Fiona McCade: Porridge is key to long healthy life

The Scott's Porage Oats guy may not be a representative image of Scots
The Scott's Porage Oats guy may not be a representative image of Scots
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Harvard scientists bear great news for our sweet-toothed, waddling, pasty-faced nation, writes Fiona McCade

Everybody knows Dr Johnson’s sneeringly superior definition of oats in his dictionary: “A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people”. Slightly less famous (unfortunately) is a spirited riposte, attributed to the 5th Lord Elibank, who is supposed to have spat back: “Yes, and where else will you see such horses and such men?”

Oats are A Good Thing. Everybody in Scotland is brought up to know that, but perhaps even we hadn’t realised just how good.

Since 1984, scientists at Harvard University’s School of Public Health have been following the dietary habits of around 100,000 people and have now come to the conclusion that those of us who regularly eat whole grains, such as porridge oats, can expect to live longer and healthier lives. Just one small bowl of porridge a day can increase life expectancy by 5 per cent, and reduce the risk of death by heart disease by 9 per cent.

These statistics are not to be sniffed at, so why is Scotland – ancestral home of the great, glorious, life-giving oat – still regarded as “the sick man of Europe”? I wouldn’t be surprised if many foreigners imagine that all Scotsmen (and perhaps some Scotswomen) look like the hunky guy on the Scott’s Porage Oats packet. After all, they’ve seen Highlander and Braveheart. They think we’re all tall, proud, ripped,and with the muscle power to effortlessly hurl a Highland coo over a Cairngorm.

How disappointed they must be when they finally come here and see that the reality is far more like Sweet Sixteen, or Trainspotting. Thousands of us waddling about, stuffing saturated fats down our bloated necks; or huddled around the ashtrays outside the pub, pale and weedy, barely able to lift a fag to our nicotine-stained lips. Never mind the heady ideal of the Scott’s Porage Oats guy; quite a few of us would be vastly improved if only we looked a bit more like the Quaker Oats guy.

I can’t work out how, as a nation, we can be so unhealthy, when the miracle-that-is-oats is so synonymous with Scottishness. Perhaps it’s because the big debate about how best to make porridge (water-and-salt or milk-and-sugar?) was won long ago by milk-and-sugar. I wonder if that’s when the rot started, because then we began to realise that we could customise our oats with almost anything.

But instead of being sensible and adding fruit, honey, seeds, or something that was good for us, we lost the plot and started chucking in loads of cream, and syrup, and double cream, and most probably Soor Plooms, and Tunnock’s Snowballs, and fried Mars bars, until we lost track of the very thing that we were supposed to be eating in the first place. There’s little point starting the day with a bowl of good, nourishing oats when you follow it with fried pizza, ten macaroni pies and a vat of Irn-Bru mixed with Buckfast.

The Harvard team has kindly highlighted Scotland’s humble oat as being one of the very best whole grains anyone can eat. However, they have also pointed out in their findings that brown rice, corn and quinoa are also extremely nutritious. I can’t see the countries that grow these crops missing this trick, can you? Before you can say “heart attack”, top-ranking rice producer India will be saying that their brown rice is the best thing for you; America will be saying “Come to the USA! The corn capital of Planet Earth!”; and Bolivia will be selling itself as the go-to destination for quinoa, “The miracle food of the Andes”.

Scotland has to start showing the world that our traditional diet is actually teeming with wonderfully healthy stuff. As well as oats, we have fabulous fish, and an amazing array of vegetables and fruits. What we have to do is to eat much more of these foods, advertise the fact shamelessly, and show everybody out there how it’s done.

Yes, of course oats make great flapjacks, but please, just for a moment, step away from the golden syrup. Right now we have an unmissable opportunity to trumpet the fact that our national grain is one of the most beneficial foodstuffs known to mankind.

I must admit, I was disappointed to see that the Harvard study suggested that a “small” bowl of porridge every morning is all anybody requires to improve their wellbeing. I enjoy starting the day with a whopping big bowl, but perhaps that’s part of the Scottish problem, too. We are spoiled children of the Western world and many of us are struggling with our January diets because even when we manage to get the ingredients right, we still tend to overdo the portions. We don’t just need to re-think what we eat, we also need to consider how we eat it.

It’s worth remembering that, as earlier, well-known research has shown, two out of three bears make porridge incorrectly. Only 33.3 per cent of bears can be relied upon to get it just right. I suggest that the Harvard scientists follow up their investigations with a thorough analysis of the nutritional intake of baby bears. After all, over many generations, they have shown themselves to be consistent and moderate in their habits. They eat not too much, nor too little; the oats they eat are not too hot, nor too cold, and nobody has ever seen an obese baby bear. We have a lot to learn from this quarter.

However, while baby bears regularly get out and about in the woods to complement their excellent diet, we’re not always so active. The kilted Adonis on the porage pack isn’t just eating well, he’s hurling cannonballs across lochs to stay in that kind of shape.

But let’s take the rehabilitation of our country’s health one step at a time, and start with oats.

Have you forgotten how good they are?