Breakfast is a controversial topic of late. After all, everyone knows that “breakfast is the most important meal of the day.”
While there is some wisdom to this saying, your average breakfast is a travesty of good nutrition. Cereal, which is considered a mainstay of a “healthy” breakfast, is one of the poorer choices you can make.
Why is cereal so bad? Let us count the ways:
1) It is typically made out of ultra-refined grains.
Yes, we know that the box says “made with healthy whole grains” but just because they were once whole in some other incarnation doesn’t mean that kernels of wheat, corn, or soy that have been ground into flour and stripped of nutrients and fiber can actually count as “whole grains.”
2) It is high in calories and tends to be high in sugar.
Many popular cereals have as much sugar as a glazed donut. Granted, calorie-wise, many high-fiber cereals like Fiber One are fairly low in energy, however, the more popular cereals that people actually eat are not low calorie foods.
For example, Kashi Go Lean Crunch has 190 calories in a serving, but a serving is only ¾ of a cup (roughly the size of two scoops of protein powder), which most people agree is a miniscule amount that has no chance of filling you up first thing in the morning. Your average cereal eater will easily double that, and if you add milk to the mix, your clocking in with at least 450 calories for a bunch of twigs, added sugar, and zero high-quality protein or healthy fat.
3) It has a high glycemic index and will spike insulin and blood sugar.
Foods that are high in carbohydrates are digested into sugar and released into the blood to fuel activity or be stored as fat. Carbohydrates that are refined, such as those coming from flour, are quickly digested and the sugar is released into the bloodstream in a rush, spiking blood sugar levels. The pancreas responds by pumping out insulin—a hormone that helps the body regulate blood sugar, storing any excess as fat.
Breakfast cereal is a classic example of this. Starting the day with cereal will result in a blood sugar crash an hour or so later and your body will crave another high-carb meal, thereby creating a viscous cycle of overeating. Over the long-term it encourages fat gain and can contribute to diabetes, especially when combined with a largely sedentary lifestyle.
4) It activates brain chemicals that make you feel sedated.
A common misconception is that cereal will make you energized—not true! High carbohydrate foods like breakfast cereal stimulate an inhibitory network of transmitters in the brain, making you feel sedated and sleepy, while slowing energy use.
In contrast, foods that are high in amino acids, such as quality protein, stimulate the brain cells to keep you alert and vigilant, while encouraging physical activity and energy expenditure. It’s this dynamic that is why everyone should eat high-quality protein for breakfast and save the processed carbs for after dinner: What you eat first thing sets up your neurotransmitters for the day, while what you eat at night sets the stage for how you sleep.
5) It is typically made of corn, soy, or wheat.
These foods, along with potatoes, make up 50 percent of the average Westerners calories. Our digestive systems are simply not able to cope effectively with so much sugar so fast.
Another negative effect of the dominant place of corn, soy, and wheat in our diets is that they are fairly allergenic. For example, modern wheat contains strains of gluten that have different properties from heirloom wheat, which is why modern gluten is more harmful to people with celiac disease.
6) The nutrition comes from fortification.
Basically, cereal grains are highly processed into flour and stripped of nutrients. Then manufacturers add low-quality chemical versions of vitamins and minerals so they can say their cereal is “high in iron” or “a good source of calcium.”
7) It has low-quality protein.
Cereal is naturally low in protein since it is made predominantly from refined grains, which are carbohydrates. Manufacturers have caught on to the benefits of protein. They boast decent amounts of protein on their nutrition labels, however, the ingredient list never contains a single source of high-quality protein. Another trick is to add denatured protein to cereal as a marketing tool.
For example, Special K Protein cereal supplies 10 grams of soy protein isolate (listed fourth after wheat, wheat gluten, sugar, and rice in the ingredients list). Kashi Go Lean also adds soy protein isolate to its product. Although soy protein supplies a decent amount of amino acids, most people who are serious about their nutrition wouldn’t go near it with a ten-foot pole.
It holds nothing on whey or pea protein, which are better quality and more easily digested, and it contains concentrated isoflavones, which mimic estrogen in the body. The research into the effect of isoflavones is complicated and evolving, but most people choose to avoid processed forms of soy in favor of unprocessed higher quality proteins because there’s so much we still don’t know.
What Should You Eat Instead of Cereal?
There are three key steps to a healthy breakfast:
First, because high-quality protein foods set your brain and metabolism up for the day, it’s a good approach to plan every breakfast around protein. Not only will high-quality protein activate the energizing neurotransmitters like dopamine, but it will balance blood sugar, and trigger the release of gut hormones that suppress appetite.
High-quality proteins are those that are in their natural form—you’re not going to find much worthwhile protein in packaged breakfast foods like waffles, pop tarts, or protein bars. Eggs, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, smoked salmon, turkey slices, steak, or chicken breast are all examples of high-quality protein. Plant proteins like lentils, garbanzo beans, and split peas are also healthy protein sources, though the amino acid concentration is lower.
Second, healthy fat is a must for breakfast because it will provide necessary fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, and K) and help to regulate appetite and blood sugar. A small handful of almonds with your Greek yogurt or a few slices of avocado with lean turkey are good choices if your protein source is naturally low in fat. Eggs and salmon, on the other hand, will supply healthy fat so there’s no need to add additional fat unless you want to.
Third, you want to consider whether to include healthy carbohydrates. Everyone can benefit from including low-carb vegetables such as a breakfast salad, a veggie omelet, or a side of roasted cauliflower. However, the reality is that most people simply aren’t going to get on board with a breakfast designed around veggies, partly because it’s time consuming and partly because they just don’t consider them to be breakfast foods.
With regards to including healthy higher carb foods, you need to assess your intentions. If you’re on a fat loss program, skipping the carbs at breakfast may be your best bet because this will allow you to deplete glycogen stores in muscle and the liver so that when you do eat carbs later in the day, they will be used to replenish those stores instead of stored as fat.
However, maybe you’re one of those people who just feels best if you include some healthy carbs at breakfast. For example, if you’re body is insulin sensitive or you’re a serious athlete who is always focusing on recovery, higher carb foods may need to be on your breakfast menu.
Examples of healthy carbs include home-made oatmeal (packaged oatmeal is just as bad as boxed cereal), fruit (blueberries, strawberries, and grapefruit are great choices), baked sweet potato or other root vegetable, or heirloom grains such as millet, amaranth, or buckwheat.
What About Beverages?
Juice of all kinds should be abolished from the breakfast menu. Studies show fruit juice is no better than sugar-sweetened soda because it spikes insulin and blood sugar in the same way and it’s consumption is similarly associated with diabetes risk.
Green juice and other vegetable juices should be used with caution as well. Some of these juices can be an okay inclusion to your breakfast routine, however, if they have the fiber removed, as most store-bought juices do, they can still jack up blood sugar and insulin and provide more sugar than you want or need. They are not recommended for anyone who is trying to lose body fat or improve metabolic health.
Smoothies and protein drinks are not a great choice either. Although a high-quality whey or pea protein powder can be a stellar choice post-workout, and they can be used on occasion to make protein pancakes, your best bet is to stick with whole protein at breakfast for satiety and a greater nutritional profile.
Tea, coffee, and water are all good additions to a well-rounded breakfast.
The Bottom Line on A Healthy Breakfast:
You have complete control over what you put in your mouth.
Banishing the breakfast cereal and starting the day with a high-quality protein breakfast is an easy way to take that control so you stay on point with motivation and eating throughout the day.
Plan every breakfast to include whole protein, healthy fat, and healthy carbs that meets your individual goals and unique nutritional needs. Stick to tea, coffee, or water for beverages.