Contributor: Brigid Titgemeier, MS, RDN, LD
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As Americans become more and more health-conscious, we’re turning away from popular cereals filled with sugar, refined carbohydrates and other additives.
So how do you find a cereal that’s truly nutritious? You begin by looking for cereals with few ingredients. The first three ingredients are key. They should include:
- 100% whole grains. Look for “100% whole grain” on the front of the package or for the word “whole” before each grain on the ingredients list: whole wheat, whole grain brown rice, whole grain oats, etc.
- No added sugar. Added sugar should not be among the first three ingredients. We’re not just talking cane sugar — agave nectar, honey, and maple syrup are also added sugars. Avoid non-nutritive sweeteners, such as stevia and artificial sweeteners, too. They still alter your taste buds and feed any sugar addiction.
- No dried fruit. Cereal boxes are decked out with pretty pictures of fruit that trick you into thinking it’s nutritious and “natural.” But the only fruit in boxed cereals is either dried or a natural concentrate. Dried fruits are typically coated with added sugar. They rank higher on the glycemic index, making blood sugar rise quickly, which leads to inflammation and soon makes you hungry again.
Whole grains, demystified
A whole grain contains all three parts of the seed. The bran, or outer layer, provides fiber and B vitamins. The endosperm, in the center, is mainly starch. The germ at the center, where flavor is rooted, is a good source of B vitamins, protein, vitamin E and healthy oils.
Research suggests that many intact whole grains are lower on the glycemic index. Your body slowly and steadily converts grains to glucose (sugar) in your blood because of their fat and fiber. So whole grains can be good for long-term health, especially when paired with lean proteins and healthy fats, like nuts and seeds.
But if you have type 2 diabetes or prediabetes, you may want to consider removing all grains from your diet for the short term. Research indicates that avoiding grains and high-carbohydrate foods can quickly improve blood sugar control.
Rice, wheat, corn, barley, rye, oats, millet and sorghum are the most popular cereal grains. Of these, barley and rye offer the most fiber. Rice and millet, common in gluten-free cereals, provide the least fiber. Whole grains are also a good source of key nutrients like iron, magnesium, selenium and B vitamins.
Dress cereal up to boost its nutrients
Even the best cereal is predominantly carbohydrates, with little protein and fat. That won’t provide the nutrients your body needs to balance blood sugar, feed a healthy gut or kick-start your day. Fill one-fourth of your bowl with cereal and three-fourths of your bowl with extra toppings that give you optimal protein, fat and fiber.
- Add only natural sweetness. The best sweetness comes from the earth in the form of fruit. Its natural fructose will raise your blood sugar, but not as quickly because of its fiber content. Boost the anti-inflammatory phytonutrients and fiber in your cereal with three-quarters of a cup of berries, a medium apple, chopped, or one-half cup of pomegranate seeds.
- Spice it up with cinnamon. Cinnamon is not just delicious. It is associated with health benefits such as better glycemic control and a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes.
- Top with nuts and seeds. Protein is essential at breakfast. Research shows that it helps decrease cravings later in the day. Add nutrient density to your cereal with chia seeds, hemp seeds, a handful of almonds or walnuts, or a scoop of natural almond butter or natural cashew butter.
- Pour on home-made nut milk. Making cashew or almond milk is easy. Their plant-based protein and unsaturated fat will keep you feeling fuller, longer. Soak nuts overnight, then blend 1 cup with 3 cups of water until smooth. Add a pinch of salt and ½ teaspoon of vanilla extract for flavor.
You can try making your own hot cereal or porridge, too. Use buckwheat, oats or quinoa, then add the appropriate toppings.
Follow these tips for choosing healthy cereals and enhancing their nutrient value, and breakfast will leave you feeling nourished, satisfied and energized!