Most health conscious people know that eating sugar cereal is bad for you. However, if you switch to “whole grain” cereal, then it becomes a wholesome part of a healthy diet. Is this true?
For decades, the cereal industry has done a fabulous job promoting cereal to be a healthy breakfast item. The major cereal grains, including wheat, corn, rice, oats, rye, and barley, have become the staple crops of the modern American diet. Whole grain cereal has been touted as the fiber-rich foundation of a healthy diet. It has also become the poster child of the low-fat, high carb diet endorsed by organizations like the American Heart Association and American Diabetes Association.
Is whole grain cereal really a healthy breakfast food? The following three reasons will dispel the common misconceptions about one of the most beloved breakfast foods of the modern world.
1. Certain Chemicals In Grains Are Toxic And Inflammatory
Whole grain cereal, as the name suggests, comes from grains. Cereal grains are members of the grass family, including barley, corn, millet, oats, rice, rye, teff, triticale, sorghum, wheat, and wild rice. Pseudo cereal grains are non-grass and they come from the broadleaf plant families. They include amaranth, buckwheat, and quinoa.
The edible portion of these plants is the seed, which contains the embryo. A plant’s mission is to continue its species by passing on the genes. Since plants cannot move around, they rely on animals to spread its seeds. A seed is, therefore, designed to withstand the digestion system of the animals so that they can be replanted on different soil. These protective mechanisms of the plant result in certain chemicals in the seed that has the potential to cause harm to the human body. They may:
- become toxins that damage the lining of the gut and trigger an immune response, causing digestive disturbances, allergies, or autoimmune problems.
- bind to essential minerals, making them unavailable to the body.
- inhibit digestion and absorption of other essential nutrients, including protein.
One of these problematic chemicals is lectins. Lectins are plant proteins that bind to carbohydrates. There are many types of lectins and not all are harmful. The two that are particularly troublesome are agglutinins and prolamins.
Agglutinins function as a natural insecticide for the plant. Because they are resistant to human digestion, the body may produce antibodies against them. One example is Wheat Germ Agglutinin (WGA). A large body of evidence indicates that WGA is pro-inflammatory in intestinal and immune cells. WGA is also neurotoxic as it can cross the blood brain barrier and attach to the protective coating on nerves, inhibiting nerve growth.
GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) grains are especially harmful when it comes to agglutinins as they have been engineered to produce more of these natural insecticides.
Prolamins are storage proteins essential for seed growth, therefore, they are also not easily digestible. Gluten is a prolamin found in wheat, rye, and barley. It is the sticky protein that holds bread together and makes it rise. There has been much research on the health damaging effects of gluten in those with Celiac disease, autoimmune diseases, and gluten sensitivity. Nowadays, more and more people discover that they are no longer tolerant to wheat/gluten, possibly due to the fact that today’s modern wheat, which is a product of genetic manipulation and hybridization, results in much higher amounts of starch and gluten than the wheat eaten by our ancestors.
Most grains contain a prolamin similar in structure to gluten, for example, zein in corn, panicin in millet, avenin in oats, and oozenin in rice. This is why many people with a gluten sensitivity experience cross-reactivity and cannot tolerate gluten-free grains either.
Another problematic chemical in grains is phytic acid or phytates. Phytic acid occurs naturally within the seeds of grains as a phosphorus reserve. In humans, phytic acid binds to certain minerals (especially calcium, iron, and zinc) in the gut before they get a chance to be absorbed by the body. It also affects digestive enzymes and reduces the digestibility of starches, proteins, and fats. Usually a small amount of phytic acid is not a problem as long as you are getting adequate nutrients from the rest of your diet, but when grains are the basis of your nutrition, mineral deficiencies may eventually occur.
Again, GMO grains contain a higher concentration of phytic acid. You can break down some of the phytic acid in grains by slow cooking them, sprouting them, fermenting them, or soaking them overnight in water mixed with a little lemon juice or apple cider vinegar. These methods activate phytase, an enzyme present in the plant that breaks down phytic acid. However, if grains are a major part of your diet, they can still prevent digestion and contribute to gut problems.
2. The Association Between Grains And Diabesity
Humans only started eating grains about 10,000 years ago. Though it may seem like a long time, 10,000 years is nothing compared to the history of homo sapiens evolution which is estimated to be around 5-7 million years. Have our genes adapted to an increasing consumption of grains? Apparently not.
Grains are very high in carbs. In the agricultural era when most people led a very active lifestyle, the grain carbs were burned off by the high activity level. However, after the Industrial Revolution, our lifestyle has progressively become more sedentary. In the last 50 years, as Americans continue to increase grain consumption to the current 55 pounds of wheat flour per person per year, rates of insulin resistance, pre-diabetes, diabetes, weight gain, and obesity have skyrocketed.
