Cheerios and heart health

Anna responded to the Heart Scan Blog post, Can you say "sugar"? with the following wonderfully telling comment:

A measured bowl of Cheerios and a bit of milk (whole, because it's what I had), equal to 75 grams of carbohydrate, gave me the highest ever blood glucose reading from a food (not counting glucose solution from a Glucose Tolerance Test). I was attempting a "homemade" version of a 3 hr GTT before going to my doctor with my concerns about my BG.

My BG started to rise very fast within 15 minutes after eating the cereal, peaked at about 250 mg/dL at 45 minutes, then slowly dropped. By about 60-75 minutes, I experienced strong hunger and carb cravings as the BG began to slowly drop, and by about 2.5 hours after eating, my BG had suddenly dropped quite low (in the low 70s) and I had developed a nasty hypoglycemic feeling (shaky, irritable, craving sugary foods, headache, etc.).

It's hard for me to see "heart healthy" Cheerios (or any other highly processed breakfast cereal) as anything other than a bowl of pre-digested sugar that contributes to roller coaster blood glucose and insulin levels, which a great way to start anyone's day. Certainly, I don't do well with Cheerios because I clearly have a damaged glucose regulatory system (probably a diminished or absent first phase insulin response, but I can't imagine that it is doing any good for people with healthy glucose regulation, either.

I banned prepared cold cereals from our house. If my 9 yr old son gets cereal at all at home, it's whole groats (not even rolled or steel cut because those aren't truly "whole grain" anymore), soaked overnight in some water and a tsp of plain yogurt (soaking neutralizes phytates and reduces cooking time), then cooked about 8-10 minutes (water added as necessary). Sometimes I add a bit of quinoa or almond meal prior to soaking to boost the protein content a bit. I garnish with a pat of butter, some heavy cream, and a dusting of cinnamon. If I'm feeling *really* indulgent, I drizzle about 1 tsp of Grade B maple syrup on top (Grade B is stronger in flavor and so less can be used). I don't eat this cereal myself, and truthfully, I'd rather my son not, either, but he sometimes wants cereal. It's the least damaging compromise I can come up with that we can both live with.

I have also seen diabetic effects from Cheerios: rises in blood sugar, exagerration of small LDL, drops in HDL, rises in triglycerides. Yes, it may reduce LDL a small quantity, but so what?

The Cheerios "heart healthy" claim is based on a piece of research apparently performed by Dr. Donald Hunninghake at the University of Minnesota and reported in 1998:

A study conducted at the University of Minnesota Heart Disease Prevention Clinic and published as "Cholesterol-Lowering Benefits of a Whole Grain Oat Ready-to-Eat Cereal" in the May issue of the Nutrition in Clinical Care journal in 1998, showed that people can lower their blood cholesterol by an average of 3.8% over six weeks by enjoying 3 cups of cold cereal made with 100% whole grain oats everyday as part of the meals and snacks in a healthy lower-fat diet.

(Unfortunately, I could not locate the actual publication. It doesn't mean it doesn't exist; I just couldn't locate it. Perhaps it's in a small journal not entered into the online publication database.)

The purported effects of Cheerios should not be confused with that of actual, intact oat bran, as suggested by studies such as those of Brenda Davy et al, High-fiber oat cereal compared with wheat cereal consumption favorably alters LDL-cholesterol subclass and particle numbers in middle-aged and older men, in which significant reductions in LDL particle number and small LDL (NMR) were obtained. (This study was also supported by Quaker Oats.) Several studies have shown that oat bran does indeed reduce LDL cholesterol, sometimes as much as 30-50 mg/dl. Cheerios can not even come close to this.

If Cheerios were nothing more than finely pulverized oats, then perhaps it wouldn't be so bad. But add corn starch and sugar, and you have ingredients that have potential to distort LDL particle size and yield blood sugar-escalating effects like those described by Anna.

The gravity of perpetuating these myths is brought home by a testimonial posted on the website for Cheerios:

“I had unexpected open heart surgery a year ago. As I adopted heart health habits during my recovery, I realized that I should have been eating the Cheerios cereal I carried around in a plastic baggie so many years for my kids!”

Scotch Plains, NJ

It makes me shudder.

Copyright 2008 William Davis, MD

Comments (11) -

  • Susan

    4/22/2008 1:13:00 PM |

    I did a little digging and found this press release from General Mills on the study: It's interesting that the study was carried out at the University of Minnesota. Guess where General Mills is headquartered? Yep, in Minneapolis.

    The journal in question, Nutrition in Clinical Care, was published by Tufts University and the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy between 1998 and 2005. The original publisher was Blackwell (Volumes 1–5), and it was then picked up by the International Life Sciences Institute (whose members include Bayer, Cadbury, Coca-Coa, Kellogg's, Kraft, Heinz, McNeil, Mead Johnson, National Starch Food (I love that one), Pfizer ... well you get the picture).

    A search on the name of the principal researcher is equally interesting.

  • Anonymous

    4/22/2008 1:19:00 PM |

    A little different comment than what is mentioned on this post, but a cousin was told by her doctor yesterday that she should take vitamin D3, K2, fish oil, and stop eating sugary foods.  This wasn't said for heart health though.  She had a nasty accident when riding a horse and broke several bones.  

    I'm going to mail her a get well package, include the mentioned supplements plus throw in some magnesium. Good to see another opened minded doctor prescribing what ever works.  My typical experience has been that doctors don't mentioning supplements.

  • Dr. William Davis

    4/22/2008 11:03:00 PM |

    Wow, Susan! Great info!

    I wasn't aware of the "interesting" bloodline of the journal.


