By Erin Shippee, B.S.
We've heard time and time again that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Eating a healthy breakfast can help you:
A bowl of cereal is one of the most convenient breakfast choices there is. But choosing a healthy breakfast cereal is no simple task. There is an endless variety to choose from and knowing which ones are good for you can be difficult.
Some cereals have hidden sugars and high calorie contents. (For example, some granolas have 10 grams of fat and over 250 calories for a half-cup serving.) But other cereals can make an easy and nutritious meal that gives your body the healthy start it needs. Whether you want a nutritious cereal for yourself or your children, here's what you need to know.
1. Whole grains
The healthiest cereals are made from whole grains. They naturally have the fiber, vitamins and minerals that refined grains lack. The only way to tell if a cereal has whole grains is to read the ingredient list. The first ingredient should be a whole grain, such as whole wheat, whole grain corn, whole oats, oatmeal or bran. Recent research suggests those who eat more whole grains are at lower risk of diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers.
The fiber found in whole grains is essential to keep your digestive system healthy. Fiber also lowers cholesterol, helps prevent heart disease and helps you feel full, which aids in weight management. Many processed cereals are high in sugar and may have little to no fiber. This causes a rapid increase in blood sugar levels shortly after eating. In contrast, foods with fiber help keep blood sugar even and provide a steady source of energy for the body.
Most people don't get enough fiber, so consuming fiber at breakfast helps you meet your recommended intake of 25-30 grams per day. Aim for a cereal that has at least 3 grams of fiber per serving – preferably 5 grams or more.
3. Low in calories
Calories can add up quickly and lead to unintentional weight gain, so make sure your cereal isn't tipping your scale in the wrong direction. Compare calories per serving when narrowing your choices in the grocery aisle. And don't forget to check the serving size carefully. Although two cereals may show the same amount of calories, the serving size for one may be 3/4 cup whereas the other is 1 cup. In order to maintain a healthy weight, look for cereals with less than 150 calories per serving.
4. Low in sugar
Cereal manufacturers spend over $150 million a year marketing to children. And health is not their primary concern. Often these cereals are loaded with sugary flakes, chocolate-covered oats or marshmallow bits.
The healthiest breakfast cereals are low in sugar. Check the ingredient list for added sugars, such as brown rice syrup, high fructose corn syrup or evaporated cane juice. Avoid cereals with sugar at or near the top of the ingredient list.
The American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugar to decrease the risk of heart disease and diabetes. Aim for a cereal that has 5 grams of sugar or less per serving and less than 25 grams of carbohydrate per serving. Sugar-based cereals may create immediate energy, but only for the short term. Whole-grain, high-fiber cereal provides more nutrition and keeps you full longer.
A study at Yale Rudd Center showed that, contrary to popular belief, children will eat lower-sugar cereals if given the opportunity. So start your child's day off right with a breakfast cereal that has health benefits and keeps her focused in school.
5. Low in sodium
The sugar content of cereals seems to have gotten all of the attention. Did you know that some cereals have as much as 300 milligrams of sodium per serving? It is important to read the nutrition label to see if the salt content is within a reasonable range. The American Heart Association recommends eating less than 1,500 milligrams of sodium each day to keep our vital organs healthy and prevent chronic diseases, such as hypertension. The healthiest cereals contain less than 200 milligrams of sodium per serving.
Look beyond the marketing hype of cereal makers. Don't rely on the front of the box or the price tag to determine how healthy a cereal is. The front of the box will often have various claims about a cereal's whole-grain content or its benefits for weight loss and heart health. But the best way to tell whether a cereal is really healthy is to read the nutrition label.
If you don't like a cereal, you won't eat it no matter how nutritious it is. So try different ones until you find one that works for you! You can also try mixing a healthier cereal with a less-healthy option until you get used to the taste. Here are a few good cereal choices to get you started:
Erin Shippee graduated with a B.S. in Nutrition and Dietetics from the University of Vermont. She is currently completing her dietetic internship at Brigham and Women's hospital. She plans to become a registered dietitian.