A few weeks ago I was invited on to GB News to discuss the problem of high amounts of sugar in children’s cereals. Prior to being interviewed, I went to my local supermarket to do some research and had a good look down the cereals aisle. An aisle I normally skip altogether. Let’s just say that what I found reaffirmed my reasons for avoiding the cereals aisle…
WHY WE DON’T RECOMMEND CEREAL
I don’t know of any nutritionist who eats, or recommends cereal for breakfast. I’m sure they exist, but my colleagues all agree that cereal does not make for a great start to the day.
Now before I go on, I fully appreciate that cereal is by far the most popular breakfast in the UK. Many of us were raised on cereal which can create an attachment to it. And let’s face it, many cereals are really tasty. If I didn’t know better I would be diving into a bowl of maple and pecan crisp each morning and loving every bite.
Our country is facing an obesity crisis. Our rates of diabetes and other chronic, lifestyle related diseases are skyrocketing. I’m sorry to be the one to break it to you, but cereals are not helping the cause.
WHAT’S SO BAD ABOUT CEREAL?
Let’s start with the sugar issue. It’s true that some cereals do contain very high amounts of sugar. Some aimed at children, some not. The presenter on GB News asked me: “If a cereal says ‘sugar’ or ‘honey’ or ‘chocolate’ in the title, is it not obvious that it’s going to be high in sugar?” – Indeed, sometimes there are obvious clues, other times, there are not.
Many healthy-looking cereals, mueslis and granolas are loaded with sugar, providing several teaspoons per serving. It is ALWAYS worth checking the label on the back of the packet rather than simply buying into the marketing messages on the front. If you’re not familiar with how to work out how much sugar is in your food, you can read my step by step guide here.
It’s also important to remember that, even if a cereal doesn’t contain a high amount of added sugar, most are still based on processed carbohydrates which break down into simple sugars and behave much the same way. More about this later.
Oh and those vitamins and minerals cereals claim to be full of? The ‘added goodness’? The clue is in the ‘added’. We don’t have to add vitamins to spinach or eggs or berries. They are already rich in essential nutrients. We add nutrients to processed foods like cereals and bread to replace what’s been lost in the refining process. No synthetic supplement will ever make up for food that’s rich in nutrients in the first place.
A HIGH GI START TO THE DAY
Back to the processed carbohydrates. The glycemic index (GI) rates carbohydrate foods on how fast they break down into simple sugars. The glycemic index of glucose itself is 100, so the higher the GI of a food, the faster it breaks down into sugar. While cereals like Cornflakes and Rice Krispies don’t have a huge amount of sugar added to them, their starchy carbohydrates break down in just the same way. Both have a GI of over 70 classing them as ‘high GI’, with Cornflakes coming in at 81.
Simply put, the refined, starchy carbohydrates these cereals are based on are just as bad as sugar itself.
The other problem with a breakfast of cereal is that often it lacks protein, healthy fats and fibre making it nutritionally lacking and unlikely to keep us satisfied until lunchtime.
HOW MUCH SUGAR IS IN YOUR BREAKFAST?
While we are on the subject of breakfast, let’s look at what else you might be starting your day with:
Cows milk – 9.6g (over two teaspoons) sugar per 200ml serving. Yes, cows milk contains a surprising amount of sugar. It’s naturally occurring, but sugar is sugar and it behaves exactly the same way in the body.
Orange juice – 17g (over four teaspoons) sugar per 200ml serving. Again, it’s naturally occurring, but that makes no difference I’m afraid. Same goes for apple and most other fruit juices.
Jam – this can vary in sugar content so let’s consider a high quality jam with a higher fruit content and less added sugar like Bonne Maman. Their strawberry jam contains 59g sugar per 100g. Well over half of what we spread on our toast is sugar.
This is before we start adding sugar to tea or sprinkling it over our cereal…
WHY IS THIS BREAKFAST SO BAD?
I always hate to sound like a kill joy. If I made the rules then pasta would be a health food, as would maple and pecan crisp. But I am here to present you with the facts so that you can make informed choices.
Unfortunately, there are very real consequences of starting our day with a sugar based on simple carbohydrates.
High GI carbohydrates cause a spike in our blood sugar levels. The body can only deal with so much sugar at once so what isn’t immediately used will be carried away and stored. Storage sites in the body include cells in the liver and muscles where sugar is stored as glycogen, and fat cells. Sugar and starchy carbohydrates are not your friends if you’re trying to lose weight or maintain your happy weight.
There are many other reasons why existing on a ‘blood sugar rollercoaster’, where your blood sugar level spikes and dips, is not good for health. It’s a primary contributor to diabetes and other chronic diseases.
Aside from the health consequences, meals like this are not going to help your energy levels or mental alertness either. When we experience the inevitable blood sugar dip that follows this spike, with it plummets our energy levels and ability to concentrate. Blood sugar dips can make us feel tired, hungry, grumpy and craving a sugar or carb fix to bring them back up.
We see this in children. They eat cereal for breakfast and it feels like no time at all before they’re asking for snacks. Back when I ate cereal for breakfast I always needed to eat before lunch time. As do many of our clients when they first come to see us.
WHAT SHOULD I EAT INSTEAD?
So if cereal and toast are not the best way to start your day, what should you eat?
We teach our clients to structure meals around a source of protein, a portion of healthy fats and plenty of vegetables or salad. Some low sugar fruit may also feature.
Organic eggs are a great breakfast option. Here are a few ideas for egg based breakfasts that include healthy fats and veg too.
A smoothie can be tasty, filling and satisfying if made in the right way. Here’s an article I wrote on how to make the perfect smoothie which includes my go-to recipe.
If you’re not ready to ditch cereal, I can highly recommend KetoHana granola as a great alternative.
I love Paleo Leap for recipe inspiration. Here they share 30 low carb, nutrient dense breakfast ideas that are bound to keep you satisfied until lunch.
Don’t forget that you can eat anything for breakfast. In this country we have a concept of ‘breakfast foods’ but don’t feel bound by this. There are many quick, healthy and delicious alternatives so get creative and try something new!