Raise your hand if you currently eat or have ever eaten cereal. I wouldn’t be surprised if most of you raised your hand. Back in 2005, Good Morning America conducted a poll and found that 60% of Americans eat breakfast, and of those 60%, about 40% eat either hot or cold cereal. I’m a big breakfast cereal eater, mostly because it’s fast and easy, but also because I like it. People eat cereal at any time of day, too — it’s not just for breakfast anymore. And if you’re a Seinfeld fan, you probably remember the episode when Jerry’s girlfriend ate cereal for all three meals.
All sorts of studies have been done looking at how breakfast impacts various factors, including obesity, Type 2 diabetes, blood pressure, and cholesterol, as well as alertness and productivity. And starting off the day by eating cereal is a smart way to help meet your fiber and whole-grain goals (most of us fall short on these). Did you know, too, that eating a whole-grain breakfast cereal can help reduce your risk of heart failure, and is a smart way to prevent accumulating fat around your midsection (also known as the dreaded spare tire)?
So, eating breakfast is good. Eating cereal is also good with one caveat: you need to choose a cereal that’s healthy. But how? The cereal aisle in the supermarket can be overwhelming. You know you should choose something that’s high in nutrition, but the worry is that the cereal will taste like packing peanuts. Must one sacrifice flavor for health?
Here are some tips that can help:
Read the Nutrition Facts label. Information on the front of the box can be misleading. For example, a cereal claiming to be “low in sugar” might not be so healthful in terms of fat, whole grains, or sodium. The label and the ingredient list will set the record straight.
Go for the grain. I say it a lot, and I’ll continue to do so: Whole grains and foods that contain whole grains provide a lot of health benefits (even for people with diabetes!). According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010, at least half of our grain servings in a day should come from whole-grain foods. Why not get a head start at breakfast, then? Check the ingredient list on the cereal box. The first item should be a whole grain. Examples include whole wheat, whole-grain corn, barley, oats, oatmeal, and wheat berries. The words “multigrain,” “wheat,” “wheat germ,” and “bran” are not necessarily indicators of a whole grain. These terms may mean that part of the grain is missing.
Find the fiber. Fiber has its own benefits, apart from whole grains, and adults need roughly 25 to 38 grams of fiber each day. A word of advice: it can be a challenge to get this amount of fiber in your daily diet, so consider eating a cereal that’s high in fiber in the morning. How much fiber should a cereal have? At least 3 grams per serving, but, of course, more is better.
Limit the unhealthy fats. Saturated and trans fats are the bad guys. There’s really no reason for cereals to include much, if any of these baddies. Fortunately, most cereals are low in saturated fat and most have no trans fat, either. But if you’re a granola groupie, look out, as some granolas may contain saturated fat.
Steer clear of high-sugar cereals. Sugar isn’t the enemy, but cereals are notorious for being full of the sweet stuff, and not just children’s cereals, either. You might as well eat a bowl of crumbled up cookies and milk for breakfast, given the sugar content of some cereals. For blood glucose control, remember to look at the total carbohydrate grams (after checking out the serving size, of course), as opposed to the grams of sugar. But as a matter of principle, it pays to check out the grams of sugar on cereal labels.
Most, but not all, cereals contain some sugar because sugar occurs naturally in many grains, and if the cereal contains dried fruit, such as raisins or strawberries, they’ll add to the sugar content. A good rule of thumb is to stick with cereals that have no more than 8–10 grams of sugar per serving. That’s roughly two teaspoons of sugar. Less is even better. Note that some cereals, such as Kellogg’s Special K Protein Plus, contain nonnutritive sweeteners in order keep the calories and carbs down.
Search out the protein. Most of us aren’t lacking protein, but it’s still smart to get some protein in the morning. Protein, as well as fat, has staying power, so it may help you control the mid-morning (or middle of the night) munchies. Look for cereals with 3 or more grams of protein per serving (you’ll also get protein from the milk you add to your cereal).
Shy away from sodium. Cereal is probably not the first food to come to mind when someone says “sodium,” but surprisingly, some cereals are secret sources. For example, one half-cup of Post Grape-Nuts contains 290 milligrams of sodium. General Mills Wheat Chex contains 270 milligrams per 3/4 cup serving. Stick with cereals that contain less than 200 milligrams per serving.
Luckily, there are plenty of healthy cereals to choose from. Some that you might consider include Kashi Heart to Heart Honey Toasted Oat, General Mills Whole-Grain Total, General Mills Fiber One, Post Shredded Wheat, and Quaker Oatmeal Squares. Also, don’t overlook the wholesome goodness of steel-cut oatmeal. Sure, it requires cooking, but it’s the real deal. Cook up a batch and reheat it in the microwave. Jazz it up with nuts, flaxseed, berries, cocoa powder, or peanut butter for more nutrition.