Breakfast cereals have been a main staple breakfast choice since the 1940s and have formed a seemingly integral part of the British diet. Commercial marketing, social trends and widespread availabity of cheap and affordable cereals have formed a culture in which breakfast consists of a cereal such as Special K or a sugar-based children’s cereal such as Rice Crispies or Cornflakes. Most supermarkets seem to offer a wealth of endless boxes of cereals, boasting enriched vitamin content, calcium for bones, iron for increased energy, and a tasty convenient way to start the day. Affordability and competitive pricing, a long shelf life, cartoon characters and heavy celebrity endorsement make cereals seem like the ideal choice to the average consumer, but are they really a good choice for breakfast?
When reviewing the facts, we must use a good understanding of how the human body works and how our body responds to the foods we eat. As you will find, your choice of breakfast could really be increasing your risk of ill health.
So why are cereal grains such a poor choice of breakfast?
1. Despite being calorie-dense, cereal grains are nutrient-poor. Cereals are in fact so nutritionally deplete that the World Health Organisation has forced manufacturers to fortify their foods with their own synthetic forms of vitamins and minerals, such as niacin and folic acid. Figures during the rise of cereal grains back in the early 1900s show an increase in the diseases we associate with malnourishment, such as rickets in children and osteoporosis in adults, despite an over-abundant access to food. It was therefore deemed necessary to enrich manufactured foods with nutrients to improve these statistics. Unfortunately the vitamins and minerals, which are removed and then restocked during the processing of grains, are of poor bioavailability to the body due to the use of cheap oxides and other poor quality ingredients.
The fortified nutrients are usually of such poor quality there is an estimated 10-20% absorption rate. For example a standard generic cereal fortified with 200mg of Magnesium Oxide would provide your body with an available 20-40mg, an almost insignificant amount when we consider the levels of nutrients required for optimal health.
So why do the government not impose sanctions on grain products and instead recommend more natural, nutrient-dense foods if they are so nutritionally void? One possible answer we must consider is that various grains such as wheat, barley and rye form a significant portion of our country’s GDP. Therefore changing our consumption and swaying public belief would have a great bearing on our economy. This is further compounded by the majority of positive research surrounding the supposed health benefits of cereal being funded by the cereal manufacturers.
2. Cereals have an exceptionally high glycaemic index. This means that the glucose broken down from that delicious bowl of Cornflakes is entering your bloodstream at an incredibly fast rate and in large volume. As your body is inundated with what in effect is sugar (yes even that wholemeal muesli is broken down into sugar), your pancreas is churning out insulin to direct that sugar into fat stores or glycogen stores within your liver or muscles. If you don’t have much in the way of muscle glycogen stores, are inactive or consume too many calories, most of that sugar is going to be directed into fat cells. As your cells are exposed to high levels of insulin they become desensitised to its action, particularly if they are exposed to sugar on a long term or sustained basis. Poor insulin sensitivity and a poor ability to handle glucose results in poor cell signalling, inflammation and cellular damage.
What is very alarming to note is that malignant or tumorous cancer cells will multiply at an increased rate when exposed to an insulin rich environment which is why new research shows a positive response to ketogenic (high fat, moderate/high protein, and sub-50g daily carbs) diets. This is not to say these alternative diets are the best choice, it’s just that our current way of eating is causing some very serious health conditions.
Cornflakes for example have a glycaemic index of 80. When you consider that pure glucose has a value of 100 you start to realise how bad these cereals can actually be. Sprinkle some sugar on to those Cornflakes and pour a load of low fat, processed milk over the top and you now have an insulin storm in a bowl.
3. Cereals have a poor macronutrient profile. From experience it is clear that an optimal breakfast should be centred around proteins and fats. Unfortunately most cereals just do not provide either of these macronutrients in the format or quantities required for optimal health.
Numerous studies show that the best way to optimise lean body mass and health is to consume around 0.8g of protein per lb. of bodyweight. For the average male weighing 85kg they would require 149g of Protein per day to optimise body composition. When you consider the average bowl of cereal (including the milk!) will contain less than 8g of protein you realise that they are not the best choice when it comes to structuring your diet.
4. Cereal is not the only problem here but also its accompaniment with milk. Most people choose to drench their cereal in skimmed or semi-skimmed milk for fear of consuming too much fat. This is again a big mistake as when fat is removed from milk you remove all of the fat soluble vitamins, such as Vitamin A, D, E and K, as well as CLA (a trans-fatty acid with good health benefits). You also raise the glycaemic index of the milk, which has negative implications on your blood sugar levels.
One of the biggest problems I personally have with non-organic dairy is in its production and not necessarily in the milk itself. Traditional dairy is pumped with antibiotics, growth hormones, growth factors such as IGF-1 and high levels of omega 6 fatty acids (high levels of omega 6 fat intake compared to omega 3 has been shown to be pro-inflammatory).
Fifty percent of the world’s anitbiotics are given to cattle, which contaminate the milk and is something we are exposed to every time we open a milk carton. More recent research has shown huge advances in how antibiotic cultures influence our microbiome (the bacteria which colonises our gut and bowels). This research demonstrates that extensive antibiotic use can kill off a large percentage of our good bacteria as well as the bad. This good bacteria has now been proven to influence our thoughts, 70%+ of our immune system and our susceptibility to everything from depression through to cancer. In fact just a few months ago they were able to reverse the symptoms of Coeliac disease (previously thought to be incurable) just by re -introducing bacteria to the gut. (Find the link to the study here).
Another issue I have with processed non-organic dairy is that cows are given oestrogen-based hormones to ensure year-round lactation to provide enough milk for the population. This aromatisation of our food chain could possibly be contributing to some serious health concerns which we link with oestrogen, ranging from gynecomastia in men through to breast cancer.
The best option is to purchase 100% organic, hormone-free milk, preferably from grass fed cows if you can source it. I personally like the produce from the Goodwood estate for this reason.