Corn Flakes and Cortisol: Cereal for Breakfast?

Corn Flakes and Cortisol- should we eat cereal for breakfast

Mark Twain famously said that “truth is stranger than fiction,” and some historical reading I stumbled upon lately brought that quote to mind. In fact, when I started reading, I checked several times to make sure I wasn’t reading a satire site.

The Worst Thing to Eat in the Morning?

In his recent book, The Adrenal Reset Diet, my doctor talks about the importance of timing protein and carbohydrate consumption to support optimal cortisol, insulin and other hormone function.

His advice is to eat healthy sources of protein in the morning, a small amount of carbs at lunch and a moderate amount of healthy carbohydrates in the evening. The reasoning behind this is that carbohydrates raise insulin and affect cortisol, which is what you want in the evening before sleep, but not what you want in the morning.

According to statistics, many of us are doing the exact opposite of this and eating carbohydrate-rich and sugary foods in the morning (and the rest of the day) and eating the majority of our proteins at night. (Probably not you, if you are reading this, but the history is fascinating)

I’ll talk more about the research behind the timing of protein in a minute, but I wondered- what had people historically consumed in the morning when we didn’t have the obesity and chronic health problems we have today, and how did we start eating things like cereal, donuts, bagels and the like for breakfast?

The truth still boggles my mind…

The Strange History of Cereal…

Corn flakes® and Bran Flakes® and similar cereals are considered a “healthy” breakfast by many…

What if I told you that they were created by a doctor in the late 1800s to keep people from masturbating? (truth=stranger than fiction)

Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (the name behind Kellogg cereal) was the head doctor at a popular sanitarium where he served his patients a vegetarian diet of bland foods because he believed that spicy or sweet foods increased passion and sexual desire. Famous guests included Mary Todd Lincoln, Henry Ford and Amelia Earhart.

To his credit, Dr. Kellogg did acknowledge the role of probiotics in gut health (he suggested yogurt enemas) and claimed that smoking caused cancer long before science discovered the link. He also believed in exercise and drinking enough water. He was ahead of his time in several ways, but he also made some really strange contributions to modern medicine in ways you would not expect…

Here’s where it gets really weird:

One of the cornerstones of the diet he served his patients was a bland, toasted corn food he had discovered by accident by toasting stale, slightly modly grains…. he made flakes from various grains and served them because he found them to be an anaphrodisiac (to decrease the sex drive of those who ate it). [1] His brother Will Keith Kellogg had a flair for marketing and eventually made Corn Flakes® and Kellogg® household names by marketing this accidental discovery:[2]

Together with his brother, Will Kellogg, John developed the first commercial cereal flake. Their cereal, Granose Flakes, hit the market in 1896. A rift developed between the two brothers. After 22 years, Will parted ways with John and the sanitarium. He went on to form the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company, which came to be known as the Kellogg Company in 1925. (source)

Another random fact: Charles William Post (of Post Cereal® fame) was a patient of Kellogg and Sylvester Graham of Graham Cracker® fame was one of Kellogg’s early influencers…

Back to modern science for a second and this actually makes sense- carbohydrate rich foods, especially in the morning, affect cortisol rhythms and other hormones (including sex hormones).

But why was Kellogg so intent on decreasing sexual desire?

From every account I found and from his own writings, Dr. Kellogg took the part of his faith requiring purity of body to the extreme. He believed that sex itself was evil and harmful and that masturbation was even worse. He and his wife, Ella Eaton, married but never consummated their marriage (according to his writings), sleeping in separate apartments and adopting their children (they fostered 42 children and adopted 8).[3]

In one of his books, Kellogg says: “Neither plague, nor war, nor small-pox,have produced results so disastrous to humanity as the pernicious habit of onanism. Such a victim dies literally by his own hand.”[4]

He also advocated practices like piercing the foreskin with wire to prevent erections and burning the clitoris with carbolic acid to avoid arousal. It gets crazier…

Kellogg was an advocate of circumcision without anesthesia (even on older children and adults who were caught masturbating) because:

The operation should be performed by a surgeon without administering an anesthetic, as the brief pain attending the operation will have a salutary effect upon the mind, especially if it be connected with the idea of punishment, as it may well be in some cases. The soreness which continues for several weeks interrupts the practice, and if it had not previously become too firmly fixed, it may be forgotten and not resumed.[1]

He was one of the early promoters of circumcision for non-religious reasons in the US (for the purpose of stopping masturbation) and along with other early promoters was integral in making circumcision widespread during this time, though many people don’t know the reason the trend started to begin with. In fact, in the 18700s, only 1% of the adult male population in the US was circumcised and by 1971, this number was over 90% (source) though this number is now declining quickly. The practice of circumcising infants without anesthesia also originated in part from the teachings of this time.

Kellogg’s theories seemed to be based, at least in part, on the work of Sylvester Graham who was a vegetarian dietary reformer famous for the creation of graham flour and Graham Crackers ®.

Graham also was an advocate of sexual abstinence, especially from masturbation, which he regarded as an evil that inevitably led to insanity. He felt that all excitement was unhealthful, and spices were among the prohibited ingredients in his diet. As a result his dietary recommendations were inevitably bland, which led to the Grahamites consuming large quantities of graham crackers, Graham’s own invention.[5]

Large scale marketing by the major cereal companies of this time (Kellogg and Post) rocketed cereal to breakfast fame and familiarity. In fact, now cereal is considered the primary breakfast food by many (at least in the US).

