It’s National Cereal Day, so you can proudly raise a spoon and bowl in honor of the country’s most popular breakfast food. (Just do it carefully so the milk doesn’t spill!)
I’ve been known to love a bowl of cereal, especially Raisin Bran (yum!), but there are concerns about the health factor of cereal in general. “Isn’t it a processed food that you should avoid?” “Isn’t milk bad for you?” “Won’t grains cause me to gain weight?”
These warnings exist for good reason. Many cereals are NOT the healthiest everyday breakfast meal, but you can follow some simple guidelines to make cereal a much healthier choice.
Mastering the Art of Package Reading
Cereal boxes, much like many packaged foods nowadays, are often loaded with a variety of healthy claims: Low fat! Gluten-free! High fiber! And you know there are many, many others.
For the most part, I advise you to ignore the flashy claims. While they may be true, they don’t tell the whole story. It’s in the best interests of the cereal manufacturer to highlight the best qualities of their product while minimizing others. Don’t be fooled.
(Side note: Before getting into the fitness industry, I worked as a marketing manager for a large food manufacturer. I used to be the person choosing which claims to highlight on packaging — trust me, they are almost always a one-sided message that need to be taken with a grain of salt.)
Ignore the marketing messages on the front of a package and flip to the nutrition panel on the side of the box. The nutrition label follows a mandated format that can’t be twisted by marketing messages — it will tell you if the cereal you’re holding in your hands is a healthy option or not.
Here are 5 things you should be on the lookout for:
1. Is it whole grain?
When grains are refined, almost all the fiber, and many of the vitamins and minerals, are lost. So, make sure your breakfast cereal is made of at least 50% whole grains, preferably 100%.
Having whole grains in your diet is so essential because they benefit your weight-loss goals, reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease, provide healthier blood pressure levels and offer many other health benefits.
Read carefully though. A claim like, “Made with whole grains” can be misleading since it doesn’t specify how much of the cereal contents are actually whole grains. Look for specifics, ideally: “Made with 100% whole grains.”
2. Are you getting fiber?
The average American adult only eats 15 grams of fiber per day, which is a far cry from 25 grams that are recommended as a minimum for adult women (and 38 grams for men).
Fiber helps keep your digestive system running smoothly and helps satiate you — you feel full much longer after eating a high-fiber meal. Your ideal fiber sources include pretty much every vegetable, many fruits, beans, lentils, and —you guessed it — whole grains.
As a rule of thumb, look for at least 5 grams of fiber per serving of cereal.
But don’t stop there. You can easily make your cereal much higher in fiber by simply adding raspberries (8 grams of fiber per cup), blackberries (7.6 grams) or avocados (6.7 grams per half) — all super-delicious additions to your whole grain cereal.
Brussels sprouts or peas would also do the trick. I haven’t tried either of those, though, so I’ll let you tell me how they taste as a cereal add-on!
3. How much sugar does it contain?
Simply by following rules #1 and #2 above, you’ve probably eliminated at least 70% of the least-healthy breakfast cereals already. Nice work!
Now we’ve got to talk about sugar. Cereal can contain those wonderful whole grains and fiber while still packing a ton of sugar. In fact, some cereals have as much sugar as half a glass of Coca Cola.
Starting your day by consuming this much sugar will skyrocket your blood sugar, set you up for energy crashes, and can leave you susceptible to cravings all day long.
I recommend looking for cereal that has 8 grams of sugar or less per serving. Of course, zero grams of sugar would be ideal, and there are cereals out there that meet this standard — any guesses which ones?
4. Is sodium hiding in there too?
As surprising as it may sound, some cereals contain a lot of sodium even though they don’t taste salty, which is the typical indicator of a high-sodium food.
A diet high in sodium leads to high blood pressure, which may result in various heart-related dangers such as heart disease, stroke, or heart attack.
Remember that the upper limit for daily sodium consumption in 2,000mg, so cereals that contain 500, 600, or even 700mg per serving should be stroked off your list of choices.
Look for one that has 200 mg of sodium per serving or less. Again, there are cereals out there with zero sodium. No spoiler alerts here — I want you to start checking your labels.
5. What’s the total calorie count?
Making the wrong cereal choice can easily leave you with 500 calories per serving, which is a fourth of the standard daily calorie intake for adult women.
Think about that for a second. One quarter of your daily calories could come from a single bowl of cereal before you even head off to work. Plus, add about 100 calories that come with one cup of milk, and you can see how this isn’t the ideal start to your day.
Again, following the rules we’ve already discussed here will help you hone in on healthier, lower-calorie cereals, but it’s still worth checking your labels. My favorite healthy cereal contains just 150 calories per serving, and not surprisingly, it’s 100% whole grain, full of fiber, has zero sugar, and not a trace of sodium!
Take a look at yours.
Making Your Healthy Cereal Even Healthier
Now that you’ve got 5 questions to ask before buying your next box of cereal, let’s talk about how to make that cereal even healthier.
1. Is there any meaningful protein?
Traditional North American breakfasts are severely protein-deficient. We tend to eat carbs— lots of them. And even though carbs aren’t necessarily bad, your body needs protein to build and repair lean tissue like muscle, hair, and fingernails. Plus, protein balances your blood sugar to avoid energy crashes, and it helps you to feel full.
While a cup of milk provides you with 8 grams of protein, you can easily boost your protein intake by adding some Greek yogurt, a protein powerhouse food. This addition of Greek yogurt can more than double your breakfast protein intake, raising it to 25-35 grams in total. That’s a breakfast that will keep you feeling energized all morning.
2. Where’s the fat?
As we just discussed, breakfast meals are typically built around carbs, but you have to be a little more proactive to find protein and healthy fat. Nuts and seeds are also great sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which are important for good health, calcium for the bones and that super-healthy fiber we’ve talked about above.
Try chia seeds, hemp hearts, walnuts, peanuts, or slivered almonds as cereal toppings to give you the fat, and even more protein, that will take your breakfast to a higher nutritional level.
And, in case you don’t have time to go searching for yourself, my favorite whole grain, high fiber, low sugar, no sodium, low calorie cereal is … steel cut oats! I top mine with walnut pieces, blueberries, raisins, and a glob of Greek yogurt. Try it!
Have you looked at the labels on the cereal boxes in your pantry? How did your favorites stack up? —Dave