Cereal is a quick, easy and delicious breakfast option. But many of the tempting boxes in the cereal aisle are more like sugar bombs than balanced breakfasts. Is cereal ever a nutritious pick?
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“Cereal can definitely be a healthy breakfast option if you choose something with good nutritional balance,” says registered dietitian Kate Patton, RD.
Here’s what you should know before you pour yourself a bowl.
Healthy cereal ingredient list
Lots of cereals are full of refined carbohydrates and added sugars. If you’re looking for something healthier, you probably know to avoid the varieties that are neon-colored or shaped like miniature cookies.
But you can’t always judge a cereal box by its cover. To tell the genuinely healthy options from the sweet-treats-in-disguise, peek at the nutrition label and ingredient list. Patton shares what to look for (and avoid).
Whether it’s whole wheat, whole-grain oats or whole-grain brown rice, whole-grain cereal is the way to go. Compared to white flour and other refined grains, whole grains are higher in fiber, protein and nutrients like iron, magnesium, selenium and B vitamins. A diet rich in whole grains can lower the risk of heart disease.
Fiber and whole grains go hand in hand. Fiber is good for healthy digestion and helps you stay full. (Sugary cereals, by contrast, often leave your stomach rumbling an hour later.) Aim for at least 2.5 grams of fiber per serving.
Protein can also help you feel full. Some cereals have added protein, and some, like oatmeal, are naturally a little higher in protein. While sweet cereals may have only 1 or 2 grams of protein, healthier options can have closer to 10 grams.
Most Americans eat way more than the recommended daily amount of sugar (36 grams for men and 25 grams for women). To start your day on the right foot, look for low-sugar cereals with less than 6 grams of added sugar per serving, Patton suggests.
Another good guideline: Don’t pick cereals with sugar listed in the top three ingredients. “The lower down the list, the better,” she says. And beware of hidden sweet stuff. Check the ingredient list for sugar imposters, including glucose, maltodextrin, high fructose corn syrup and evaporated cane juice.
Don’t be fooled: Some brands that claim to be heart-healthy cereals have a lot of sodium, says Patton. Choose a cereal with less than 140 milligrams of sodium per serving.
The best healthy cereal options
For all its charms, cereal can be sneaky. “Even if something is high in fiber or contains whole grains, you still have to be careful,” Patton says.
Many high-fiber cereals are pretty carb-dense, so pay attention to portion sizes and calories. And healthy-sounding options like granola, with all its whole grains and good-for-you nuts and seeds, can pack a surprising amount of fat and sugar into those crunchy nuggets.
Patton recommends sticking to the basics. Some of her favorites (just skip the flavored and frosted varieties):
- Bran flakes.
- Shredded wheat.
- Puffed brown rice cereal.
- Cream of Wheat®.
What to put in cereal: healthy toppings
If plain old flakes and o’s seem too bland to bear, you can zhuzh it up with some DIY toppings. These healthy cereal toppings add nutrition and flavor:
- Nuts: Nuts are a tasty way to boost the protein and healthy fats in your breakfast. “I’m a big fan of slivered almonds and crushed walnuts,” Patton says. Just watch quantities, since a big pile of nuts can be high in calories. Stirring a spoonful of unsweetened peanut butter or almond butter into hot cereal is another great way to add flavor and protein.
- Seeds: Hemp seeds are a great source of protein, while flaxseed adds a healthy dose of omega 3s. They blend especially well into hot cereals like oatmeal and Cream of Wheat.
- Fruit: Cereals with dried fruits in the box aren’t always the best choice, since the raisins or cranberries are often coated with sugar. To avoid added sugar, buy plain flakes and add your own raisins, Patton says. Even better, reach for fresh or thawed frozen fruit, which has less sugar than its dried counterparts. “Berries, bananas and diced apples are great choices,” she says.
- Cinnamon: Sprinkle on some spice to add flavor and a suggestion of sweetness — without dipping into the sugar bowl.
A healthy diet doesn’t have to be a cereal killer. With a little planning, cereal can be a nutritious way to start your day.