So breakfast cereal has some unusual origins, to say the least, but 19th century religion and politics aside, is it actually healthy to eat cereal in the morning?

Healthiest Thing to Eat in the Morning?

Cereal has been a popular breakfast choice for over a hundred years, though the origins are less rooted in science than we often think. Is the product of this $25+ billion a year market a healthy breakfast choice?

You’ve probably seen the statistics that those who eat breakfast tend to weigh less (though current studies are refuting this) but that still leaves the question of what to eat for breakfast. Studies tend to focus on carbs vs. protein. Neither is bad and both are necessary, but research suggests that the timing of each is vitally important.

Dr. Alan Christianson suggests a high protein breakfast (with vegetables) and consuming carbohydrates in the evening or after working out. His research has shown that this type of carbohydrate timing supports the body’s natural cortisol rhythm and promotes healthy weight and sleep:

Your body uses cortisol to rescue you from low blood sugar. This makes carbs a tool you can use to help regulate your cortisol. Start your day with 25-35 grams of protein and finish it with 20-50 grams of high-quality carbs. Great options include paleo-friendly sources like sweet potatoes, turnips, squash, beets, and rutabagas. Having them later in the day helps not only cortisol but a whole host of weight regulating hormones like leptin, ghrelin, and adiponectin.

Dr. Christianson explains more about the timing of foods in this podcast interview.

Interestingly enough, this is advice that body builders (people with typically low body fat and healthy waist to hip ratios) have known for years:

When you first wake up every morning, your body is primed to burn fat. The worst thing you could do at this time is to have a classic American breakfast, including foods like juice, toast, or cereal. Cortisol, a stress hormone, rises during the night while you sleep and peaks at about 7 a.m. Left alone, it helps you burn fat, but when you feed yourself an abundance of carbs, cortisol will encourage fat storage just as insulin can. By waiting until cortisol levels fall naturally later in the day, and then strength training before ingesting carbs, you maximize carbs’ ability to benefit your physique while minimizing their potential to damage it.

But what about eating carbs before a workout? This is often the prescription that nutritionists give, based on the assumption that carbs provide quick energy needed for exercise. However, remember what we said about insulin release and fat burning. Eating carbs pre-workout reduces the amount of fat you can burn during the session, and honestly, you don’t need them. The truth is, your body can run just fine on protein and fat during even the most gut-busting training session (provided you eat enough of these nutrients, which we’ll discuss below).

Another consideration is the effect carbs have on your nervous system. Without them, your sympathetic nervous system—your body’s “fight or flight” response to stress—is on overdrive. You think clearly and react quickly, and can even recruit muscle fibers more efficiently. Eating carbs dampens this response. You know how you feel sluggish and can’t concentrate after a big meal? You don’t want to be in that condition before you lift weights, and it only takes a small serving of carbs to impair your performance.

Along with eating carbohydrates at the optimal time of day, Dr. Christianson provides another important key to balancing cortisol rhythms: sunlight exposure in the morning and avoiding blue light at night.

His theory is that our constant exposure to artificial light, especially at night, has affected our natural cortisol rhythms. It seems to be a viscous cycle too as fat cells have a rhythm of their own that they continue even when isolated in a lab dish.

The Solution?

Christianson recommends 30-50 grams of protein for breakfast (no carbs) and 30 minutes of sunlight or light with a 10,000 lux or higher light within an hour of waking up. He also recommends that carb consumption be limited to the evening (about 50 grams), especially during the hormone reset phase and that blue light be avoided at night.

I’d recommend reading his book for the full protocol but he highlights the importance of consuming real food sources of protein and carbohydrates at the correct time of day and optimizing cortisol rhythms with light as a way to balance hormones.

Bottom Line?

Carbs can be important for balancing hormones, but the morning is probably not the best time to consume them. Though they are a common breakfast food, cereals aren’t necessarily a healthy one and they certainly have an unusual past!

Politics and history aside- do you eat cereal? If so, will you reconsider now?


1. Kellogg, J.H. (1888). “Treatment for Self-Abuse and Its Effects”. Plain Facts for Old and Young. Ayer Publishing. pp. 294–296. ISBN 9780405058080. (Read the full text here)
2.Cornflake Crusade by Gerald Carson. Non-fiction, 1957
4.Numbers, Ronald L, “Sex, Science, and Salvation: The Sexual Advice of Ellen G. White and John Harvey Kellogg,” in Right Living: An Anglo-American Tradition of Self-Help Medicine and Hygiene ed. Charles Rosenberg, 2003., pp. 218-220
5.Wikipedia: Sylvester Graham
6.Timeline of breakfast cereal
7. Wikipedia: John Harvey Kellogg
Kumari M, Shipley M, Stafford M, Kivimaki M. Association of diurnal patterns in salivary cortisol with all-cause and cardiovascular mortality: findings from the Whitehall II study. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2011 May;96(5):1478-85. doi: 10.1210/jc.2010-2137. Epub 2011 Feb 23.
Extended effects of evening meal carbohydrate-to-fat ratio on fasting and postprandial substrate metabolism
Circadian clocks optimally adapt to sunlight for reliable synchronization
Sofer S, Eliraz A, et al. Changes in daily leptin, ghrelin and adiponectin profiles following a diet with carbohydrates eaten at dinner in obese subjects. Nutrition, Metabolism & Cardiovascular Diseases (2013) 23, 744e750.
Related- Video: The real reason you’re circumcised
Article: A Short history of circumcision in the US

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