Corn Flakes and Cortisol: Cereal for Breakfast?

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Corn Flakes and Cortisol- should we eat cereal for breakfast
Wellness Mama » Blog » Health » Corn Flakes and Cortisol: 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?

Katie Wells Avatar

About Katie Wells

Katie Wells, CTNC, MCHC, Founder of Wellness Mama and Co-founder of Wellnesse, has a background in research, journalism, and nutrition. As a mom of six, she turned to research and took health into her own hands to find answers to her health problems. is the culmination of her thousands of hours of research and all posts are medically reviewed and verified by the Wellness Mama research team. Katie is also the author of the bestselling books The Wellness Mama Cookbook and The Wellness Mama 5-Step Lifestyle Detox.


62 responses to “Corn Flakes and Cortisol: Cereal for Breakfast?”

  1. Alycea Horth Avatar
    Alycea Horth

    Very interesting reading. I do enjoy your blogs.

    We changed our ‘diet’ / eating style back in July to no glutens (and in response to a post from above, yes oats are part of this family.) and no carbs in the day. We have so much more energy, require less sleep, sleep better and generally feel happier, not to mention any excess body fat is dropping off us, but that is simply a nice bi-product.

    What is interesting is because our diet is so straight forward, when we do have glutens or nightshades we really notice our bodies reactions.

    As someone in menopause I also am no longer suffering hot flushes, which are very definitely linked to what you eat. I’ve tested this as we indulge ourselves in the occassional made from scratch pizza and although I love it I do pay for it with raised body temperature, amongst other things, immediately after. (And nightshades do affect arthritis.)

    I have always been interested in Japanese food, and in particular their breakfasts. As a nation that, I understand, has one of the lowest heart desease rates, as well as low body fat, one can assume there is a direct correlation with what they eat, which is a diet low in glutens, dairy and carbohydrates.

    Interestingly, France, where I live, has the lowest heart disease rate in the world (2014), though generally the diet here is high in fat and meats, and of course wine. However the food is generally, and I am generalising here, home made and of very good quality, portions are ‘normal’, eg small to much of the world, and the biggest meal is in the middle of the day (generally meat and veg ) with a soup or light meal and any carbs had at night.

  2. Megan Avatar

    I’m curious, would kefir smoothies be considered carb or protein? They typically contain both with berries and banana in our regular daily. And if I added a protein boost from grass-fed powder, would that tip it more towards protein. Eggs are almost daily around here. With meat a couple times a week. Oatmeal made a weekly appearance, but right now we’re grain free for a few weeks. Boxed cereal was a treat growing up, mainly on Sunday evenings. And organic boxed is very expensive, which renders it a treat for my family. This information definitely turns things topsy-turvy from how most grew up.

  3. Michelle Corso Avatar
    Michelle Corso

    We have been most of our carbs at night for the past year and love it! It helps us sleep better.

  4. Maggie Avatar

    Well that explains it! Since around Christmas I’ve been eating from Nourishing Traditions mostly, found it thanks to your site. I do eggs in June butter every morning, a salad with meat and homemade dressing for lunch, but having homemade bread and stews and such for dinner. I’ve been sleeping so deeply, and requiring only 7 hrs of sleep, vs still feeling tired after 9 hrs, in just a month. Lost 7#s so far and not depressed anymore! Never thought about waking to a bright light or sun though! Now if I could have a talk with my vegan sister…

  5. Maria Avatar

    I rarely eat cereal at all since moving out of my parents’ house (health reasons aside, it’s SUPER expensive and only keeps me full for an hour if I’m lucky), but when I do, it’s always at night. It’s cold and unfilling–exactly what I don’t want for my breakfast! Eggs are so much better. Fascinating post!

    1. Steve Avatar

      How much is cereal where you are? Im pretty sure it’s still under $5.00 here. I don’t eat cereal but i have a hard time finding meals for under $4. Oh, while i’m here. D+oes anyone know which oil is for whitening, which for ones have other benefits. Thanks for any info.

      1. Elysia Avatar

        What do u mean by “which oil is for whitening & which have other benefits?”

  6. Erin Avatar

    Wow, some serious sexual issues!!! Fascinating (well the sexual issues were completely… sad.. his poor wife)m ,

  7. Lindsey Avatar

    I totally agree that eating proteins are better in the morning and to avoid the processed sugary breakfast cereals at all costs. HOWEVER I have even been desperate enough to feed my kids that junk. I have three small kids one is allergic to eggs, dairy, and peanuts and one is extremely fussy and picky about food (and the third is only one so he eats anything). Any ideas for easy high protein breakfasts (egg and dairy free that kids will actually eat)?

