Breakfast is my favorite meal of the day. Just thinking about this most important daily repast sets my heart alight: creamy scrambled eggs, spicy sausage, crisp bacon strips, scrumptious scrapple, buttery waffles drenched in maple syrup, schmeared bagels and lox, mmm…
Sorry, I’m getting lost in my rise-and-shine reverie. But you get my point: Breakfast rocks.
Problem is, most of my early-morning faves, if eaten regularly, are likely to expedite one’s launch to the afterlife. While there is nothing wrong with indulging in, say, a dish of cholesterol-laden Eggs Benedict now and then – or even the occasional bellybusting fast-food breakfast sandwich – far too many people make fatty, salty eyeopeners part of their daily morning routine. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this creates a problem of epidemic proportions: 64.5 percent of American adults over age 20 are overweight. There is no denying it – making a habit of the traditional breakfast does not rock.
Of course, you know this if you’ve paid attention to warnings from doctors, nutritionists, newsmagazine hosts and Suzanne Somers. You’re probably sick of hearing about it. I feel you, friend, and frankly, it isn’t fun playing the nag. But thinking about this subject makes me think of my father, who died a little more than two years ago, just after his 60th birthday.
The official cause of Dad’s death was a massive stroke. Before this, he’d suffered two heart attacks and several smaller strokes that left him physically compromised. At the root of these maladies was Type 2 diabetes brought on by bad eating habits.
Now, my dad was anything but stupid. He knew that by changing his diet, he could regain at least a measure of his good health and vitality. And he did try to mend his ways, he really did. But time and again, when his doting daughter would suggest gently that he try baked or broiled fish rather than his famous (and admittedly delicious) fried rockfish, he would throw a tantrum worthy of a 5-year-old. I don’t fault him for it; it’s only human nature to want what tastes good, and too many of us are conditioned from childhood to crave unhealthy foods. But the fact remains whether or not we like it: Succumbing to those cravings can be – and often is – ultimately deadly.
So, indulge this well-meaning nag: Start your day with a healthy meal. It doesn’t have to be a trial. From whole-grain breads to fresh fruits to low-fat yogurts and cheeses, lots of smart, delicious and satisfying breakfast alternatives are available. Though I plan to focus on a number of these options in future Food for Thoughts, today, the spotlight is on oatmeal.
Why? Oats rock. I have lost 22 pounds so far since the start of the year – and much of the credit goes to centering my breakfast and lunch each day around whole-grain oats. They’re tasty, filling, überhealthy and a wonderful energy source. In short, they’re oat-tastic!
The American Dietetic Association says a great example of a healthy breakfast has these components: whole grains, low-fat protein or dairy sources, and fruit. The humble bowl of oatmeal certainly meets that criteria, and it’s easy to prepare:
Basic Healthy Oat ‘n Fruit Meal
Boil one cup of water, reduce heat to low, add 1/2 cup of whole oats (not quick oats) and stir constantly. (Alternately, use a mixture of 1/2 cup water and 1/2 cup unsweetened apple juice. Yum!) After five minutes, turn off the stove, cover the pot and let sit for a minute or two. Spoon the hot oats into a bowl, add 1/2 cup of non-fat milk and some of your favorite fruit, and you’re ready to go.
In a hurry? Skip those instant flavored oatmeals that feature more sugar than anything else – instead, have one cup of whole-grain Cheerios with fruit (antioxidant-rich blueberries and potassium-filled bananas are super choices) and four ounces of skim milk.
It’s important to confine oneself to whole oats if at all possible. Quick oats are quite seductive; you can prepare them in one minute rather than five, and they do have real nutritive value. But whole grains are superior to those that, like quick oats, have been refined or processed. These partial grains have their bran and germ removed, so they offer less fiber than do their unrefined bretheren. Processed grains are enriched with certain nutrients, but whole grains are brimming with complex carbohydrates, selenium, potassium, magnesium and other vitamins and minerals. It’s a fact – whole-grain cereals and breads will keep you healthier than refined grains can.
