Updated: Apr 28
We all love our Honey Nut Cheerios and Frosted Flakes. But even the non-sugary kinds aren't any better for us. Read on for the scoop on the unhealthiest "health food."
There's a lot of noise out there about what constitutes good nutrition and healthy eating habits. An article not long ago in HuffPost had nutritionists talking about what breakfasts they provide for their own children. Should be legit source of great advice, right? Of the many RDs and nutritionists that weighed in, several "experts" actually recommended cereal and milk. I was mildly appalled. Hence, this post.
There's a lot of noise out there about what constitutes good nutrition and healthy eating habits...
Eating cereal is a classic, a childhood basic, a pantry staple, one that pleases every palette in the house. Some types boast that they're "heart healthy" and reduce cholesterol. Others tout their high source of Vitamin D. They're supposedly great sources of fiber, and increasingly, many are made only from whole grains. So what's the problem?
Fight or Flight
All living things have a survival instinct. You may know this as the "fight or flight" response. Plants have this survival instinct as well. However, since plants can neither fight or flee, they employ other deterrents to potential predators, namely chemical warfare. In grains, these damaging chemicals are usually concentrated in the seed, the part of the plant necessary to its continuity. However, some plants can have generalized destructive components found throughout the edible portion. The main harmful chemicals in grains are phytates, gluten, and lectin. Combined, they damage the lining of the gut, bind to minerals in your body, such as zinc, magnesium and calcium, and flush them out(!!), suppress your hunger signal causing you to feel hungry even when you shouldn't, and stimulate the inflammation response in your body . Research links some of these natural chemicals in wheat with neurotoxic effects, crossing the blood-brain barrier and inhibiting nerve growth factor . And the list goes on... Some of these chemicals, specifically a lectin known as "wheat germ agglutinin," are found in very high concentrations in whole wheat products.
Soaking and sprouting are age-old traditional ways that cultures minimized the effects of these chemicals. There is wisdom in tradition. Unfortunately, in our global food market, we have cast many of these practices by the wayside. Soaking can reduce phytic acid content of grains and unblock enzyme inhibitors that can otherwise make digestion of these grains difficult. And sprouting will increase the nutrient density of the nut/seed.
Even with soaking and sprouting, modern industrial farming techniques have increased the toxicity of grains to a large degree. The liberal and indiscriminate use of herbicides/pesticides , irradiation of wheat to prevent mold and increase shelf life, the hybridization of grains for higher gluten content, and an almost complete dependence on synthetic fertilizers, are just a few of the additional ways that humans have contributed to the worsening of grains as a food product, in addition to the innate defenses already provided by nature.
A Highly Processed "Non-Food"
Aside from the chemical soup that is modern-day grains, cereal just doesn’t measure up in nutrients either. Ounce for ounce, it falls short of the protein, minerals and vitamins of other whole foods. As a highly refined product, even the whole grain ones, it just doesn’t hold a candle to say, a breakfast of eggs and sautéed greens. The egg comes in way higher in protein and healthy fat, where as the cereal is mostly refined carb and empty calories. It's essentially a non-food that we've been duped to believe is real food.
We need to break away from this mindset that breakfast foods can only consist of a narrow list of heavily processed, high-sugar products. Treat breakfast like any other meal of the day.
The best option is to minimize consumption of industrial grains such as wheat, corn, and soy. And avoid gluten as much as possible. Pick one meal during the day in which you will enjoy a small side serving of grains, such as white rice, quinoa, or soaked beans/legumes. Breakfast foods don't have to be sweet, packaged goods. We need to break away from this mindset that breakfast foods can only consist of a narrow list of heavily processed, high-sugar products. Treat breakfast like any other meal of the day. Avoid the muffins and “breakfast bars.” Think instead of eggs, bacon, leftovers from last night's dinner, smoked salmon, sausages, etc. And always aim to keep animal protein center-stage, flanked by other whole foods like quality cheese, fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, or achaar. When buying meats like bacon and sausage, try to buy pastured, local meats. Stay away from industrially raised meats. Read the labels and go for the product with the shortest list of recognizable, real ingredients. Here are some additional, non-grain breakfast options to jazz up your morning routine:
Dinner for breakfast is one of my favorite options. Whenever I make grilled salmon, steaks or chicken of any variety, I always throw in a couple of extra pieces. They make an easy, protein-dense, nourishing meal in just minutes. And who has time on crazy weekday mornings for elaborate productions?
And there’s always room for classics like eggs. Add in avocado to make it a power breakfast that is great for your morning energy and mental function. Add in kimchi to kick it up a notch while nurturing your gut flora at the same time. Eggs can be boiled ahead of time and are great grab-and-go options for kids and adults alike. A veggie-laden frittata is also a make-ahead winner that feels so gourmet and indulgent, but is an excellent way to get a good serving or two of greens in the morning.
Pastured, minimally processed meats are a great breakfast option. And as mentioned above: read the labels, opt for “clean,” short, recognizable ingredients. Making your own breakfast sausage for the week is a relatively easy, healthy (and cheaper) way to have a meaty morning. Google “paleo sausage” for some clean, easy recipes.
I hope the above helps you make the transition away from your morning cereals. The breakfast horizon is vast and deep. Make your daybreak more nutritious, brain healthy, and heart healthy by ditching the boxes and exploring some new options.
 Ji, S. (2009). Opening Pandora’s Bread Box: The Critical Role of Wheat Lectin in Human Disease. Journal of Gluten Sensitivity.
 Hashimoto, S., & Hagino, A. (1989). Wheat germ agglutinin, concanavalin A, and lens culinalis agglutinin block the inhibitory effect of nerve growth factor on cell-free phosphorylation of Nsp100 in PC12h cells. Cell structure and function, 14(1), 87-93.
 Bouchard, M. F., Bellinger, D. C., Wright, R. O., & Weisskopf, M. G. (2010). Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and urinary metabolites of organophosphate pesticides. Pediatrics, 125(6), e1270-e1277.
 Irradiated Foods. Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Retrieved from: http://www.inspection.gc.ca/food/labelling/food-labelling-for-industry/irradiated-foods/eng/1334594151161/1334596074872.