Morning Diet: Ditch the Sugary Cereal

Learn the problem with simple sugars — and what you should eat instead

Sugar crash

Every night, we hit the sack to recharge our batteries. As we sleep, our bodies keep our hearts pumping blood, our lungs breathing and our brains functioning. In the morning, our bodies crave nourishment to refuel after a hard night’s work. 

Advertising Policy

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

The problem? Too many of us replenish ourselves with sugary cereals.

Popular cereals on grocery store shelves often contain massive amounts of simple sugars. Simple sugars (or simple carbohydrates) are digested quickly and are usually void of essential vitamins and minerals. The American Heart Association was one of the first major groups to issue formal guidelines on sugar intake — and they backed their recommendations with a scientific statement in the journal Circulation, which read “excessive consumption of sugars has been linked with several metabolic abnormalities and adverse health conditions, as well as shortfalls of essential nutrients.” Strong scientific data also has linked excess sugar with an increased risk of heart disease and diabetes.

So how many grams of sugar should you aim for? As few as possible — but try to stay within the American Heart Association Guidelines:

  • Women: No more than 100 calories per day, which equals 6 teaspoons or 24 grams
  • Men: No more than 150 calories per day, which equals 9 teaspoons or 36 grams

Most sugar-sweetened cereals contain at least 4 teaspoons of sugar per serving, so you’ll reach the limit pretty quickly if you keep them in your diet. 

Watch for added sugars 

Simple sugars occur naturally in fruits, vegetables and dairy products, and these foods are nutritious staples of any good diet. The simple sugars you need to look out for are added simple sugars, such as those in many cereals. In addition to the adverse health effects mentioned above, simple sugars actually trigger us to eat more and thus put us at risk for weight gain. Most of us don’t even notice the effect that sugar has on our appetite; we just know we’re never quite satisfied after our sugary breakfast and are usually looking for more unhealthy foods not long after having breakfast.

Advertising Policy

Why? The processing and preparation of foods do play a part, but overall, simple sugar consumption causes a spike in blood sugar and insulin followed by a crash. This leaves us feeling even hungrier than we were before — and more likely to continue eating until we can find something to make us full. Have you felt hungry after drinking a can of cola or eating a candy bar? Have you had a doughnut on the way to work yet still find yourself looking for the vending machines after you arrive?

Whatever your sugar vice, the effects are the same, for the most part: You want more.

Read the ingredients

What can you do now to limit your simple sugar consumption in the morning? Look at the ingredients of any food first, focusing on the top five ingredients, avoiding any of the following:

  • Sugar
  • Raw sugar
  • Rice syrup
  • Brown rice syrup
  • Invert sugar
  • Molasses
  • High fructose corn syrup
  • Brown sugar
  • Evaporated cane juice
  • Honey
  • Fruit juice concentrate
  • Sucanat
  • Maltodextrin syrup
  • Malt syrup
  • Fructose
  • Glucose
  • Agave nectar

Second, look at how many total grams of sugar the product has per serving. These two pieces of information are a powerful way to assess the health of your cereal at home. You may even be surprised to learn that some “healthy” cereals are loaded with added simple sugars.

What to eat instead

Thank your body in the morning by filling it with foods that are high in fiber and nutrients to get it going.

Advertising Policy

Some examples:

  • Oatmeal with blueberries
  • Low-fat plain yogurt with berries and walnuts
  • Egg whites with 100% whole grain toast
  • Shredded wheat with low-fat milk or milk substitute 

Finally, use common sense in the morning. Michael Pollan, author of the book Food Rules, recommends avoiding cereals that change the color of your milk. I’d say that is a great rule to live by!

How do you fuel your mornings? Let us know in the comments below.

Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD

Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD

Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD, is a registered dietitian and wellness manager for the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute.
Advertising Policy