Oats are no exception: The pure variety – which includes the wonderful oat bran and oat germ – is a dense, nutritious food that provides long-lasting energy that will give you more strength and endurance, making you more productive at work, school or play. And there are lots more benefits that come from having a healthy breakfast featuring oatmeal or similarly prepared whole-grain goodies such as quinoa and millet. From USA Weekend columnist Jean Carper, whose work appears at StopAgingNow.com:
- Women and men who ate more whole grains consistently gained less weight over an eight- to 12-year period in Harvard studies. Whole grains decrease hunger by making you feel full and by curbing blood sugar spikes that trigger appetite.
- Women who ate more than 4 1/2 daily servings of whole grains were one-third less apt to develop colon cancer than those who ate less than 1 1/2 servings a day, a new Swedish study finds.
- People who eat the most whole grains, especially high-fiber cereals, are 20 percent to 30 percent less likely to develop insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome and Type 2 diabetes, according to research from Tufts, Harvard and the University of Minnesota.
- Harvard investigators found that men who ate a bowl of whole-grain cereal every day cut their risk of dying of cardiovascular disease by 20 percent. In another Harvard study, eating high-bran whole grains three times a day cut the risk of heart disease nearly 30 percent. Researchers declared the bran in cereals particularly potent.
- Eating a whole-grain oat cereal, such as oatmeal, every day for three months enabled 73 percent of those with high blood pressure to reduce or eliminate their need for medication, University of Minnesota investigators reported.
- Older women in Iowa who ate whole grains containing 4.7 grams of fiber daily were 17 percent less likely to die of any cause in a 10-year period than were women who ate refined grains, says a University of Minnesota study.
In case you’re wondering, one one-cup serving of oatmeal or Cheerios contains four grams of fiber, according to the US Department of Agriculture. Just two servings of whole-grain oats per day cuts your chance of checking out early. And imagine what good you can do by also enjoying whole-grain options like unrefined brown rice, whole-grain bread or bagels, or whole-grain pasta during snacks, lunch and dinner. Food for thought…
I’ll get you started with some oat recipes for breakfast. They’re delicious and anything but dull. More importantly, they are filling meals that can help you lose or keep off unwanted pounds, fill you with energy and good health, and keep the hungries away. Try it – oats rock!
Peach Cobbler Oatmeal
Peach cobbler has been a favorite of mine since my childhood days, when my father would bake it for our family. This oatmeal reminds me of those happy days, but without all the unhealthy stuff. I found this recipe on a box of Quaker Oats and reworked it to omit added sugar. There is no need for added sweetness, so why ask for trouble?
1/4 cup toasted wheat germ
1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
1-1/4 cups peaches, chopped
3 cups nonfat milk
1-1/2 tsps. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
2 cups whole oats
8 oz. fat-free vanilla yogurt
First, make your topping: Combine the wheat germ and the quarter-teaspoon of cinnamon in a small bowl and put it to the side.
Prepare your peaches. If they’re in season, do use fresh, but frozen or canned peaches will work just fine. Be sure to thaw the frozen variety, and if you’re using canned peaches, drain any liquid in the container. Chop the peaches into medium-size chunks and set them aside.
Bring the milk, cinnamon, salt and nutmeg to a boil in medium saucepan; stir in the oats. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for five minutes, stirring constantly to avoid any scorching of the milk. Stir in peaches. Continue cooking and stirring until the peaches are heated through and most of the liquid is absorbed, about one minute.
Spoon the oatmeal into four bowls and top them with the wheat-germ/cinnamon mixture and the yogurt. Makes four peachy-keen servings.
Baked Oat ‘n Cranberry Meal
On a weekend or a sleep-in weekday, you’ll have plenty of time to indulge in this creamy, tangy, almost decadent fruit-‘n-oats treat. I must tip my ubiquitous baseball cap to Pats, who sent me this when she learned about my recent adventures in oats. I made some changes to render the dish more conducive to weight loss. My personal variation is to nix the nuts completely – I’m allergic – but Pats tells me that walnuts add a nice crunch, along with additional protein, so I included them in the final version. The flavor combinations in this dish are heavenly, and it is healthy for heart, soul, kidneys and waistline.
