Choosing a Healthy Breakfast Cereal

How healthy is your breakfast cereal? Here are 8 great-tasting picks.

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Choosing a healthy breakfast cereal is not a simple task. The cereal aisle is a long one, full of contradictions. You'll find cereals made with refined grains with nearly no fiber, and cereals made with whole grains and bran boasting 7 grams or more of fiber. There are cereals with so much sugar they seem more like boxes of little cookies. And there are cereals with sugar listed far down on the ingredient list.

But it's well worth the effort, experts say. If you eat cereal almost every day, either for breakfast or as a snack, the cereal you choose can say a lot about your health. It can add a lot of good stuff to your diet -- or it can add a whole lot of nothing.

Experts say that choosing a healthy breakfast cereal is mainly about getting some whole grains. There's no excuse not to get at least one serving of whole grains if you eat cereal for breakfast. And it's well worth the effort; recent research suggests those who eat more whole grains are at lower risk of diabetes and heart disease.

"Consumers should aim to select cereals that are high in fiber, ones that are made with whole grains," says Sandra Affenito, PhD, RD, CDN, an associate professor in the department of nutrition at Saint Joseph College. "Americans of all ages do not consume the recommended fiber intake."

Cereals made with refined grains have generally not been linked to health benefits, like a lower risk of death from heart disease, as whole-grain breakfast cereals have. Refined-grain cereals do not lower the risk of gaining weight or having a higher BMI (body mass index), but whole grain-rich cereals do.

Choosing a Healthy Breakfast Cereal: Taste or Nutrition?

The trick is finding a breakfast cereal that is full of healthful attributes, low in sugar, and has no saturated fat and trans fat -- but still tastes great! It doesn't matter how good for you a cereal is; if it doesn't taste good, you're probably not going to eat it day after day.

Of course, one person's perfect whole-grain cereal with less sugar is another person's bowl of sawdust. If you like breakfast cereals that come in lots of colors and artificial flavors, then yes, you probably do have to choose between taste and nutrition. But if you like a cereal with natural flavors from toasted whole grains, and maybe some nuts and dried fruit, you'll have many healthful cereals to choose from.

And yes, dried fruits do add nutrition to your cereal. A quarter of a cup of raisins, for example, has about 1 1/2 grams of fiber plus 4% of the Recommended Daily Value for vitamin E and about 6% each of the Daily Value for vitamins B-1, B-6, and iron, magnesium, and selenium. But when you look on the nutrition facts label for Raisin Bran, for example, you might be shocked to see there are 19 grams of sugar in a 1-cup serving. What's going on is that any sugars -- even those from natural sources like dried fruit -- are counted in the sugar grams listed on the label.

"It may be helpful for the consumer to review the ingredient listing of a Nutrition Fact label to identify added sugars rather than reading the amount of total sugars in the product," Affenito says in an email interview.

Choosing a Healthy Breakfast Cereal: Does Bran Matter?

There are plenty of breakfast cereals with the word "bran" in the title, or at least on the box. Bran's biggest benefit is boosting the grams of fiber per serving. This makes the cereal seem more filling, both in the short run and a couple hours.

This staying power may have something to do with the lower glycemic index of bran cereals. One study noted that the glycemic index of corn flakes was more than twice that of bran cereal.

Other recent research found that adding bran to the diet reduced the risk of weight gain in men aged 40-75. Another study, in women aged 38-63, reported that as intake of fiber and whole-grain foods went up, the rate of weight gain tended to decrease. Eating refined grains had the opposite effect. As the intake of refined-grain foods increased, so did weight gain.

Choosing a Healthy Breakfast Cereal: How Much Sugar?

Does the ingredients list for your cereal look a lot like that on, say, a box of cookies? One ounce of Mini Oreo cookies has 11 grams of sugar and 130 calories (34% of its calories come from sugar). And sugar is the second ingredient listed (enriched flour is first). Lots of cereals have ingredient lists that look similar -- like Cookie Crisp Cereal, with 44% calories from sugar.

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