Breakfast was the most important meal of the day — until America ruined it

May 16, 2017, 05:00 PM

Michael Ruhlman for The Washington Post.

When I was growing up in the late 1960s, Dad, who did the grocery shopping every Saturday morning, didn’t think twice about putting Cap’n Crunch on the list, unless it was to ask if I wouldn’t rather have Quisp. I didn’t see cornflakes until I was in college. By the time I was a parent, I had dutifully moved on to Special K and fed my toddlers Cheerios, 10 percent of which invariably crunched under foot.

The first two cereals, part of the sugar-cereal boom that began in the 1950s, are nearly equal parts corn flour and sugar. But even my Special K is about 13 percent sugar. Cheerios comes in at the lowest, between 3 and 4 percent. But I wonder if sugar, the current nutrition bugaboo, even matters given that they’re all composed mainly of processed grains.

Is it possible that most boxed breakfast cereals, an American staple found in up to 90 percent of American cupboards, a $10 billion industry, might be equally bad for you, and especially so in the morning?

Only recently, as fat America seeks to understand the roots of its eating disorder, has the-most-important-meal-of-the-day dictum begun to be questioned in the media. It’s probably more accurate to call breakfast the most dangerous meal of the day. Not only because of the sugar in so many breakfast cereals, but also because the refined grains they’re made of are virtually the same thing, once they reach your bloodstream.

For a book about grocery stores, I asked to go shopping with my physician, Roxanne Sukol, preventive medicine specialist at the Cleveland Clinic, medical director of its Wellness Enterprise, and something of a nutrition geek.

When we arrived at the breakfast cereal real estate, she pulled a box of Cheerios off the shelf, one with a bowl shaped like a heart and a message stating it can lower cholesterol. “The first ingredient is whole-grain oats,” Sukol said, reading the label. “So far, so good. But the second ingredient is modified food starch, and the third is food starch — that’s nonsense. That’s just like corn syrup.” The fourth ingredient was sugar, followed by salt, followed by an additive. “I don’t know what this is — tripotassium phosphate — but I’m pretty sure it’s not food.

All the cereal, whole grain or not, is processed in a way to give it indefinite shelf life. As the nutritious parts of our food are what goes bad on the shelf, just about every processed-grain product on the shelf is nutritionally barren.

Sukol walked me through the basic physiology. When sugar enters our bloodstream, the hormone insulin is released to deliver the sugar to its proper destination. If more sugar comes in than the insulin can transport, the sugar is stored as fat and the insulin system is strained, which can result in diabetes and other diet-related diseases.

Sukol likened the insulin to a valet car service and the sugar to the cars it parks. If the guests’ arrival is spread out, the valet service can handle them efficiently; if everyone shows up at once, cars get backed up. Same thing with sugar. What this has to do with breakfast is that refined wheat, rice and corn, what most mainstream American breakfast cereals are primarily composed of, is quickly converted to sugar on entering your system, requiring that exact same insulin response. I’m not talking about the outliers, those unsweetened, multi-grained cereals such as Ezekiel 4:9, or those like Love Grown that replace refined grains with beans. I’m talking about the vast majority of the cereal aisle. When you see someone spooning sugar onto a bowl of cornflakes or Cheerios, you should not see the act as sweetening something that’s good for you, you should see it as someone spooning sugar onto sugar.

Increasing evidence suggests that two of the biggest culprits in America’s bad health are sugar and refined grains, in that order. Sugar, a carbohydrate, now seems to be the chief villain. (In his recent book “The Case Against Sugar,” Taubes suggests it should ...