Are wholegrain breakfast cereals really good for the heart?

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One of the pieces of nutritional advice we’ve been force-fed over the last decade or three concerns the supposedly health-giving properties of wholegrains. Friday saw this message redoubled on the presentation of a study at the American Heart Association annual conference in Florida, USA, which apparently found and association between the eating of wholegrain breakfast cereals and a reduced risk of heart disease. According to this study, eating a wholegrain cereal 2-6 times a week is associated with a 22 per cent reduced risk in ‘heart failure’. A paper I was reading on Saturday trumpeted the headline ‘Wholegrain cereals good for the heart’.

It is surprising to me that such a study should get such high-profile press. I mean, it hasn’t even been published yet, and also will not have been subjected to the ‘peer-review’ process.

But I suppose my scepticism about such a study is that it is what is known as ‘epidemiological’ in nature. Such studies look for associations between things (e.g. links between diet and disease) but can never be used to ascertain or prove whether the link is a real one. In this case, individuals who eat wholegrains are likely to be health-conscious. It is possible that such individuals, compared to less health-conscious people, have generally healthier habits such as a reduced tendency to smoke and a greater tendency to take exercise. Therefore, the apparent link between wholegrain eating and reduced risk of heart disease may have nothing to do with wholegrains at all, but due to other factors associated with wholegrain eating.

Along with this, I do think we need to be aware that there is much about breakfast cereals to be suspicious of. Below, I pasted in a piece I have previously written about breakfast cereals. This highlights the fact that many breakfast cereals, including wholegrain ones like Shredded Wheat, release sugar quite quickly into the bloodstream. Especially when eaten in quantity such breakfast fare will tend to induce surges in the hormone insulin which can lead to a range of health issues in the longer term including weight gain, Type 2 diabetes and, wait for it, heart disease.

In addition, breakfast cereals are usually rich in added salt ” excesses of which in the diet are linked with an increased risk of heart disease.

Personally, I have very little appetite for processed, pre-packaged breakfast cereals – wholegrain or not. A closer look at the ‘science’ which supposedly supports their place in their diet reveals little more than a grain of truth.

11th April 2004

It’s often said that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. The morning meal provides solid fuel with which the body can re-ignite its energies after the lengthy overnight fast. Breakfast eating is associated with improved scholastic performance in children, and seems to boost brain power for significant numbers of adults too. In addition, studies show that early-in-the-day eating helps to reduce our overall intake of food – something that has the potential to keep our weight and waistlines in check. It seems there is genuinely good reason for viewing the first meal of the day as second to none.

While the eating of breakfast appears to have implications for health and well-being, what is eaten is obviously important too. For many of us and our children, standard breakfast fare means a bowlful of one or more of the ever-growing range of cereals on offer. Sugar-saturated cereal varieties (usually concocted with kiddies in mind) which, quite rightly, do not enjoy the healthiest of reputations. Most of us will therefore be more comfortable stoking up on drabber, less sugared brands, content in the knowledge that their substantially starchy nature will deliver us with a sustained release of sugar for slow-burning throughout the morning.

However, despite their wholesome image, it turns out that even cereals spared sugar-encrustation have the capacity to cause undesirable upset in the body’s sugar levels. The speed and extent to which a food releases sugar into the bloodstream is quantified by what is known as its glycaemic index (GI). Top slot in the GI chart goes to the rapidly-releasing sugar glucose with a value of 100. Even without a sprinkling of sugar on top, many commonly-eaten cereals have GIs not far off this. Cornflakes, for instance, have a GI of about 80. One wheat-based cereal that boasts no added sugar at all has a GI of this order too.

A likely consequence of the extremes of blood sugar cereals tend to induce is the secretion of considerable quantities of the hormone insulin. While insulin is essential to prevent sugar levels rising to undesirable levels, it also stimulates the manufacture of fat in the liver and at the same time reduces the body’s ability to burn fat as a fuel. In addition to its potential to stockpile fat, insulin in excess is also believed to increase the risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

Fortunately, not all grains have the same capacity to upset blood sugar and insulin balance, and the pick of the crop in this regard are oats. Rolled oats can be used to make porridge (with a GI in the 50s), or may form the base ingredient in a nutritious home-made muesli. To improve their digestibility, I suggest overnight soaking of oats in some water or milk. Additional ingredients that will add to the palatability and nutritional attributes of this dish include natural yoghurt, raw nuts and/or seeds and fresh and/or dried fruit.

Another benefit of such a concoction is its much lower content of salt compared to the majority of commercially available cereals. Cornflakes, for example, generally have a saltiness equivalent to that of sea water. Through its potential to push up blood pressure, a surfeit of salt is believed to increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes. The ability of much traditional breakfast fare to induce undesirable upset in the body’s biochemistry and physiology might cause some to brand it a cereal killer.

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