Breakfast Cereal Basics: Nutritional Dos and Don  ts

It's been said time and again: breakfast is the most important meal of the day. And cereal is a great morning choice, right? Well, not necessarily. The grocery store is filled with a barrage of cereal selections, and many are downright unhealthy. So how can you determine if the cereal's worthy of a place in your cart or if it should go right back on the shelf? Take a look at the label:

  • If sugar is the first ingredient on the list, put it back on the shelf.  A study conducted by Consumer Reports found that some breakfast cereals contain 40 to 50 percent sugar by weight. That's as much as a donut, cupcake, or handful of cookies. It's easy to spot some of the sugar-soaked culprits, especially if they claim to taste like dessert, but some cereals that appear to be "healthy" are also loaded with sweet stuff. If there's more than 10 grams of sugar per serving, choose something else.
  • High fiber cereals tend to be healthier choices than low fiber ones. That's because they're likely to contain whole grains. Beware of labels that say "multigrain."  If the label doesn't specifically say "whole grains" it might just contain a variety of highly processed flours, like white flour. Look for cereals that have 5 grams of fiber or more.
  • Protein is an important part of a good breakfast because it helps maintain stable blood sugar and keeps you fuller longer. Cereals are generally a high carbohydrate food, which digests and is absorbed in your blood stream quickly. That can lead to a blood sugar spike followed by a fast drop that leaves you hungry, tired, and looking for your next sugar fix.  Whole grain cereals have about 4 or 5 grams of protein in them, but some cereals are protein-fortified. If your cereal doesn't say "high protein" on the label, don't immediately dismiss it. When you pour a cup of nonfat milk on your cereal, you automatically add 10 grams of protein. If you add a cup of low fat yogurt or an egg to your meal, you add another 6 to 10 grams.
  • Watch out for sodium.  Many popular cereals are loaded with added salt, some as much as 200 calories per serving. The American Heart Association used to recommend the average healthy adult keep sodium intake below 2300 mg per day, but in 2010, the number was lowered to 1500 mg.  Don't use it all up in your cereal bowl. 
  • Breakfast cereals provide an easy way to stock up on vitamins.  Many are vitamin-fortified and some even provide all the USDA recommended daily allowances for essential vitamins. This can be a good thing on days when you can't fulfill your fruit and veggie allowance, but don't let cereal be your substitute for eating a well-rounded healthy diet.  Nutrition experts say the best way to get all the vitamins you need is from their original sources-a  wide variety of fruits, veggies, grains, dairy, and lean protein sources. 



Consumer Reports

American Heart Association