Breakfast Cereals: Healthy or Unhealthy?
Many boast impressive health claims or try to promote the latest nutrition trend. But you may wonder whether these cereals are as healthy as they claim to be.
This article takes a detailed look at breakfast cereals and their health effects.
What is Breakfast Cereal?
Here's how breakfast cereals are typically made:
- Processing. The grains are usually processed into fine flour and cooked.
- Mixing. The flour is then mixed with ingredients like sugar, cocoa, and water.
- Extrusion. Many breakfast cereals are produced via extrusion, a high-temperature process that uses a machine to shape the cereal.
- Drying. Next, the cereal is dried.
- Shaping. Finally, the cereal is shaped into forms, such as balls, stars, loops or rectangles.
Breakfast cereals may also be puffed, flaked or shredded — or coated in chocolate or frosting before it is dried.
Breakfast cereal is made from refined grains, often by a process called extrusion. It is highly processed, with many ingredients added.
Loaded With Sugar and Refined Carbs
Added sugar may very well be the single worst ingredient in the modern diet.
Notably, most of this sugar comes from processed foods — and breakfast cereals are among the most popular processed foods that are high in added sugars.
In fact, most cereals list sugar as the second or third ingredient.
Starting the day with a high-sugar breakfast cereal will spike your blood sugar and insulinlevels.
A few hours later, your blood sugar may crash, and your body will crave another high-carb meal or snack — potentially creating a vicious cycle of overeating (5).
Most breakfast cereals are loaded with sugar and refined grains. High sugar consumption is harmful and may increase your risk of several diseases.
Misleading Health Claims
Breakfast cereals are marketed as healthy.
Breakfast cereals are marketed as healthy — with boxes featuring health claims like "low-fat" and "whole-grain." Yet, their first listed ingredients are often refined grains and sugar.
Small amounts of whole grains don't make these products healthy.
Breakfast cereals often have misleading health claims printed on the box — yet are filled with sugar and refined grains.
Often Marketed to Children
Food manufacturers specifically target children.
Companies use bright colors, cartoon characters, and action figures to attract children's attention.
Unsurprisingly, this causes children to associate breakfast cereals with entertainment and fun.
These same products often have misleading health claims as well.
While the colors and cartoons make the products more appealing to children, the health claims make the parents feel better about buying such products for their kids.
Cereal manufacturers are experts at marketing — especially toward children. They use bright colors and popular cartoons to attract children's attention, which studies show affects taste preferences.
Selecting Healthier Types
If you choose to eat cereal for breakfast, here are some tips to help you select a healthier option.
Try to choose a breakfast cereal with under 5 grams of sugar per serving. Read the food label to find out how much sugar the product contains.
Aim for High Fiber
Pay Attention to Portions
Breakfast cereals tend to be crunchy and tasty, and it can be very easy to consume a high number of calories. Try to measure how much you're eating, using the serving size information on the packaging for guidance.
Read the Ingredients List
Ignore the health claims on the front of the box, making sure to check the ingredients list. The first two or three ingredients are most important, as they comprise the majority of the cereal.
However, food manufacturers may use tricks to hide the amount of sugar in their products.
If sugar is listed several times under different names — even if it is not in the first few spots — the product is probably very high in sugar.
Add Some Protein
Protein is the most filling macronutrient. It increases fullness and reduces appetite.
Greek yogurt or a handful of nuts or seeds are good choices for extra protein.
If you eat breakfast cereal, make sure it's low in sugar and high in fiber. Pay attention to portion sizes, and always read the ingredients list. You can also enrich your cereal by adding your own protein.
Choose Unprocessed Breakfasts
f you are hungry in the morning, you should eat breakfast. However, it's best to choose whole, single-ingredient foods.
Here are a few great choices:
- oatmeal with raisins and nuts
- Greek yogurt with nuts and sliced fruit
- scrambled eggs with vegetables
One study in teenage girls found that a high-protein breakfast of eggs and lean beef increased fullness. It also reduced cravings and late-night snacking (19).
It's best to choose whole foods like eggs for breakfast, as they're very nutritious and filling. High-protein breakfasts may help reduce cravings and promote weight loss.
The Bottom Line
Breakfast cereals are highly processed, often packed with added sugar and refined carbs. Their packages regularly have misleading health claims.
If you eat cereal, read the ingredients list and approach health claims with skepticism. The best cereals are high in fiber and low in sugar.
That said, many healthier breakfast options exist. Whole, single-ingredient foods — such as oat porridge or eggs — are a great choice.
Preparing a healthy breakfast from whole foods is not only simple but starts your day with plenty of nutrition.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Healthline.
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By Bob Jacobs
Hanako, a female Asian elephant, lived in a tiny concrete enclosure at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo for more than 60 years, often in chains, with no stimulation. In the wild, elephants live in herds, with close family ties. Hanako was solitary for the last decade of her life.
