You’ve heard it before, “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.” For kids, this is doubly true. Numerous studies show that kids learn better, stay more focused and generally eat better all day long if they start with a good breakfast. So what makes a good breakfast? A walk down the cereal aisle of your grocery store offers a dizzying selection of hot cereals, cold cereals, and breakfast bars. Reading nutrition labels can be time-consuming and confusing. We’re going to address 3 important considerations in making your breakfast choices: 1) whole grains vs. processed grains, 2) fiber, and 3) sugar content.
1) Choose Whole Grains over processed grains. Whole grains still contain the chaff and the germ of the grain. These are the nutrient rich parts of a grain containing a wealth of vitamins and minerals. When a grain is processed, many nutrients are lost such as calcium, B6, iron, niacin, folic acid, fiber, protein, among others. At the same time, ounce for ounce processed grains have more calories. The federal government considered this a big public health issue given that 20% of the calories in the average American diet are coming from processed grains (meaning 20% of the average American diet has very little nutritional value.) Federal law now mandates that processed flour be enriched (adding nutrients back to a food) with iron, niacin, folic acid, riboflavin, and thiamin. Although the federal government recognized that many other nutrients were being lost thru processing grains, they didn’t require enrichment because they argued that you get plenty of these from the rest of your diet. That is true if you eat a diet rich in unprocessed foods such as fresh vegetables, fruits and grains. If you are not, you’re likely facing the dilemma of the average American diet: overfed and undernourished.
2) Choose foods higher in fiber. Whole grains are naturally higher in fiber than processed grains. Fiber isn’t just about “staying regular.” Fiber serves the very important function of slowing down the absorption of glucose into the blood stream and moderating blood sugar levels.
To understand this, we need a brief biochemistry lesson. Carbohydrates can be loosely divided into two categories: 1) sugars – small molecules that the body rapidly absorbs into the blood stream and 2) starches – very large complex and branched molecules that require considerable processing in the small intestine before they can be absorbed. Sugars create a rapid increase in blood sugar which in turn stimulates the pancreas to secrete large amounts of insulin. Insulin moves glucose (blood sugar) out of the blood and into the brain and muscles where it is used for energy. Starches take longer to digest and provide the body with a steadier and more even flow of energy.
We can measure how quickly glucose is absorbed from a food; it is called Glycemic Index. The scale goes from 0-100 with lower being better. Processed grains have a higher glycemic index, for example breads made with processed wheat range from 70-90 GI, while breads made with whole wheat are about 50 GI.
So what does all this mean? If you regularly eat foods high in sugar or processed grains, you can overload your pancreas. Your pancreas will produce too much insulin, blood sugar levels will plummet, muscle begins resisting taking in glucose, and the body begins to store the glucose as fat. The result is you gain weight and you still feel hungry because your blood sugar levels are on a roller coaster. You also put yourself at risk for Type 2 Diabetes, the fastest growing disease in the US. Limiting or avoiding sugars and processed grains is key to avoiding this unhealthy cycle.
3) Choose foods with no added sugars. We have already seen how processed grains affect your blood sugar levels, add sugar on top of that and you have a bad combo. Sugar can appear on a label in many forms: sugar, high fructose corn syrup, brown sugar, maple sugar, dextrose, maltose, corn syrup solids, fructose, sucrose, dehydrated cane juice, can juice, can juice solids, glucose syrup, invert sugar….and that’s just to name a few. Be wary of fruit juice concentrates or “fruit juice sweetened.” These may have started with fruit juice, but they have been processed to remove everything until all that’s left is fruit flavored sugar.
The FDA has set Daily Values on nearly everything in food except sugar. The Center for Science in the Public Interest has petition the FDA repeatedly to set the upper limit for an adult at 40 grams/day. The FDA is lobbied heavily by the sugar industry and so far the FDA has refused to set a Daily Value for sugar. I challenge each of you to tally your daily intake of sugar and see where you fall. Statistics show that Americans get 30-40% of our daily sugar intake from beverages – soft drinks and fruit juices. For American children that number tops 50%! You could do a lot for your health by simply making your beverage of choice water.