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food for thought

Porridge is a go-to breakfast for many people during the cold winter months. It warms you up and keeps you feeling sated throughout the morning.

Plus, porridge has considerable nutritional advantages over many other breakfasts.

There’s no reason, though, to abandon this satisfying morning meal when the weather warms up. Its versatility means you can enjoy it year-round – hot or cold, sweet or savoury, with or without toppings.

Porridge nutrition, health benefits

“Porridge” describes any cereal grain that’s cooked in water or milk to a creamy, thick (or thin) consistency. And it isn’t limited to oatmeal.

Popular variations from around the world include kasha (cooked buckwheat groats), grits (cooked corn kernels), congee (cooked rice grains), polenta (cooked cornmeal) and Hausa Koko (cooked fermented millet or corn).

Oats, quinoa, teff, millet, buckwheat groats, sorghum, corn and other whole grains deliver key nutrients including B vitamins, vitamin E, magnesium, iron and zinc. Cream of Wheat, while fortified with iron, is a cereal made from refined, not whole grain, wheat.

Whole grain porridge also supplies antioxidants and protective phytochemicals.

And thanks to its fibre content, porridge nourishes beneficial gut bacteria, microbes that play a role in regulating inflammation in the body. Soluble fibres in oats and barley, called beta glucans, also lower LDL (bad) cholesterol in the bloodstream.

Deciphering steel-cut, large flake, quick-cooking, instant oats

Oats, naturally gluten free, come in many types. Whether steel-cut, rolled or instant, all types start out as oat groats, the whole oat kernel with only the outer husk removed.

Steel-cut oats are oat groats that have been chopped into pieces. They take 20 to 30 minutes to cook, depending on creaminess. Because they take up less water than other oats, steel-cut oats have chewy texture.

Old-fashioned oats (e.g., rolled or large flake) are oat groats that have been steamed and then rolled to flatten for faster cooking (10 to 20 minutes). Quick-cooking oats are processed the same way but are rolled thinner and, as a result, cook faster.

Instant oats are processed from oat groats that have been precut, precooked and dehydrated, and then rolled thinly and pressed into tiny flakes to cook in the microwave for one to two minutes. Choose unflavoured instant oats to avoid added sugars (as much as four teaspoons per packet).

The degree to which oats are processed doesn’t change their nutrient content. One cup of cooked oats serves up 4 g of fibre, 6 g of protein, 63 mg of magnesium, 2 mg each of iron and zinc, along with other nutrients.

Processing does, however, change the glycemic index of oats, the speed at which its carbohydrate increases blood sugar. Steel-cut and old-fashioned oats lead to a lower and slower rise in glucose, whereas instant oats, which are digested faster, spike blood sugar more quickly.

Tips to enhance flavour, nutrition

Branch out from oats to add variety to breakfast. Try whole grain hot cereal blends such as Arva Flour Mill’s Red River (cracked wheat, cracked rye, flax), Quaker Super Grain Hot Cereal (oats, flax, quinoa) or one of Bob’s Red Mill multigrain blends.

Cook (or soak) whole grains in cow’s milk, soy milk or pea milk to increase the protein and calcium content of your porridge.

I’m a fan of overnight oats (no cooking required!) soaked in unflavoured kefir, a fermented milk beverage that provides beneficial probiotic bacteria as well as prebiotics, carbohydrates that fuel the growth of gut friendly bacteria. I typically use a ratio of 1 part oats to 1 to 1.5 parts liquid.

Add ground flax, chia or hemp seeds to your hot or cold porridge, exceptional sources of alpha linolenic acid (ALA), an anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acid. One tablespoon of ground flax or chia seeds, for example, delivers a full day’s worth of ALA for adults.

Sweeten a bowl of porridge with no-sugar flavour boosts such as cinnamon, cocoa powder, vanilla extract or toasted unsweetened shredded coconut.

Add berries, chopped apple, dried apricots, raisins or dried cherries. Top with a tablespoon of nut butter, chopped walnuts, sunflower seeds or toasted pumpkin seeds.

For savoury porridge, cook grains in low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth. Stir in baby kale or spinach near the end of cooking. Top with a poached or fried egg or smoked salmon. Add a dash of hot sauce or sprinkle with chopped green onion and/or fresh herbs.

Think beyond breakfast, too. There’s no reason why you can’t enjoy porridge for lunch or dinner.

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is director of food and nutrition at Medcan. Follow her on Twitter @LeslieBeckRD

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