day. On days where I haven’t moved around much, it prompts me to go on a long walk or take a jog the next day. The best exercise is the one that you’ll enjoy and stick to. So don’t be afraid to try something new!
Why are we so concerned about heart health but have trouble putting into practice a heart-healthy diet?
In today’s media driven world, we’re bombarded with conflicting messages about heart health on a day-to-day basis. So it’s no surprise it’s front of mind for a lot of people, but we’re often left feeling confused about what we should and shouldn’t eat. There’s also a common misconception that buying healthy, whole foods is expensive.
In actual fact, if you plan your meals ahead and buy food in one big shop rather than on an adhoc basis, it can work out a lot cheaper. We’re also limited by how much time we have and after a busy day at work, it’s often very tempting to pick up a microwave dinner rather than prepare a quick meal.
What are your top tips for incorporating heart-healthy foods into our diet?
My top tip for anyone looking to follow a heart-healthy diet is to plan ahead. On the weekend, do some research and plan what you’re going to eat every day for the rest of the week. Based on your meal plan, write a detailed shopping list of everything you’ll need before heading out to the supermarket. That way you’ll know exactly what you need and you won’t be tempted by anything that’s not on your list.
I find having fresh fruit and vegetables, milk and eggs delivered to my house really helpful as well. That way I always have a selection of whole foods in the house and I just have to pop to the shops for my proteins and in-between ingredients as and when I need them.
Try preparing food ahead of time as well. Make overnight oats before you go to bed so they’re ready for breakfast the next morning or make a big batch of soup, which you can take to work for your lunches.
What are some of your favourite porridge toppings?
My favourite porridge topping is actually one from my childhood: rhubarb and sultanas. It’s easy to whip up, doesn’t contain sugar and it freezes well. I also like to add some extra protein by sprinkling nuts and seeds on top. If you have a sweet tooth, try toasting your nuts with a little maple syrup that way you don’t have to add any extra sugar. And of course I love the simple grated apple and cinnamon combination.
Images / Zoe Bingley-Pullin (Supplied); Porridge (NZ Real Health)