In addition, modern wheat contains a very high level of a super starch called amylopectin A. This is how we get big fluffy Wonder Bread and Cinnabons. The downside is it is also super fattening.
Do not be fooled that foods made from whole wheat flour is that much superior to white floor. When ground into flour, the surface area of a grain is increased 10,000 times. The resulting high-starch food is biologically similar to consuming pure sugar. Do you know that two slices of whole wheat bread actually raise your blood sugar more than two tablespoons of table sugar? Breakfast cereals and other processed foods made from whole grains have the same adverse effect on blood sugar too. When you consume too much grains, (even whole grains as they will still be converted to sugar), the excess is stored as belly fat, which triggers inflammation in the body, gives you fatty liver, and leads to obesity and diabetes.
3. Breakfast Cereals Are Highly Processed
Loaded with GMO ingredients
The food industry has been very successful in employing various highly deceptive tactics to mislead consumers. One of them is the “all natural” claim. There is hardly any regulation that specifies what “natural” means and many products labeled as “natural” contain ingredients from GMO corn, soy, canola, and sugar beets ladened with toxic pesticides. Unless your product clearly says “no GMO” or “100% organic”, expect it to contain GMO ingredients.
Produced by a process called extrusion
Breakfast cereal grains are first ground into flour and mixed with water to become a sludge. The grain sludge is placed in a machine called an extruder and forced out of tiny holes at high temperature and high pressure, shaping them into those cute little o’s, stars, flakes, and puffs. Then they are sprayed with a coating of oil and sugar to keep them crispy and crunchy. This production process destroys much of the nutrients in the grains and alters/denatures the protein into foreign compounds, making them unabsorbable and even toxic to the body.
Fortified with synthetic vitamins and minerals
Because the cereal does not contain much nutrients, synthetic vitamins and minerals are usually added to make it look more nutritious. Unfortunately, your body is not designed to absorb synthetic nutrients. Many synthetic vitamins are actually treated as foreign substances and eliminated by the body as quickly as possible. What’s worse, many people eat their breakfast cereal with fat-free or low-fat milk, not realizing that your body needs fat in order to absorb many essential nutrients. Without sufficient fat, the nutrients will just be eliminated by your body.
Heavy in carbs and sugar
Let’s take an example of a very popular and healthy-looking cereal, Honey Nut Cheerios. One serving is 3/4 of a cup and contains 22 grams of carbs, of which 9 is sugar and 2 is fiber. But who eats one serving of cereal? When you pour 3/4 cup in a bowl, it looks like a sad little breakfast. So you put in more and end up with probably 2 servings, 1.5 cups. That takes the total carbs to 44 grams, of which 18 is sugar (almost 4 teaspoons) and 4 is fiber.
When you eat carbs, anything that is not fiber has an effect on your blood sugar, no matter whether it is refined or whole grains. The glycemic load of 2 servings of Honey Nut Cheerios is 26. (20 or above is considered high as it rapidly spikes your blood sugar.) Given that boxed cereal is such a popular breakfast food, no wonder there is a rising rate of diabetes and obesity in America.
What To Eat For Breakfast
Hopefully by now, you would have realized that breakfast cereal, even the whole grain version, is not the “health” food as portrayed by the commercials. Whole grains, when eaten whole, is much more nutritious than processed grains if you choose organic and soak, sprout, ferment, or slow cook them. However, it is still advisable not to make grains the focus of your diet as they do not have the same nutritional profile as other healthier choices such as sweet potato, squash, and dark leafy greens.
If you have a food sensitivity towards grains, avoid them. If you have any autoimmune diseases, avoid grains. If you are overweight or are struggling to control your blood sugar, grains should not be part of your diet at all.
So what to eat for breakfast? The following are just a few simple suggestions:
- For those who have a small appetite at breakfast – freshly squeezed green vegetable juice with flax seed oil and a small amount of fruits, preferably berries as they contain less sugar and more antioxidants.
- Minimally processed organic whole grains, such as quinoa or steel-cut oats, with raw milk/cream and nuts. To neutralize the phytic acid, soak grains overnight with warm filtered water and a little lemon juice or apple cider vinegar. There is no need to rinse the grains afterwards but you surely can if you want to.
- Smoothie made with a cold-pressed whey protein concentrate from grass-fed cows (not the cheaper whey protein isolate as it is a much inferior form of protein). Be careful not to add too much fruits.
- For a heartier breakfast – free-range or preferably pastured eggs with grass-fed meats, mercury-free fish, avocados, mushroom, and/or vegetables.
- Or any leftovers from dinner.
With a little bit of imagination and creativity, you can prepare many variations from the above.