Hanako, an Asian elephant kept at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo; and Kiska, an orca that lives at Marineland Canada. One image depicts Kiska's damaged teeth. Elephants in Japan (left image), Ontario Captive Animal Watch (right image), CC BY-ND
Affecting Health and Altering Behavior<p>It is easy to observe the overall health and psychological consequences of life in captivity for these animals. Many captive elephants suffer from arthritis, obesity or skin problems. Both <a href="https://doi.org/10.11609/JoTT.o2620.1826-36" target="_blank">elephants</a> and orcas often have severe dental problems. Captive orcas are plagued by <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank">pneumonia, kidney disease, gastrointestinal illnesses and infections</a>.</p><p>Many animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2017.09.010" target="_blank">try to cope</a> with captivity by adopting abnormal behaviors. Some develop "<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2017.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stereotypies</a>," which are repetitive, purposeless habits such as constantly bobbing their heads, swaying incessantly or chewing on the bars of their cages. Others, especially big cats, pace their enclosures. Elephants rub or break their tusks.</p>
Changing Brain Structure<p>Neuroscientific research indicates that living in an impoverished, stressful captive environment <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">physically damages the brain</a>. These changes have been documented in many <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.903270108" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">species</a>, including rodents, rabbits, cats and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">humans</a>.</p><p>Although researchers have directly studied some animal brains, most of what we know comes from observing animal behavior, analyzing stress hormone levels in the blood and applying knowledge gained from a half-century of neuroscience research. Laboratory research also suggests that mammals in a zoo or aquarium have compromised brain function.</p>
This illustration shows differences in the brain's cerebral cortex in animals held in impoverished (captive) and enriched (natural) environments. Impoverishment results in thinning of the cortex, a decreased blood supply, less support for neurons and decreased connectivity among neurons. Arnold B. Scheibel, CC BY-ND<p>Subsisting in confined, barren quarters that lack intellectual stimulation or appropriate social contact seems to <a href="https://doi.org/10.1590/S0001-37652001000200006" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">thin the cerebral cortex</a> – the part of the brain involved in voluntary movement and higher cognitive function, including memory, planning and decision-making.</p><p>There are other consequences. Capillaries shrink, depriving the brain of the oxygen-rich blood it needs to survive. Neurons become smaller, and their dendrites – the branches that form connections with other neurons – become less complex, impairing communication within the brain. As a result, the cortical neurons in captive animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.901230110" target="_blank">process information less efficiently</a> than those living in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/dev.420020208" target="_blank">enriched, more natural environments</a>.</p>
An actual cortical neuron in a wild African elephant living in its natural habitat compared with a hypothesized cortical neuron from a captive elephant. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Brain health is also affected by living in small quarters that <a href="https://doi.org/10.3233/BPL-160040" target="_blank">don't allow for needed exercise</a>. Physical activity increases the flow of blood to the brain, which requires large amounts of oxygen. Exercise increases the production of new connections and <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aaw2622" target="_blank">enhances cognitive abilities</a>.</p><p>In their native habits these animals must move to survive, covering great distances to forage or find a mate. Elephants typically travel anywhere from <a href="https://www.elephantsforafrica.org/elephant-facts/#:%7E:text=How%20far%20do%20elephants%20walk,km%20on%20a%20daily%20basis." target="_blank">15 to 120 miles per day</a>. In a zoo, they average <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0150331" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">three miles daily</a>, often walking back and forth in small enclosures. One free orca studied in Canada swam <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-010-0958-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">up to 156 miles a day</a>; meanwhile, an average orca tank is about 10,000 times smaller than its <a href="https://www.cascadiaresearch.org/projects/killer-whales/using-dtags-study-acoustics-and-behavior-southern" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">natural home range</a>.</p>
Disrupting Brain Chemistry and Killing Cells<p>Living in enclosures that restrict or prevent normal behavior creates chronic frustration and boredom. In the wild, an animal's stress-response system helps it escape from danger. But captivity traps animals with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1215502109" target="_blank">almost no control</a> over their environment.</p><p>These situations foster <a href="https://doi.org/10.1037/rev0000033" target="_blank">learned helplessness</a>, negatively impacting the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/6391686" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">hippocampus</a>, which handles memory functions, and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropharm.2011.02.024" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">amygdala</a>, which processes emotions. Prolonged stress <a href="https://doi.org/10.3109/10253899609001092" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elevates stress hormones</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.10-09-02897.1990" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">damages or even kills neurons</a> in both brain regions. It also disrupts the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2005.03.021" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">delicate balance of serotonin</a>, a neurotransmitter that stabilizes mood, among other functions.</p><p>In humans, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">deprivation</a> can trigger <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">psychiatric issues</a>, including depression, anxiety, <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mood disorders</a> or <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/1073858409333072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">post-traumatic stress disorder</a>. <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00429-010-0288-3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Elephants</a>, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.0050139" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">orcas</a> and other animals with large brains are likely to react in similar ways to life in a severely stressful environment.</p>
Damaged Wiring<p>Captivity can damage the brain's complex circuitry, including the basal ganglia. This group of neurons communicates with the cerebral cortex along two networks: a direct pathway that enhances movement and behavior, and an indirect pathway that inhibits them.</p><p>The repetitive, <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2014.05.057" target="_blank">stereotypic behaviors</a> that many animals adopt in captivity are caused by an imbalance of two neurotransmitters, dopamine and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2010.02.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">serotonin</a>. This impairs the indirect pathway's ability to modulate movement, a condition documented in species from chickens, cows, sheep and horses to primates and big cats.</p>
The cerebral cortex, hippocampus and amygdala are physically altered by captivity, along with brain circuitry that involves the basal ganglia. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Evolution has constructed animal brains to be exquisitely responsive to their environment. Those reactions can affect neural function by <a href="https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/311787/behave-by-robert-m-sapolsky/" target="_blank">turning different genes on or off</a>. Living in inappropriate or abusive circumstance alters biochemical processes: It disrupts the synthesis of proteins that build connections between brain cells and the neurotransmitters that facilitate communication among them.</p><p>There is strong evidence that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0577-11.2011" target="_blank">enrichment</a>, social contact and appropriate space in more natural habitats are <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-1090.2003.tb02071.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">necessary</a> for long-lived animals with large brains such as <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0152490" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elephants</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/13880292.2017.1309858" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cetaceans</a>. Better conditions <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5543669/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reduce disturbing sterotypical behaviors</a>, improve connections in the brain, and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/cdd.2009.193" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">trigger neurochemical changes</a> that enhance learning and memory.</p>