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

Whatever happened to “a balanced breakfast?” (Washington Post illustration/iStockphoto)

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.

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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 (“They didn’t teach us anything about nutrition in medical school,” she told me).

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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.

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“It’s disingenuous to call this a whole-grain product,” she concluded.

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.

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As numerous journalists such as Michael Moss and Gary Taubes have noted, 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 be considered toxic in the same way cigarettes are.) But its nutritional cousin, the refined-grain carbohydrate, may be a close second.

Cereal was not always the morning staple that it is today. It only became so at about the same time that our health problems began to be documented, in the 1960s. A coincidence?

According to NPD Group market analyst Harry Balzer, cereal was initially eaten on Sundays, when the women of our churchgoing nation didn’t have time to make the family breakfast. Once women entered the workforce, though, we began pouring our convenient breakfasts out of a box in significant numbers daily, a trend that peaked in 1995, Balzer said.

But it may not even just be cereal that’s had such a huge impact on American health. “Maybe the problem,” Sukol said, “is the huge quantity of nutritionally bankrupt foods that are supposed to stand in for breakfast.”

By this she means anything composed primarily of refined wheat, which would be, um, 90 percent of the American breakfast repertoire: pancakes, waffles, bagels, toast, muffins, biscuits, scones, croissants, and so on.

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Moreover, eating this stuff on an empty stomach (i.e. in the morning), may be especially bad for your system, as there is little fiber, fat or protein in your system to slow the sugar absorption. Our breakfast staples might all best be considered as a single category of food: sugar bomb.

We don’t know if time of day matters for certain. Sukol calls it only a hunch, but she nevertheless recommends that all her patients avoid what she calls “stripped” carbs, carbohydrates stripped of their fiber matrix, before noon.

What does she recommend for breakfast? Steel-cut oats, not cooked but rather soaked overnight with a dash of vinegar. I add whole-fat Greek yogurt and some nuts if I have them — it’s a satisfying small dish. Beans are great too. I had a delicious dish of lentils and a small amount of basmati rice, a preparation called kitchari, at the new vegetarian restaurant abcV in Manhattan, the other morning, and my companion had congee made with black rice and millet, in a seaweed and mushroom broth. Excellent breakfasts. An egg and some cheese are also a nourishing and satisfying way to begin the day.

If those people who argue that sugar and refined grains are at the heart of America’s diabetes and obesity epidemic are right, it throws a different light on the cereal aisle. That hulking behemoth in the middle of the grocery store, the racks of cereal, is stripped-carb and sugar ground zero, representing a kind of unrecognized terrorism wrought on parents by our own food makers in every city, town and suburb of America.

I don’t think these products should be banned. I know a lot of people who would be seriously bummed if you took away their Cocoa Puffs and Honey-Nut Cheerios. What I want is for people to be aware of what they’re eating and how it affects their body and purchase food based on that knowledge. Consumers’ choices — or their dollars, rather — do more to determine what’s on the grocery store shelves than anything else. That’s the real way to effect change in our collective health.

Ruhlman's latest book is "Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America."

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