    1. Katie - Wellness Mama Avatar

      I do breakfast stir frys like beef and broccoli (ground beef and frozen broccoli) and they have learned to eat it. I’ve found that they don’t get hungry for lunch as quickly with a protein rich breakfast either.

    2. Brian Avatar

      Pickiness is an enabled behavior. Take away the other options and your kid will eat the food that is provided once he/she is hungry enough. The first few days will be hell, but once the behavior is modified, its smooth sailing.

  8. Caroline Evans Avatar
    Caroline Evans

    I would be interested to learn about historic foods like porridge and gruel that I had always assumed were grain breakfast foods. Seems to me that people living on farms surely ate eggs and dairy products possibly things like bacon, sausage, etc. I had it in the back of my mind that porridge was in there too especially for the poor. They had fermented sourdough bread too and that’s a totally different creature than the things they try to get us to eat nowadays. Thanks for an interesting and eye opening article!

  9. Anna Avatar

    So I skimmed through the book you recommend “The Adrenal Reset Diet:Strategically Cycle Carbs…….” and I couln’t help but noticing that Dr. Christianson mentions that egg whites, egg yolks, milk, cottage cheese, yogurt, butter etc as toxic proteins. and sugars such as coconut sugar public enemy #1. and he doesn’t really highlight that he means pasturized milk instead of raw straight from cow or that he means grass-fed butter.. and so on.. so I was just wondering because I follow your recipes and I follow your blog and the recipes usually do include eggs, butter, coconut sugar and some of those products he mentions. Maybe I’m running off topic here but I was just wondering if you follow his diet or you just partially follow some of his diet tips.

    1. Katie - Wellness Mama Avatar

      I’m going to do a post on the diet breakdown and what I do different. I think he recommends against eggs because a large percentage of thyroid patients are sensitive to eggs and it can be problematic.

  10. Steve Avatar

    Why would anyone eat major brand cereal anyway? Doesn’t everyone already know of all the poisons and garbage in them? Seems to me keloggs was just in the news again recently for additives that cause some illness of some kind. Then there’s all the salt and sugar. Some organic cereals are probably ok sometimes but most things in a box package or can… thanks, i prefer to try and reach the average life expectancy of 70. yeah, i know i’m dreaming and the odds are stacked against it, after all, they’ve all pretty much come right and said they need us to get sick and die as fast as possible. I’m not quite ready to just roll over just yet though 🙂

    1. Susan P Avatar

      I, too, try to avoid all those packaged, processed, FAKE foods sold in the supermarket. About that “reaching 70” thing, I am 68 and in perfect health. No medications of any kind for any ailment that seems to plague my contemporaries. They think I am slightly crazy as I refuse to eat modern wheat, corn or soy due to the fact most of the USA crop of those grains is GMO and I don’t do GMO. I also have passed on cow’s milk in favor of unsweetened, original pure Almond milk; 1/3 the calories and 50% more calcium. I cook with olive oil or coconut oil. The rest of those so-called healthy oils sold in the market are GMO frankenfood; especially canola oil. The remainder of my avoid list includes BHT, BVO, HFCS and a few more; but those are the big no-nos on my list.
      Good luck on reaching 70+

  11. Jennifer Avatar

    Now I know why I always crave a bowl of cereal when I can’t sleep at night 🙂

  12. Lari Avatar

    A great article, thanks. Do you have any suggestions for protein rich vegetarian breakfasts which are as simple as cereal (or toast)? I’ll often eat egg in the morning, but struggle with other protein sources,

      1. Tiffany Avatar

        Do you have any recommendations for quick or on the go? I leave at 7 am and usually eat at work around 9. I love eggs but I’m busy making our lunches in the morning and don’t really have time to also cook a whole omelet or egg bake. Any suggestions? Also I’m celiac. So no grains or breads for me.

  13. Beth Avatar

    Absolutely fascinating history!
    I’m a homeschool mom, and I can’t resist telling you that I give this post an A+ for topic, research, and writing. ????
    I love this blog.

  14. Angie Avatar

    Fascinating…I didn’t know most of this info. What the recommendation for lunch then? With my work schedule I am up with an alarm light at 5:30 am and eat breakfast at about 6, which makes lunch come around 11:30 typically. We usually do eggs or other breakfast meat and either oatmeal or a co-op granola, and lots of water. Just eating protein probably wouldn’t last me very long :\

  15. Dan Avatar

    LOL. I haven’t eaten any grains (but for occasional, tiny portions of white rice) for almost a year now. And I can tell you that I’m lighter, healthier and more energetic than I’ve been in 15 years!

    Some people think I’m crazy for cutting out an entire “food group” (grains aren’t a food group btw, try telling the USDA that). I now have an interesting tidbit about the origin of cereal that should put an appropriate image in the minds of doubters whilst they eat their cereal.

    My thoughts are that grains should not be eaten unless that’s the only food your family can afford. 2 or 3 pastured eggs for breakfast (without toast of course) will do a lot more good for you!

    1. Susan P Avatar

      I gave up modern wheat last July. I haven’t seen any dramatic weight loss yet, but I do feel lighter in both mind and body. I definitely have more energy. It can be difficult at first. But, I do eat a small to moderate amount of bread from Spelt (an ancient grain that has NOT been modified in a lab) in the form of a banana, raisin, walnut muffin for a mid afternoon snack with tea or for breakfast when I am just too busy to fix sausage and eggs.

      I would highly recommend that others ween themselves from their dependence on grains. They are NOT all that healthy; especially with the genetic modification of almost the entire crop of corn, soy and wheat grown in the USA. The GMO provides its own health risks.

      I actually stopped buying cold cereals when my children were still in grade school. My oldest would eat an entire giant economy size box as an after school snack and I could not afford to buy 6 or 7 boxes a week. He is now 46 and taking away cereal certainly did him NO harm.

      1. Danielle Avatar

        Amen, Susan! I have NOT given up wheat yet, but I know I need to soon. I am getting my bread fix in, and then I am giving it up. Wheat is addictive; the reason it is so hard to give up is the withdrawls you experience. There is less gluten in wheat shipped directly from Italy, and no GMO’s, but there is still some gluten. I have heard of several people who dropped wheat and lost quite a bit of weight. Hopefully, one day I will be one of them. 🙂

        1. Beth Avatar

          My husband and I gave up gluten and refined sugar almost a year ago. I was doing it in hopes of feeling better and having more energy/feeling less tired all the time. I still don’t have the energy that I’d like, but I lost 20 pounds pretty quickly. Giving up gluten was a LOT easier than I thought it’d be. We used to eat pasta and Mexican food (with flour tortillas) at least once a week and I ate sandwiches frequently for lunch. But I can honestly say that I really haven’t missed it. We now do zucchini noodles, quinoa or other gluten free noodles on occasion, use organic non-GMO corn tortillas or make Mexican dishes without tortillas all together. I have been eating a lot more rice lately, so I now need to cut back on that a little bit. But for those who are thinking about doing it, I say give it a try! You may really be surprised at how easy it is!

          1. Monica Avatar

            What are zucchini noodles? sounds interesting and I’m always in need of some new ideas!

  16. Greg Avatar

    Interesting stuff. What about porridge from oats? This is supposed to be good slow release energy for the day and people seem to think it is very good for you in the morning. Do you think it is, or perhaps it would work better in the evening?

  17. Trish Avatar

    So much information here! Thank you for taking the time to detail this for us.
    I’m someone that has protein and veggies for breakfast, and can really feel the negatives when I have a protein heavy dinner, or even a dinner too high in carbs.

  18. Melanie Avatar

    We eat eggs in the morning (omelette with veg once in a blue moon) and I usually have some protein powder to get me up to 30g of protein. But the kids eat Joe’s O’s (like Cheerios but without the BHT) and I’d love to get them into more protein/less grains. The bigger one will have eggs once in a while or a grilled cheese sandwich, but the little one is so picky that I’m not sure what good-quality protein he’d have beyond a smoothie (not usually interested). He does get warm milk with honey and a raw egg yolk a couple times a week, but I’d love to pump up his protein. Any idea on how many grams of protein 5-10 year olds should have?

      1. Melanie Avatar

        Well, not that many, really. We’ve got half a grass fed cow in our freezer but the little one, the pickiest, eats no meat. Also eats no eggs knowingly. Gouda cheese, cold, in small amounts. Peanut butter rarely. No other nut butters. Tons of milk luckily and quite a bit of yogurt. Eats fruits and veg really well. Maybe I should count my blessings.

          1. Melanie Avatar

            He will eat hummus with something, but frankly, the amount of protein in legumes is pretty low. That being said, if he’d eat a cup of beans for breakfast every morning, I’d be thrilled.
            But keep the ideas coming….I’ve been working pretty hard on this, but I’d love it if someone came up with the magic bullet I hadn’t yet thought it!

        1. Rebecca Honeycutt Avatar
          Rebecca Honeycutt

          Hey. I’m a mom of 3 and had similar problems getting my little man to taste meats and eggs. We battled over this a lot. Then I thought about what a 2-4 year old would eat in non-industrialized countries — mostly, his mom’s milk still and chewed up grains. And milk has tons of good protein! He’s 6 now and likes meat fine (still anti-egg). But I wouldn’t worry. Babies do fine on milk and bits of whatever you’re eating, and they really are still babies till about 4. If you worry still, try adding a vitamin powder to the milk.

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