Why Cheap Oats Do Not Mean People Aren’t Hungry. FFS!Brain Yapping by Dr Dean Burnett
In these ever more chaotic times, things that are certain, or at least robustly reliable, stand out all the more.
The sun still rises every morning. Rich people keep getting richer. Casting a non-white person as a formerly white fictional character will cause screaming meltdowns among the usual ‘communities’. You get the idea.
And my personal whatever-the-opposite-of-a-favourite-is: when countless people are going hungry because of a political/economic crisis (practically a fortnightly occurrence lately), some ‘pundit’ or whoever will dismiss it outright, because they know of some cheap bulk items in their local supermarket.
My particular bugbear with this is the baffling, yet persistent, invoking of oats. Oats are filling, ‘good for you’, and cheap to buy in bulk, so even the poorest person can afford them and use them for many meals. Therefore, nobody can possibly be starving, so any claims to the contrary can and should be dismissed. It’s all just bad budgeting and lack of discipline by poorer people. Apparently.
Not sure how the notion “oats exist, therefore food poverty cannot” became so common, but here we are. And in the wake of the current crisis, whichever one this is, it’s been invoked yet again.
But here’s the thing; this view is undeniably wrong, in multiple ways. Because humans aren’t livestock, no matter how eager the upper echelons of our society may be to apply that label to anyone who didn’t go to Eton. Rather, humans are complex creatures who cannot easily survive on a diet of constant gruel with a side of nothing. Or ‘at all’, in most cases.
First and foremost, there are all our basic biological requirements. Although the phrase is rather vaguer than most realise, it’s universally agreed that humans require a ‘balanced diet’. As in, an optimum combination of a variety of foods. Variability in food, particularly within the key food groups, is widely regarded as essential for health, not some decadent indulgence.
You could argue that the ‘endless oats’ diet could be described as balanced, in much the same way that a bike with its wheels removed is balanced. Technically true, because it doesn’t wobble any more, but it’s functionally useless.
And even this questionable claim assumes that an all-porridge diet provides all the calories and nutrients your typical person needs. Which it does not.
However, even if thin gruel for weeks on end did somehow provide enough nutrients and calories for acceptable physical health (because it’s never going to be ‘optimum’), that still wouldn’t make it OK, because it completely ignores the equally important, and in many ways even more complicated, mental health impacts.
Our brains are motivated by countless things on multiple levels, but on of the more powerful and fundamental is food. It’s a potent biological reward, meaning that, in various direct and indirect ways, it shapes our actions, experience, thinking, and decisions. A surprising chunk of our day is spent working towards, or thinking about/planning, our next meal. It’s often an integral part of daily life. If you strip that away, by forcing people to subsist on grey sludge, it’s cutting off a big part of the brain’s day-to-day functionality.
You’ve likely heard the complaints, maybe even made them yourself, about workplace catering, or the café in the office, or railway station or whatever, being bland, boring, uninspired, and so forth. A restricted and uninteresting menu is something people notice very quickly, and object to quite readily. So, imagine having to exist on a diet that made the oft-maligned rack of generic, insipid sandwiches and salad pots seem like a festive banquet. It would be difficult, to say the very least.
It’s not greed or entitlement or anything like that. There’s a lot of evidence to argue that the reason we humans evolved such powerful brains in the first place is because we developed a rich and varied diet. And if such a diet shaped our brains, our brains have developed to expect, to require it, in order to do what they need to do.
A lack of variability and novelty can be harmful in its own right. Our brains, as powerful as they are, quickly grow used to anything that’s overly familiar and predictable, to the extent that we quickly start ignoring and stop responding to them. But such an active and demanding brain as ours needs to be stimulated, to be engaged, much like a muscle needs to be exercised if it wants to avoid atrophying.
This is why a like of stimulation can be quite stressful, and therefore harmful, to our health and wellbeing. Even if it’s something as seemingly innocuous as an overly boring job or workplace. And if a dull job can harm our wellbeing, the impact of an incredibly limited and boring diet, something far more salient and fundamental to us, will be considerably greater again, in most cases.
All of this is not even considering the ever-increasingly-important link between the brain and digestive system, i.e., the Gut-Brain axis. Because what happens in one can so easily and profoundly affect what happens in the other, science is constantly finding new and interesting ways in which our diet affects our mood, our emotions and wellbeing, our mental health, and more. And, of course, vice versa, as anyone who’s ever ‘comfort eaten’ will know.
Basically, insisting that people can live purely on oats is the diet equivalent of locking someone in a small empty grey windowless room, for weeks on end, and insisting they’re fine because they’ve got ‘a roof over their head’. But they wouldn’t be fine; their mental and physical health would be declining rapidly, no matter how many insist otherwise. Biology trumps ideology, I’m afraid.
In summary, because of how complex our brains and bodies are, there are many ways to go chronically, devastatingly hungry, without literally starving to death. Those who insist otherwise are basically just feeding people a stream of something that’s even less nutritious than gruel.
Dean Burnett covers the complexities of the links between diet and brain function in his bestselling books The Idiot Brain and The Happy Brain.
Dr Dean Burnett is a neuroscientist and best selling author of such books as The Idiot Brain and The Happy Brain. His former column Brain Flapping for The Guardian (now Brain Yapping here on the CSN) was the most popular blog on their platform with millions of readers worldwide. He is a former tutor and lecturer for the Cardiff University Centre for Medical Education and is currently an honorary research associate at Cardiff Psychology School and Visiting Industry Fellow at Birmingham City University. He is @garwboy on Twitter.