  • Paul Kelly - 95.1 WAYV

    4/24/2008 3:27:00 PM |

    Hi Dr. Davis,

    You wrote that several studies have shown that oat bran does indeed reduce LDL cholesterol, sometimes as much as 30-50 mg/dl.

    Where would I find a good oat bran? Also - isn't oat bran pretty "carby"? I typically have to keep my daily intake of carbs between 40 and 60 grams to avoid gaining weight. Does oat bran fit into a low-carb way of eating?

    Thanks in advance for your reply!


  • Cindy Moore

    5/5/2008 11:42:00 PM |

    "people can lower their blood cholesterol by an average of 3.8% over six weeks by enjoying 3 cups of cold cereal made with 100% whole grain oats everyday as part of the meals and snacks in a healthy lower-fat diet."

    THREE Cups a day?!?! That's a hefty dose! A lot of carbage for a little "benefit". I guess the particle size would completely negate any "benefit"?

  • Hal

    9/2/2009 8:29:30 PM |

    When I first started testing my BG in the first few days I discovered that Cheerios would cause my numbers to spike.  The numbers I saw that day are the highest readings I have ever had.  Needless to say that was the last time I ate cheerios.

    The sad thing was that based on the advertising I thought that I was doing the right thing by eating cheerios.  Of course I know know better.

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    9/9/2010 4:59:59 AM |

    Add a diet low in processed food and a good 'lifestyle' (don't smoke, control waist size, manage stress well, some exercise) and you will improve general health and help prevent heart disease.

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Support your local hospital: HAVE A HEART ATTACK!

Support your local hospital: HAVE A HEART ATTACK!

I'm kidding, of course. But, in your hospital's secret agenda, that's not too far from the truth. Catastrophes lead to hospital procedures, which then yields major revenues.

Prevention, on the other hand, yields nothing for your hospital. No $8,000 to $12,000 for heart catheterization, several thousand more for a stent, $60,000-plus for a bypass, $25,000 or more for a defibrillator. In other words, prevention of heart attack and all its consequences deprive your hospital of a goldmine of revenue.

The doctors are all too often conspirators. I heard of yet another graphic example today. A man I didn't know called me out of the blue with a question. "I had a heart scan and I had a 'score' that I was told meant a moderate quantity of plaque in my arteries, a score of 157. My doctor said to ignore it. But I got another scan a year later and my score was 178. So I told this to my doctor and he said, 'Let's get you into the hospital. We'll set up a catheterization and then you'll get bypassed.' Of course, I was completely thrown off balance by this. Here I was thinking that the heart scan was showing that my prevention program needed improvement. But my doctor was talking about bypass surgery. Can you help? Does this sound right?"

No, this is absolutely not right. It's another tragedy like the many I hear about every day. Heart scans are, in fact, wonderfully helpful tools for prevention. This man was right: he felt great and the heart scan simply uncovered hidden plaque that should have triggered a conversation on how to prevent it from getting worse. But the doctor took it as a license to hustle the patient into the hospital. Ka-ching!

This sort of blatant money-generating behavior is far from rare. Don't become another victim of the cardiovascular money-making machine. Be alert, be skeptical, and question why. Of course, there are plenty of times when major heart procedures are necessary. But always insist on knowing the rationale behind such decisions, whether it's you or a loved one.
"Please don't tell my doctor I had a heart scan!"

"Please don't tell my doctor I had a heart scan!"

I overheard this recent conversation between a CT technologist and a 53-year old woman (who I'll call Joan) who just had a scan at a heart scan center:

CT Tech: It appears to me that you have a moderate quantity of coronary plaque. But you should know that this is a lot of plaque for a woman in your age group. A cardiologist will review your scan after it's been put through a software program that allows us to score your images.

Joan: (Sighing) I guess now I know. I've always suspected that I would have some plaque because of my mother. I just don't want to go through what she had to.

CT Tech: Then it's really important that you discuss these results with your doctor. If you wrote your doctor's name on the information sheet, we'll send him the results.

Joan: Oh, no! Don't send my doctor the results! I already asked him if I should get a scan and he said there was no reason to. He said he already knew that my cholesterol was kind of high and that was everything he needed to know. He actually got kind of irritated when I asked. So I think it's best that he doesn't get involved.

This is a conversation that I've overheard many times. (I'm not intentionally an eavesdropper; the physician reading station at the scan center where I interpret scans--Milwaukee Heart Scan--is situated so that I easily overhear conversations between the technologists and patients as they review images immediately after undergoing a scan.)

If Joan feels uncomfortable discussing her heart scan results with her doctor, where can she turn? Get another opinion? Rely on family and friends? Keep it a secret? Read up about heart disease on the internet? Ignore her heart scan?

I've seen people do all of these things. Ideally, people like Joan would simply tell their doctor about their scan and review the results. He/she would then 1) Discuss the implications of the scan, 2) Identify all concealed causes of plaque, and then 3) Help construct an effective program to gain control of plaque to halt or reverse its growth. Well, in my experience, fat chance. 98% of the time it won't happen.

I think it will happen in 10-20 years as public dissatisfaction with the limited answers provided through conventional routes grows and compels physicians to sit up and take notice that people are dying around them every day because of ignorance, misinformation, and greed.

But in 2006, if you're in a situation like Joan--your doctor is giving you lame answers to your questions or dismissing your concerns as neurotic--then PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE take advantage of the universe of tools in the Track Your Plaque program.

People tell me sometimes that our program is not that easy--it requires reading, thinking, follow-through, and often asking (persuading?) your doctor that some extra steps (like blood work) need to be performed. The alternative? Take Lipitor and keep your mouth shut? Just accept your fate, grin and bear it, hoping luck will hold out? To me, there's no rational choice here.

Comments (1) -

  • Anonymous

    5/15/2006 8:07:00 AM |

    I feel better then I have in Years.