Choosing a Healthy Breakfast Cereal

By the time your alarm clock rings each morning, your body has been without food for many hours, and a cup of coffee isn’t enough to fuel your brain and other vital organs until lunchtime.  Cereal can certainly be “part of a complete breakfast”, since it is generally low in fat, but you must choose wisely.  Cereal manufacturers have caught on to the fiber trend, adding a type of isolated fiber called inulin and sometimes revamping their ingredient list to include whole grains.  However, many cereals still contain less-than-desirable amounts of refined flours and loads of sugar disguised by fancy names and deceptive marketing tools.  Whole grain cereals are a great choice to start your day, but a healthy cereal is more than just “whole grain.”  A cereal should be low in sugar and sodium, and high in fiber and protein.  And, it has to taste great, right?

Many large epidemiological studies have found that a diet rich in whole grains reduces risk for heart disease, type-2 diabetes, obesity, and cancer, and also improves gastrointestinal health.  Whole grains are loaded with protein, fiber, phytosterols, B vitamins, vitamin E, iron, zinc, copper, and magnesium.  A review from the International Food Information Council Foundation (IFIC) further suggests that eating whole grains at breakfast may improve your concentration and productivity at work, make you less irritable, and help you to maintain a healthy weight.  Try these tips to make better choices and boost the benefits of your breakfast cereal:

  • Replace refined flour with 100% whole grainsWhole grain flours contain fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and healthy fats, which carbohydrate-rich refined flours lack.  They are usually identified by the word “whole” in the ingredient list, but brown rice, oats/oatmeal, and wheatberries are also whole grains.
  • Choose cereal that is low in sugar, preferably less than 7 grams per serving.  General Mills has reduced the sugar content of many of its cereals, but most still contain more than 10 grams of sugar per serving – which is still 2 and a half teaspoons!  Other manufacturers are substituting sweeteners like agave nectar, brown rice syrup, and raw cane syrup, for white sugar.  While they might seem like better options, they are still sugar, plain and simple.  For optimal health, limit all kinds of added sugar in your diet.
  • Choose cereal that is low in sodium. If it contains more than 200 milligrams, put it back on the shelf.  Some cereal contains a lot of sodium, even though it doesn’t taste salty – check the nutrition label.
  • Aim for more than 5g of fiber per serving.  Your total fiber intake should be about 25-30g per day.  If your favorite cereal meets all of the other criteria, add some wheat bran, ground flax seed, or oat bran to improve the fiber content of your breakfast.
  • Aim for more protein.  If a cereal is whole grain it will contain at least 1-3 grams of protein.  Protein slows digestion, which improves satiety and keeps you feeling full longer.  Try adding nuts or seeds for a protein boost.  Milk is also a great source of protein, vitamins and minerals, just be sure to choose low-fat varieties fortified with vitamin D.
  • Add fruit, nuts, and low-fat dairy for an impressive breakfast. Don’t let your choices sabotage all of your efforts in choosing the perfect cereal.  Non-dairy milks, like almond, hemp, and soy, are great plant-based options, but some contain excess sugar or very few vitamins and minerals, so choose wisely.  Sometimes your cereal needs a protein, or vitamin boost.  Try adding dried or fresh fruit for vitamins and fiber, and nuts or seeds for protein and fiber.  With these great additions, your taste buds will thank you as well!

Check out this list of great cereal options, or seek out your old stand-bys:  Cheerios, shredded wheat, All Bran, hot oatmeal (unflavored), and bran flakes and add your favorite garnishes.  Kashi Go Lean Original, Fiber One Honey Clusters, and Total Whole grain are some other options.

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