1-1/2 cups whole oats
2 cups skim milk
1 cup unsweetened (unprocessed) apple juice
1-1/2 tbsps. Smart Balance spread
2 tsps. ground cinnamon
1-1/2 cups finely chopped apples
3/4 cup dried cranberries
3/4 cup coarsely chopped walnuts (optional)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F / 175 degrees C. Coat a nine-inch square baking pan with canola no-stick spray and set it aside.
In a large saucepan, bring the milk, Smart Balance and cinnamon to a boil.
As the milk cooks, mix the oats, chopped apples, cranberries, and walnuts together in a large mixing bowl. Spread the mixture evenly into the prepared baking pan. (Be sure to keep an eye on the milk to prevent it from scorching.)
When the milk mixture begins to boil, pour it evenly over the oatmeal mixture in the baking dish. Place the whole into the oven and bake, uncovered, until the liquid has been absorbed and the oatmeal is tender (about half an hour).
Cut the mixture into six servings and place into bowls. If you like, you can garnish the oatmeal with sliced apples and wheat germ. Will make six bright-eyed and raring to go.
Whole Wheat Oatmeal Pancakes
Oats don’t always have to be served in a cereal bowl. These whole-grain pancakes are hearty, healthy, quick to prepare (most of the work is done the previous night) and oh, so good!
1 egg (even the yolk; we need it for leavening)
1 tsp. vanilla
2 cups skim milk
2 tsp. lemon juice)
2 tbsp. canola oil
I cup whole oats
1 cup whole-wheat flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
your favorite fruit
Before you hit the hay, mix the egg, vanilla, milk, lemon juice and oil in a large mixing bowl. Add the oats, flour, baking soda and cinnamon and combine. Cover the bowl and store it in the refrigerator so that the oats will absorb the liquid (the batter can stay fresh for up to three days).
At breakfast time, spray a nonstick skillet with canola no-stick spray and preheat over medium heat. Retrieve your batter from the fridge and add your favorite fruit (chopped apples, blueberries or strawberries are good choices; alternately, you can add nothing and instead top the finished pancakes with unsweetened applesauce).
Drop the oatmeal batter into the skillet by the spoonful. When bubbles appear on the surface of the pancakes, flip with a spatula and cook for about a minute or until any added fruit is cooked through and the cakes are golden brown. Makes 8-12 pancakes.
Oatmeal ‘n Fruit Breakfast Bars
Don’t have time even to grab a bowl of Cheerios in the ay-em? On an evening when you have time, bake up a batch of these bars and keep them tightly wrapped in the fridge. When morning comes, snag a bar, nuke it for 20 seconds, and you have a fresh, warm treat that will get your up-and-at-’em going. These are much healthier and more delicious than most of the bars you’ll find in the stores too. Remember, skipping breakfast is just as bad as eating something unhealthy – with these chewy bars on hand, you know you can get homemade, ultra-low-fat, oatlicious nutrition, fiber and energy even when you’re on the run (and these are great for snacking too).
2 cups whole oats
1-1/2 cups whole wheat flour
1 cup unsweetened apple juice
1/4 cup wheat germ
1 cup chopped dried fruit (dates, raisins, cranberries, whatever you like!)
1 tsp. cinnamon
2 tbsp. brown sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 cup pureed bananas
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F /190 degrees C. Spray a square eight-inch baking pan with canola no-stick spray and put aside.
In a large mixing bowl, combine all of the ingredients – by hand, if need be. With your hands, spread the mixture in the baking pan. Sprinkle extra cinnamon on the top. Bake for 30 minutes. Allow the bars-in-progress to cool completely, then slice into six rectangular pieces. Remove them from the pan carefully with a spatula. Makes six rockin’ bars that would make the Quaker Oats dude jealous.
Hey: I want to see your recipes too! If you have any whole-oat recipes you would like to share, please send them along.
Natalie Davis is an award-winning journalist and longtime cook who is happiest when surrounded by music, laughter, family and friends, and fabulous food. Wanna share recipes or tips? Send email!