The debate goes on

By John Sherman
Updated February 13, 2018
Credit: Illustration by Lauren Kolm

In my younger days, when I could reasonably be called a “recent” college grad, I had a desk job that involved a 45-minute commute from where I lived in Brooklyn to the Upper East Side of Manhattan. In hindsight it was an extremely cushy gig: great benefits, no open office plan, genuinely likable coworkers. But day-to-day it could feel like an interminable grind, the vast escalators up out of the train my Sisyphean morning journey.

As I settled into a routine, I could calculate my walk to the subway down to the second, with and without a stop for coffee. I got cocky from the warmth of my bed, inching closer and closer to my absolute-must-leave-by time with a snooze button. Breakfast was always a difficult element in my morning assembly process, comprising too many variables to fit neatly into an increasingly tight launch schedule. Depending on whether I’d packed a lunch or breakfast the night before (not likely), or whether my roommate had left me extra coffee, or finished off our shared cereal milk, I was often scrambling to plan my next eight hours of food in four or five minutes, hounded by the ticking of the kitchen clock.

One solution I found was baked oatmeal, an easy, make-ahead oatmeal and fruit sort-of-casserole that could be made in week-sized batches and easily portioned and tupperwared. This went well for a few weeks, and at work my officemates ahhed at the aroma of my freshly microwaved concoction while I preached the baked oatmeal gospel. But I got lazy, and one missed Sunday night baking session turned into two and then three, and I was back to coffee-cart muffins and paper-bag coffees.

Lacking the planning ability or Pinterest login to get serious about overnight oats, the other make-ahead oatmeal favorite of working-breakfast gourmands, I experimented with shorter timelines. I developed a truly to-go oatmeal: a Mason jar half-filled with oats, brown sugar, and maple syrup, poured over with boiling water, stirred, covered, and tucked into my tote bag. By the time I got to work, I had a jar full of fresh oatmeal at an edible temperature. But even this hurried cooking hit a snag of laziness, and winter turned to spring, when a jar of boiling water in a tote bag is a less pleasant accessory. Eventually I just started making oatmeal in a mug after getting to work, like I probably should have been doing all along.

One factor in my breakfast entropy was that even at my most impressively prepared, I still found myself ravenous again before noon, almost more than if I’d skipped the whole thing. On days I skipped breakfast, I could often last until noon or 1 p.m. without pawing through my desk drawers in hopes of finding a forgotten granola bar before giving up and running out the door to the bagel shop. The crusted-over goo of my would-be hearty day-starter lined the Mason jar on my desk in front of me, offering no clues as to why breakfast didn’t work like it was supposed to.

Oatmeal is about as healthy as non-boutique cereal gets, so what gives? Was it working too well and getting my metabolism’s hopes up for the next few hours? Was I not eating enough of it? My layman’s imagination chalked it up to a kind of compound hunger: the result of nights when beer and a bowl of cereal sufficed for dinner due to exhaustion or negative cash flow, but I don’t think that’s a real thing. And anyway the same thing happened on days after I’d stuffed myself with Chinese takeout, or accidentally cooked and eaten a half-pound of pasta. Maybe the problem wasn’t when or how much I was eating, but what: the oatmeal.

There are some scholars, which is to say a handful of people on fitnessblogs and Quoramessageboards, who have posed the question of whether eating oatmeal for breakfast actually makes one hungry sooner than eating other foods for breakfast, or eating no breakfast at all.

Breakfast is important because it starts your metabolism, allowing your blood sugar to remain well-regulated throughout your waking hours, rather than spiking midday with an enormous gyro after a 16-hour fast. Eating smaller, more frequent meals keeps blood-sugar levels on a more even keel, which can help to maintain a healthy weight as well as keep you from sugar-crashing at 3 p.m. Getting hungry again after two or three hours is, unfortunately, the result of this process—bad news for the desk jockey who can’t often leave for second breakfast and then again for elevenses, instead having to “power through” to whatever later break the day permits.

Despite the nutritional goodness of oatmeal—it’s high in fiber, and when combined with fruit or nuts is pretty unimpeachable—it lacks protein, which is the real power hitter of not being hungry at 11:15. If I’d been dousing my oatmeal with Greek yogurt instead of brown sugar and maple syrup I’d have saved a month’s rent in emergency bagel runs, where my knight in protein armor was a generous schmear of cream cheese, but tote bag-temperature oatmeal seems to me far worse than just being hungry, now or in two hours.

Now that I work at home, breakfast is a window of time rather than a box to check. I wake up and have a few cups of coffee, then fish around in the cupboard for something to chew on. An hour or two later I do the same thing. When the coffee runs out I think about lunch. Freed from constraints of time and absolute nutritional efficiency, my morning oatmeal and I can relax and accept ourselves not as insufficiently productive, but merely suited to a briefer purpose. We no longer disappoint. It may seem like we’re not working, but we are. Really.