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Is Cereal a Healthy Breakfast Choice?

July 19, 2022 - Katie McCallum

As a kid, you probably chose — or tried to choose — the sweetest cereal possible. Chocolate for breakfast!

As an adult, you know better ... though head might sometimes lose out to heart when it comes to what actually makes it into your grocery cart. Plus, is there such a thing as a healthy breakfast cereal anyway?

"I definitely think that, done right, cereal can be part of a healthy diet," says Amanda Beaver, wellness dietitian at Houston Methodist.

That being said, Beaver doesn't recommend choosing just any cereal as your everyday breakfast staple.

Yes, cereal can be healthy

Beaver says that healthy breakfast cereals come with several benefits:

  • A well-balanced, fiber-rich start to your day
  • Help meet your daily vitamin and mineral needs
  • Convenience

"Whole grain cereals are often fiber-rich and fortified with important vitamins and minerals," Beaver explains. "This can be beneficial for people who struggle to meet their iron and fiber needs from the other foods they typically eat."

The milk you pour on top can complete your well-balanced breakfast with protein, as long as you choose one that is a protein source. (Related: The Pros & Cons of Popular Types of Milk)

And the ease of simply pouring a bowl of cereal speaks to just how convenient this breakfast choice can be on a busy morning.

"Because of these three benefits, I think cereal can be a great daily breakfast option— as long as we're conscious of choosing one that's not high in added sugar," Beaver says.

Buyer beware: Avoid cereals high in added sugar

Breakfast cereals — "adult" ones included — can be full of added sugar, refined forms of sugar added to make foods taste better. They're different from the natural sugars found in fruit or dairy, which are accompanied by other important nutrients, such as fiber, protein or fat.

Added sugars offer no nutritional benefit to you, and eating these empty calories in excess can lead to weight gain and, over time, even contribute to chronic health conditions, like diabetes and heart disease.

"Cereal brands have gotten better at reducing added sugars over the years, but a lot still contain pretty high amounts," Beaver warns. "It's important to look at the added sugar content on the nutrition label to ensure you're making a healthy breakfast cereal choice."

The American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugar to 24 grams per day for women and 36 grams per day for men.

"If you're choosing a cereal that has 13 grams of added sugar per serving, you're not leaving yourself much room for any other added sugar sources during the day," Beaver adds. "I wouldn't recommend doing these higher added sugar cereals every day for breakfast."

5 tips for making cereal a healthy breakfast

With an aisle full of options, here's Beaver's guide to making healthy cereal choices:

1. Choose a cereal that has 10 grams of added sugar or less

First thing's first, flip the cereal box over and take a look at the nutrition label.

"My recommendation is to pick cereals with 10 grams of added sugar or less," Beaver says.

Focus on the added sugar content, not the total sugars. Total sugars include the natural sugar that comes from any dried fruits in the cereal, which Beaver says offer extra fiber and vitamins.

"If a cereal higher in added sugar is calling your name, think of it as a treat," Beaver adds. "Choose higher fiber and lower added sugar cereals most days of the week and have the sweeter one when you feel like treating yourself."

2. Choose a cereal that has 5 grams of fiber or more

For maximum health benefit, opt for a breakfast cereal high in fiber — ideally, five grams or more, Beaver recommends.

That's because fiber comes with several benefits, including helping to:

  • Prevent a blood sugar spike
  • Keep you feeling fuller for longer, since fiber takes more time to digest
  • Stimulate regular bowel movements
  • Support your gut microbiome, the microbes in your digestive tract that help digest foods and promote good gut health

According to the American Society of Nutrition, only 5% of men and 9% of women meet the dietary fiber recommendations every day. Women should aim to get about 25 grams of fiber per day, while men should aim for around 38 grams.

3. Add fruit for antioxidants and an extra fiber boost

Whether it's a handful of sliced strawberries or banana, Beaver is a proponent of topping your cereal with some fruit.

"Not only does fruit help provide more fiber, vitamins and minerals, it also provides us with antioxidants, which may have beneficial effects on your health," Beaver adds.

Topping your cereal with fruit may also expand your list of healthy options.

"There are some breakfast cereals that keep the added sugar content pretty low but don't meet the fiber recommendation," says Beaver. "Those can still be a good pick if you're putting some fruit on top since that will add a bit more fiber and filling-power to the meal."

4. Add a protein source if you're using almond milk or oat milk

Cow's milk, soy milk and protein-fortified plant based milks are a protein source, making them a great option for turning dry cereal into a well-balanced, filling meal.

Other popular milks — almond milk and oat milk, in particular — often aren't good sources of protein, though.

"If you're choosing almond or oat milk for your cereal, you'll want to eat a source of protein alongside it, such as a boiled or fried egg, to make sure the meal is filling and balanced," recommends Beaver.

Alternatively, you can meet your protein needs at breakfast by skipping milk altogether and putting your cereal on top of yogurt.

5. Watch the serving size of granola

Granola may be breakfast cereal adjacent, but it's easy to make some less-than-healthy mistakes when choosing it instead of more traditional cereals.

"Granola is typically more dense in fats and added sugars than regular breakfast cereal," Beaver warns. "This can make the caloric density of granola higher, causing the recommended portion size to be smaller than most cereals — only a 1/2 cup in some cases."

She recommends a sprinkle of granola on yogurt for crunch rather than a full bowl like regular cereal.

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