Every night, millions of Americans hit the sack for a 7-8 hour opportunity to recharge the batteries. As we sleep, our bodies work hard to keep our hearts pumping blood, our lungs breathing, and our brains constantly functioning. This takes work on the part of the body, and in the morning, our body is looking for nutritious nourishment. Why then do so many of us replenish with sugary cereals?
A large percentage of popular cereals on our grocery store shelves contain massive amounts of simple sugars. Simple sugars (or simple carbohydrates) are digested quickly and are usually void of essential vitamins and minerals. The American Heart Association was one of the first to issue formal guidelines on sugar intake.
Last year, the AHA recommended no more than 100 calories per day, or about 6 teaspoons of sugar for women and no more than 150 calories per day, or about 9 teaspoons a day for men. They backed their recommendations with a scientific statement in the journal Circulation which stated, "... excessive consumption of sugars has been linked with several metabolic abnormalities and adverse health conditions, as well as shortfalls of essential nutrients.” The AHA did not go after any one type of sugar/syrup or manufacturer of sugar; its focus was instead on sugar consumption as a whole. There has been strong scientific data linking excess sugar above these limits and increased risk of heart disease and diabetes (Malik VS, et al "Sugar-sweetened beverages and risk of metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes" Diabetes Care 2010; 33(11): 2477-2483).
So how many grams should you aim for? As little as possible, but try to stay within the American Heart Association guidelines.
Women: no more than 100 calories per day which equals 6 teaspoons or 24 grams
Men: no more than 150 calories per day which equals 9 teaspoons or 36 grams
To put these numbers in perspective, the majority of sugar sweetened cereals contain at least 4 teaspoons of sugar per serving.
Simple sugars occur naturally in fruits, vegetables and dairy products; these foods are nutritious staples of any good diet. The simple sugars you need to look out for are added simple sugars. In addition to the adverse health effects discussed earlier, simple sugars actually cause us to eat more and thus, put us at risk for weight gain.
Most of us, however, don’t notice the effect that sugar may have on our appetite. We just know we’re never quite satisfied after our sugary breakfast and are usually looking for more unhealthy foods not long after having breakfast. Why? Processing and preparation do play a factor, but overall, simple sugar consumption causes a spike in blood sugar and insulin followed by a crash. This leaves us feeling even hungrier than we were before and more likely to continue eating until we can find something to make us full. It’s not far off to say that having a can of cola or a candy bar will not make you full, is it? If you’ve ever consumed something like this in place of lunch on a busy day, you can feel it, literally. Perhaps you have a doughnut every morning on the way to work yet still find you’re looking for the vending machines not long after you arrive. Whatever your sugar vice, the effects are for the most part the same and it leaves you wanting more. You give in to your hunger, you eat more calories than you can burn, and before you know it, you’re up a notch on your belt buckle.
What can you do now to limit your simple sugar consumption in the morning? Look at the ingredients first. Dr. Oz has taught his viewers to avoid added simple sugars in the first 5 ingredients of any food. Second, look at how many total grams of sugar the product has per serving. These two pieces of information are a powerful tool to assess the health of your cereal at home. You may even be surprised to learn that some "healthy" cereals are loaded with added simple sugars.
Thank your body in the morning and fill it with foods that are high in fiber and nutrients to get it going. Examples include oatmeal with blueberries, low fat plain yogurt with wheat germ and walnuts, eggs whites with 100% whole grain toast or shredded wheat with low fat milk or milk substitute. Finally, use common sense in the morning. Michael Pollan, author of the book Food Rules recommends avoiding cereals that change the color of your milk. I'd say that is a great rule to live by!