A steaming bowl of porridge is unrivalled as the athlete’s favourite superfood and Peta Bee explains why
If there is one food that is unanimously hailed as a performance powerhouse it is porridge.
In varying formats – porridge can be made by boiling any ground, crushed, or chopped grain in water and/or milk – it has propelled everyone from Jessica Ennis-Hill and Mo Farah, Paula Radcliffe and Haile Gebrselassie to the best form of their lives and you would be hard-pressed to find a sports nutritionist who would speak out against a bowl of steaming porridge as the perfect preparation for training or competition.
Its enduring popularity is such that it is cementing its reputation as a superfood for athletes, with a range of performance-specific brands and varieties currently being launched.
Nobody, it seems, has a bad word to say about porridge. Even notoritously hard-to-convince scientists are impressed.
Researchers at Loughborough University who studied the effects of eating different foods before a workout concluded that, for endurance activities in particular, selecting the appropriate breakfast for a morning race can have a huge influence on performance. And, according to their research published in the British Journal of Nutrition, porridge offers more of a boost than high-tech sports drinks and energy bars when it comes to prolonging energy levels.
Clyde Williams, emeritus professor of the School of Sport Science at Loughborough, and his team tested foods that were grouped according to the glycaemic index (GI), which is based on the rate at which a food raises blood glucose levels.
“We found that foods with a low to moderate GI, such as porridge, enhance endurance when consumed around three hours before exercise,” Professor Williams says. “They appear to trigger the body and muscles to use fat more efficiently, thereby conserving glycogen to be used later. As a result, you can perform well for longer.”
In the 2010 study, Professor Williams found that runners who ate porridge beforehand and drank water during a run responded better than those who were given a high-carbohydrate energy drink, though he adds: “We are talking about plain porridge made with water, with no sugar or syrup added, which would change its GI rating.”
There are other benefits. Oats, the most popular porridge ingredient, are rich in soluble fibre, which binds to and reduces the harmful lower-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol in the body and studies by nutritionists at King’s College London showed that regularly eating them can lower blood cholesterol levels by up to 20 per cent.
And last year, Harvard scientists revealed that for each ounce (28g) of whole grains eaten a day – the equivalent of a small bowl of porridge – the risk of death was reduced by 5% and heart deaths by 9% in a group of healthy adults.
Not just for breakfast
Given its faultless image as a food guaranteed to provide a boost to your training, restricting porridge varieties to breakfast time seems almost wasteful. “Porridge and its related grains are not just for morning meals,” says sports dietitian Jeanette Crosland. “They make excellent snacks at any time of day because they are low in fat, but they also help to regulate blood sugar, which as all the latest research shows is helpful in sport.”
Kate Percy, author of Go Faster Food, says she is a ‘big fan of porridge’ and that it’s often best in its simplest form. “Use basic unrefined porridge oats rather than the quick-cook variety, as they have an infinitely better flavour and texture and are more sustaining,” Percy says. “If I am running, I always make my porridge with water as it is lighter on the stomach. The amount of liquid depends on the type of porridge you use. The less refined the oats, the more liquid you will need.”
Bring on the supergrains
It’s not just porridge made from oats that can propel you to better performances. A study of the diet of Kenyan runners in 2004 revealed that 23% of their calories came from maize, often in the form ugali, a thick gruel of a similar consistency and texture to traditional porridge. Interestingly, a further 20% of their total calories came from the raw sugar used to sweeten both this variation on porridge and their mugs of tea.
In East Africa ugali is served with virtually every meal, including breakfast. Indeed, it was when Mo Farah moved into a house of Kenyan athletes in Teddington back in 2005 that his eyes were first opened to the ingredient.
“They cooked simple, home-grown foods in these massive pots, typical Kenyan staples like ugali,” he said. “This was new to me. Kenyan runners swear by ugali.”
Maize has a similar, but slightly higher, GI than oats, so would trigger the same sort of fat-burning and energy- sparing benefits.
Then there’s teff, the newcomer to the performance breakfast scene that is a prized Ethiopian staple and has long been favoured by many of the country’s distance runners.
Ethiopian athletes not only consume teff in the form of a creamy porridge, but as flatbreads called injera. Kenenisa Bekele and Haile Gebrselassie were fans of the nutrient-packed grain and it’s not hard to see why when you consider it contains impressive amounts of fibre, B vitamins, magnesium, iron and immune-boosting zinc. Teff also takes the crown for the most calcium of all grains; it offers 123mg per small serving, about the same as cooked spinach.
Go faster porridge with blueberries and walnuts – By Kate Percy
COOK TIME: 10 minutes
Nutrition per serving:
Carbohydrate 50g (sugars 19g) Fat 15 g (saturates 2g)
550 ml water or milk or half and half Pinch of salt
150g punnet of fresh blueberries
Handful of walnuts
Good-quality runny honey to taste (Manuka is very good but very expensive, Greek runny honey is delicious)
1. Put the oats, water and/or milk into a pan with a pinch of salt. Bring to the boil over a high heat and then turn the heat down and simmer for about 5 minutes, stirring frequently. The porridge will become thick and creamy. Meanwhile, pop the nuts onto a baking tray and roast in the oven at 160C for 5 minutes.
2. Pour into two warmed bowls, sprinkle with the blueberries and nuts and drizzle over the honey.
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