Preventing Winter Weight Gain: Breakfast and The Carbohydrate Connection
As the days get short and dark, many of us crave carbohydrate-rich foods. Breads, potatoes and pasta become irresistible, not to mention winter weight gain foods i.e. cookies, cake and donuts. And carbohydrates beget more carbohydrates. One potato chip invites another. And who was ever able to eat just one cookie? Some experience carbohydrate cravings more than others, such as people with the Winter Blues or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). I know this both from personal and professional experience, having struggled for years with both Seasonal Affective Disorder and carbohydrate cravings. When a dinner companion asks me if I want a spoonful of her dessert, I feel like saying, “Not really, I want the whole dessert – and then another one,” but usually I simply say, “No thanks.”
Why should the short dark days drive us to the cookie jar? One likely explanation involves the brain chemical serotonin, which, during the winter months, falls to its lowest levels in parts of the brain that regulate mood and appetite. Research shows that on sunny days the brain produces more serotonin; on dark days less. Another way to boost brain serotonin (besides bright light) is by eating sugary or starchy foods, which causes insulin to be secreted. This, in turn, pushes tryptophan (a crucial building block for serotonin) from the bloodstream into the brain. Unfortunately, the secretion of insulin drives down our blood sugar, making us hungry for more sugary and starchy foods. The serotonin boost is short-lived, but the weight gain that results from eating more and more carbohydrate-rich foods is long-lasting.
So, what’s to be done?
By now we know that high protein, low carbohydrate diets are helpful in reducing carbohydrate cravings and preventing weight gain. Many diets have this concept as their organizing principle – The Atkins Diet is a case in point. The day’s eating starts, of course, with breakfast and for years, I kept to a strictly high protein breakfast, usually an eggbeater omelet. But I wondered whether it might not be possible to include some carbohydrates into my breakfast menu without going crazy for more. For me, the answer has been Irish steel cut oats. These are much less processed than so-called quick oats (to which you simply have to add hot water). Because they are less processed, Irish oats are more slowly absorbed – so they don’t cause a sudden surge in blood sugar. They have what is called a lower glycemic index (meaning their sugar content is more slowly absorbed) than quick oats – 42 compared to 66. Best of all, they are delicious!
So, what’s the catch? Well, they take time to cook – in some cases as long as 30 minutes. Now that’s just too long for most of us as we scurry about in the morning trying to get our day going, with all its necessary rituals. The good news, however, is that you can cook up a batch of oats on Sunday and divide it into portions that will last all week long.
I still like an eggbeater omelet for breakfast but now I can enjoy some healthy and delicious carbohydrates without triggering daylong cravings and the inevitable weight gain that follows.
Try it for yourselves (a recipe follows) and let me know how it works for you.
4 cups Water
1 cup Steel Cut Oats (McCann’s, Nature’s Promise or comparable brand)
Bring 4 cups of water to a rapid boil over high heat. Slowly add oats while stirring. Boil for approximately 5 minutes while stirring occasionally, until the mixture begins to thicken.
Reduce heat to low and simmer for another 5 minutes, stirring every minute or so.
Transfer mixture to a glass bowl and set aside to cool for about 15 minutes, stirring the mixture every five minutes or so to release some of the heat.
Either in plastic bags or bowls, separate mixture into 5 even servings (about 8 oz each).
Refrigerate servings until ready for use.
To reheat an individual serving, place oatmeal in a microwaveable dish. Stir in 1/3 cup of hot water. Microwave on high for 2-4 minutes (depending on the microwave strength) until oatmeal reaches desired consistency. Add toppings (such as cinnamon or walnut bits) and enjoy!
Keep servings refrigerated for up to 5 days.
Wishing you Light and Transcendence,
Additional Resources: Harvard School of Public Health