Avena Sativa, also known as the oat, has been eaten by humans for thousands of years. At one point regarded as the ‘boring cousin’ of cereals, and with unappealing names such as gruel, it fell out of favour with most of us. Recently, however, there has been a resurgence in its popularity.

Availability and a low cost have certainly played a part, but the numerous health benefits that arise from eating the grain have also helped aid its revival. According to a study by Harvard University, those who eat lots of oats and other wholegrains live longer and are less likely to die from heart disease.

It was this line of research, and the proliferation of evidence on the positive health benefits of oats, that led optometrist John Ferrier to the doors of the World Porridge Making Championship (WPMC) held in Carrbridge, Scotland in October.

Ferrier, who owns seven practices around the Fife area, was born and bred in Scotland – meaning he has ‘always eaten porridge’ – but had never heard of the WPMC, despite it being in its 25th year. During his research on the medicinal properties of the grain he came across the event and ‘thought it looked like fun’. His entry was accepted, and he became one of around 30 contestants to don their aprons and dig out their spurtles – a traditional wooden tool used for porridge making – for the competition in the village of Carrbridge, which lies in the Cairngorm National Park.

All contestants had to prepare two types of porridge dish: a traditional recipe consisting solely of oats, water and salt, and a ‘speciality category’ where contestants are invited to experiment with oat-based dishes. Contenders came from across the world, with the flags of the British Isles, the USA, Canada, Sweden, Australia, Norway, Germany and Russia being flown.

‘There was a bagpipe band procession from the bridge to the village hall and everyone was there with their national flags. It was really good fun and a great event,’ says Ferrier.

Two Swedish contenders, Calle Myrsell and Per Clarsson, took home the coveted Golden Spurtle trophy for their traditional porridge recipe – they even brought their own oats from Sweden. Chris Young from Perthshire won the speciality category with an exciting oat inspired tapas board.

Ferrier made his porridge with oats, water, egg, coconut oil and blueberries for his WPMC entry

For the speciality category, Ferrier, who has recently become a convert to traditional porridge and now eats it every day, made the judges the dish he gives to his two rugby playing sons before a game. It consists of oats, water, egg, coconut oil and blueberries, which he says is low in sugar and high in protein, fibre and healthy fats.

Although unsuccessful in his attempt to win a trophy, his new-found obsession with porridge is also proving practical from a practitioner’s point of view. He believes optometrists are well positioned to advise patients about simple dietary changes that can have a huge impact on their overall wellbeing.

He says that the power of porridge comes in two forms: its antioxidant properties and its usefulness in weight management. Antioxidants known as avenanthramides that are found in oats have been shown to be beneficial to eye health, while the beta glucans present in the grain have been used to treat heart disease and diabetes as they ‘hold onto the fat and sugar so it doesn’t enter your blood stream so quickly, so you don’t get sugar spikes’.

Being an independent, Ferrier says, means he ‘has the luxury of spending a good amount of time with patients’, with his average appointment time being three times longer than that of a GP.

‘Also, if you’ve had a diabetic patient, then you’ve probably seen them over a couple of years, so you’ve built up a relationship with them,’ he says. ‘Diabetes is the one you can have a conversation with them about, and often people are receptive to it. They’re quite keen to do things that will make their situation better.

‘And it’s a simple swap to make. It not like they’re goji berries that have had to travel half-way around the world. You can buy oats anywhere. If you make that one little swap, from your
sugary cereals to porridge, that’s the way to a better world.’

His advice to other optometrists who want to encourage healthier lifestyles in their patients is to ‘take the time to speak to them about what they eat’ and the benefits of a healthy diet.

‘It’s always a fine balance as you don’t want to be preachy,’ he adds.
He says that as an optometrist he often sees older patients, many of which are in good health well into their eighties. One thing he always asks is ‘what’s your secret?’.

‘And it’s amazing how often people say “I eat my porridge every morning”, some also say “I have a dram of whisky every night or a hot brandy”. But there’s no world whisky competition for me to enter yet,’ he jokes.

Are you looking for a new optometrist role? Go to Optician Jobs to see all the latest opportunitues available