A Breakfast of Champions? Not so much…

We all remember our Frosted Flakes and Lucky Charms from childhood. And as adults, we love our Honey Nut Cheerios and Raisin Bran. But should cereal really be a staple component of a nutrient-dense diet? The science says, no, not really. Read on for the scoop on the unhealthiest "health food."

breakfast

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 a bit surprised. Hence, this post.

Cereal is a timeless classic, a childhood basic, a pantry staple, a breakfast for champions. Some types boast that they're "heart healthy" and can 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 nor 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 lectins. 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 [1]. Research links some of the chemicals in wheat with neurotoxic effects, crossing the blood-brain barrier and inhibiting nerve growth factor [2]. And the list goes on...

Better Options?

Soaking and sprouting are age-old, traditional ways of preparing grains that many cultures used to 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 the phytic acid content of grains and unblock the 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 pesticides [3], irradiation of wheat to prevent mold and increase shelf life [4], the hybridization of grains for high-gluten content, and almost complete dependence on synthetic fertilizers, are just a few of the additional issues that humans have contributed to the worsening of grains as a food product, in addition to the innate defenses already provided by nature.

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.

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 vegetables center-stage, flanked by palm-sized amounts of high-quality fish, meat or eggs. 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:

  • A smoothie with collagen protein and some nut butter, lots of greens and just a touch of fruit, say ½ banana, is a great mix of quality protein, healthy fat and nutrient-dense carbs that will keep you fueled all morning. The extra boost your skin, hair and joints will get from the collagen is bonus!
  • Gluten-free oats with sprouted nuts/seeds, some cinnamon, a dash of vanilla and a drizzle of raw honey is another filling morning breakfast. "Overnight oats" - google it, it's a real thing - can be prepared the night before, as its name suggests, making your morning breakfast routine quick, painless, yet just as nutritious.
  • Plant proteins such as chia seeds, hemp and even pea protein are great options for smoothie bowls made with coconut or other non-dairy milks, can add different flavors and excitement to your most important meal of the day.
  • 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.

Lubna Nazarani holds an MS in Nutrition and Integrative Health and is a member of the Canadian Association of Natural Nutritional Practitioners. Nutrition is the single-most important determinant of our health that we can fully control. Using science-based, advanced, nutrition therapy, Lubna aims to empower clients to take control of their health and well-being through whole-foods eating and balanced lifestyle recommendations. She examines all aspects of the individual's life to help develop a wholly customized nutrition therapy program that helps ensure the client's success. Call the office today for a special introductory rate!

[1] Ji, S. (2009). Opening Pandora's Bread Box: The Critical Role of Wheat Lectin in Human Disease. Journal of Gluten Sensitivity.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] Irradiated Foods. Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Retrieved from: http://www.inspection.gc.ca/food/labelling/food-labelling-for-industry/irradiated-foods/eng/1334594151161/1334596074872.

Dr. Wei-Wei Han

Dr. Wei-Wei Han


Culminating with Graduate work at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine, Dr. Han has practiced since 2002. Read more on our Practitioners page.

  Peterborough, Ontario

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