Long a cornerstone of the quick and “healthy” American breakfast, cereals overtook the home cooked meal at American’s tables many decades ago. But the tide is turning on the idea that this is a healthy way to start the day. Recent research points us towards processed grains as a main culprit in our poor dietary health.
Why did we start eating breakfast cereals in the first place? As the BBC documentary The Foods that Make Billions describes it, ready to eat cereals are the biggest success story of the modern food industry. In the early twentieth century, our understanding that fiber was good for digestion and a wealth of other health conditions drove many to promote and consume high fiber grains. Food manufacturers discovered ways to convert these grains into ready to eat cereals through applications of high heat and pressure – similar to the popping of a corn kernel. This technique transformed the grain from a food that needed cooking into a commodity that could be packaged, transported, and stored. As questions about the health of eating too much animal fat penetrated the US consciousness, people moved away from their bacon and egg breakfasts to the grain based bowl of cereal and milk. While some of the advice to eat breakfast cereal was about health, much of it centered on marketing. Ready to eat cereals had a high profit margin and huge sums were spent on advertising to convince the public that they belonged on every breakfast table.
So we know this food worked well for the manufacturers, but what about our health? The health impact of eating cereal is dependent in part on what has been added to it and how much it has been processed. If the cereal has been refined to remove most or all of the fiber, we are left with little more than a box of white bread. If sugar has been added then we have a dessert masquerading as breakfast. As Dr. Lustig of UCSF puts it, “you can eat a bowl of sugar for breakfast or you can forget the sugar and eat a bowl of cereal, they are the same thing.” This is an argument that the digestion of these highly refined grains is little different from sugar: a large load of glucose (and/or fructose) is delivered to the liver, overwhelming our metabolic system resulting in spikes in blood sugar, insulin and triglycerides.
So what should you eat for breakfast? While the whole grain or high fiber version of cereal is a better choice than the low fiber, high sugar one, for the health of your digestive system and your metabolism, a meal based on actual whole grains will serve you better. This can be as simple as oatmeal (that you cook yourself, not the instant variety) or more creative versions using whole grains like rice or millet. Try these grains hot, cold, savory or sweetened with fruit. The options are as varied and colorful as the cereal isle in the store and will save you money. Here are two of my favorite sources for breakfast ideas: