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. Samantha Avatar

    Wow, super interesting post! It seems like Kellogg shares some of the same beliefs as the Shakers who were celibate. So much so that their religious sect is almost gone. But, kudos to him for adopting orphans and giving them a home.
    The not eating carbs in the morning is going to be a hard switch for our family because I am not a morning person and cereal has become my fail safe. Curious to know where do products made of coconut and almond flour fall as far as carb or protein? I make a lot of muffins from those flours.

  2. Sandra - Australia Avatar
    Sandra – Australia

    We are eating left overs most days and add eggs in the morning, quick and easy. We have gelatine powder protein in hot water mixed with matcha tea.When no left overs, we do a quick fry up (tomatoes slices, eggs, bacon, kale), we often also have omelet ( sliced mushrooms,eggs of course, kale, capsicum,zucchini or other vegetables). When in a hurry we make a quick salad, a thick slice of cheese, boiled eggs. All gluten free, we have also given up sugar apart from stevia and natural sugar in fruit. We eat a lot of avocado, kale and have grass fed beef and free range and sometimes organic. We have organic apples sometimes and organic carrot, would like to buy more but they are more than double the price here in Australia even at the farmers markets. Husband has been doing it longer than me, and we have so much energy, we feel so much better, I won’t go back to gluten and aim to stay off sugar.

  3. Joel Sember Avatar
    Joel Sember

    A recent episode of the podcast BackStory provides some good information on the anti-masturbation obsession. Society seems to have been concerned that young adults would become selfish and self-obsessed, and fail to contribute to America’s wellbeing. Check out the episode Health Nuts from Nov 25

  4. Elle Avatar

    I just read something in the Nourishing Traditions book recently about a study that went unpublished involving 3 groups of rats: one group eating corn flakes, the other eating the box the corn flakes came in and the third I believe ate regular rat chow. Turns out both non-ratchow groups ended up dying but the group eating the box survived longer than the group eating the cornflakes. The lesson I learned is in dire situations you will gain more nutrition from the box. From what I understand, the experiment was conceived as a joke.

    1. Nonny D Avatar

      One of the best health articles I’ve read in a long time, and I do read a lot. The “cereal v. cereal box” diet of the rats says a lot about just how far the food industry will go to brilliantly package and market a wothless product.

  5. Monica Avatar

    Up until last fall, boxed cereal was the norm for my kids’ breakfast. Various people suggested giving it up, but I was already cooking most things from scratch and homeschooling and trying a small home-based business; I couldn’t take the idea of cooking another meal for everybody. Plus, the store would put the major cereal brands on sale, so it was cheap. And, I didn’t look forward to the complaining when favorite cereals disappeared. But, I learned a little more, about how the grains are basically turned toxic when they’re put through the process of making those cute little O’s or whatever. So I stopped buying cereal and started soaking oatmeal. There was some complaining, but the whole switch was surprisingly easy. Kids started asking for the soaked oatmeal, and I found it was actually pretty easy once we got in the habit. Well, something else happened and we stopped eating so much oatmeal, but then it was every man for himself. (My kids are 7 to 16.) So every morning is different. They might have hard-boiled egg and fruit or toast, yogurt with honey, homemade muffin, peanut butter, cheese, etc. To me, even toast or muffin is preferable to boxed cereal. I do try to get them to have some kind of protein included, though. They are all actually on the slim side even though I don’t restrict food quantities, and they do eat sweets in moderation. I wonder if avoiding carbs in the morning is really so necessary for young healthy kids, whose adrenals should still be in pretty good shape, right? I guess I can see trying to make sure they do get plenty of protein early in the day, especially the teenagers, if having the carbs later helps them sleep, and would reduce chances of problems later in life. But dang, you know how much teenage boys eat, right?! Maybe your post was more directed at adults. Reading back on some of the things — like, do I really want my already-slim kids to be primed for burning fat in the morning? They don’t do any weight training or workouts other than the normal kid running-around playing and a couple karate classes, and that happens all day intermittently. So, I guess for myself (I’ve been eating eggs almost every day for the past 3 years, ever since we started raising chickens), I would look into following some of the ideas like no carbs at breakfast, but not so sure for the kids.

  6. April Avatar

    My own doctor took me off gluten, dairy and sugar after my blood work showed intolerances. My cortisol levels are the lowest they’ve ever seen. This last visit they asked me to eat mostly fats and protein for breakfast and lunch, then add some carbs for dinner. No fruit until after lunch. She said to aim for about 25 g protein for breakfast. She didn’t give me a target for fat, so I’ve been eating 3 tbsp of coconut oil with 1 tbsp of cashew butter, a drizzle of honey, some cocoa and chia seeds mid morning. I’ve been researching Dr. Christianson’s book and downloaded his free recipe book, and his breakfast recipes are very carb heavy. They don’t seem to correspond with what I’ve read here and other places. So I guess I’m confused by what his recipes say and what his interviews indicate. I was hoping to find some good recipes to help me get all that protein in without eating eggs every. single. day.

    By the way, this is one of the best and most interesting blog posts ever. And disturbing.

  7. Hayden Avatar

    Thank you for this.
    Having grown up in the same church as the Kellogg brothers, I knew the good parts of their history. The anti-sex bits were frankly disturbing, if not surprising.
    To quote said church in modern times: “Have breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper.”

  8. Rebecca r simpson Avatar
    Rebecca r simpson

    Katie, thank you so much for this interesting and thorough article. I am known in my circle of friends as the “researcher” so I know you spend a lot of time in research to produce an article this informative!

  9. Tina Avatar

    I am new to all of this. I have 5 kids, 3 are teenage boys with big appetites. We tried gluten -free and it was to expensive for my budget. Now I would say we are gluten conscientious
    We do eat eggs and vege’s frequently for breakfast, but what I need to know is where oats stand in all of this. Is it carb. or protein? I do soak it over night before cooking. Just trying to take care of my family with some balance. in our lives.

  10. Grace Avatar

    That was fascinating! Thank you!
    But I have a question. You wrote about “consuming carbohydrates in the evening or after working out.” What if I do my workout in the morning?
    I usually eat 500 – 700 ml of green smoothies after it (i.e. 2 handfulls of spinach, 1 orange, 1-2 bananas).

    1. Katie - Wellness Mama Avatar

      The research I’ve read would still suggest protein in the morning and gradually working up the carbs (a little at lunch and a moderate amount at dinner) for the sake of cortisol.

  11. Laurence Avatar

    What a mad and totally brilliant post. I read a lot about nutrition, paleo, health etc. and this is the best post I have read all year. It’ll take some digesting but certainly not over a ball of Mr. Kelloggs!

  12. Amanda Crecelius Avatar
    Amanda Crecelius

    Great article, Katie! I have been so inspired and educated by your work!
    I feel really good when I have eggs and vegetables for breakfast.
    What about smoothies for breakfast with about half greens, half fruit, seeds, whey, and yogurt?
    Does fruit count as a good complex carbohydrate in the morning as long as it is paired with protein?

  13. Ann Avatar

    I would really like to know what you think of steel cut oats or cracked wheat in the morning for breakfast. I always understood it to be a healthy option.

    1. Katie - Wellness Mama Avatar

      Those would definitely fall in the carbs category. Personally, I would not eat them in the morning… They are considered healthy options in part because of early marketing like this 🙂

  14. Anna Avatar

    interesting tidbit – in Australia we have a breakfast cereal brand called Sanitarium…

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