Is cereal really dessert in disguise?
Scan a typical grocery store aisle. With about 130 varieties of cold cereal, each box yelling its seductive âlow sugar!â âhigh fiber!â âgreat source of whole grains!â health claims, itâs easy to feel, well, bowled over. âSome cereals are as healthy as salad, others are like scarfing down a chocolate eclair," Dawn Jackson Blatner, RD, author of The Flexitarian Diet, recently told Health magazine. "But while there are a lot of sugary cereals, happily, it's easier than ever to find a really nutritious one." Hereâs how to find the healthiest cereal for you.
When your healthy cereal is a sugar bomb
Grab your favorite cereal box and look at the ingredient list: You may be shocked to see that some form of sugar appearsâperhaps multiple timesâin the first few ingredients. âEven if a cereal is made from whole grains or loaded with other healthful ingredients, a high sugar content disqualifies it from my list of top picks,â Today contributor
and nutrition expert Joy Bauer, RD, says. Too much sugar adds unnecessary calories, and it also spikes your blood sugar and primes you for a mid-morning energy dip. Enter snack cravings!Healthy cereal makeover:
Expert recommendations vary, but most say look for fewer than 5 to 8 grams of sugar per serving. (Donât judge a box by its cover: Quaker Honey Graham Oh!s cereal, for instance, has 12 grams, while Lucky Charms cereal has 10 grams.) For great options, check out FitSugarâs list of low-sugar cereals
, where most have 5 grams or fewer. If you still can't give up on your favorite, mix it with a serving of low-sugar cereal.
When your healthy cereal skimps on whole grains
Whole grains are linked to weight loss and a decreased risk of diabetes and heart disease, and a bowl without them should be a deal-breaker. But it can be confusing, thanks to misleading front-of-box claims like âMore whole grain than any other ingredient!â and âwith whole grain first ingredient.â The Nutrition Action Healthletter, a newsletter from the watchdog group The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), warns that in roughly half the cereals that make those claims, the second ingredient is refined.
Healthy cereal makeover: The label youâre looking for is âMade from 100% whole grain.â Check the ingredient listâthe first ingredient should be preceded by the word âwhole.â One exception is bran, which canât call itself 100% whole grain, but is still a great source of fiber. Ideally, the first two ingredients should be whole grain, bran, fruit, or soy, according to the CSPIâs âBest Bitesâ rating system. Some that make the cut: Post Bran Flakes, Kashi GOLEAN, and General Mills Fiber One 80 Calories.
When your healthy cereal contains fake fiber
Fiber deserves a place in the Nutrition Hall of Fame for its ability to promote fullness and lower the risk of certain chronic diseases, but cereals that boast of sky-high levels are probably using added isolated fibers such as chicory root fiber, soy fiber, or psyllium. The Nutrition Action Healthletter says that there âisnât good evidence that these lower the risk of heart disease, constipation, and diabetes the same way intact fiber, the kind in the outer layer of whole grains, does.â And research suggests that inulin (chicory root) doesnât give you the same fullness as innate fiber, according to Health magazine.
Healthy cereal makeover: Choose cereals with at least 3 to 5 grams of fiber, but be skeptical of claims like â40 percent of your daily fiber,â warns the Nutrition Action Healthletter, which is a sign the fiber isnât the natural kind. Of course, the easiest way to pump up the fiber in any cereal: Top it with fruit. A half-cup of raspberries has 4 grams, about 17 percent of your daily need.
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When your healthy cereal is pumped with sodium
Youâve probably heard that our national love affair with salt is more a result of processed foods in our diets than the stuff in the shaker itself. Sneaky sodium packed into foods that donât taste salty (like cereal) tricks our taste buds into craving salt, which can lead us to other waistline-padding junk food. Healthy cereal makeover:
To make the cut for Selfâs Healthy Food Award guidelines
, cereals have no more than 250 milligrams of sodium per cup. (Kellloggâs Raisin Bran, for example, has 210 mg.) However, we often eat more than the serving sizeâso be mindful before you reach for seconds.
When your healthy cereal is missing protein
If your cereal bowl is nakedâpretty much just the flakes and milkâit may be too low on protein to keep you sufficiently satiated, which can impact how well you eat all day long. In a new University of Missouri study, people who ate a high-protein breakfast (eggs and lean beef) felt more full, had fewer cravings, and were less likely to snack on high-fat, and high-sugar foods at night, compared with a group who ate a calorically equivalent bowl of cereal or no breakfast.
Healthy cereal makeover: Add a tablespoon of nuts or flaxseed to your favorite cereal for an extra protein boost, or top Greek yogurt (an excellent source of protein) with a small handful of your favorite cereal flakes for crunch.
When your healthy cereal forgets to make friends with milk
The milk you add to your cereal helps make it a more nutritious meal by contributing protein, calcium, and other key nutrients. Harvard research shows that people who eat dairy foods frequently are 21 percent less likely to develop insulin resistance, and 9 percent less likely to develop type 2 diabetes. Whatâs more, fortified vitamins and minerals are sprayed on cereal and dissolve in milk, according to Health. If you donât drink all of it, you miss them.
Healthy cereal makeover: If you donât like milk, eat your cereal dry to get all of the added nutrients, and get a dairy boost from other sources, like Greek yogurt or low-fat cottage cheese, the magazine recommends.
When your healthy cereal serving is too big
In a recent test of portion control savvy, Family Circle magazine volunteers
poured cereal bowls that were twice as big as those recommended (1 1/2 cups and 240 calories compared to a 3/4-cup, 120-calorie serving). Do that with a calorie bomb like granola, and it could take a real toll on your waistline. Healthy cereal makeover:
Donât assume you know what a serving size looks like! Measure it out and see how it fits into your bowl so you know how to eyeball a healthy portion. Also, consider eating with a teaspoon instead of a tablespoon, recommends Womenâs Health magazine
. This can make you eat more slowly and cut your overall calorie intake. Another neat tip: Eat the cereal out of a coffee cup instead of a big bowl to trick your brain into thinking youâre eating more.
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When your healthy cereal stays out on the counter
Believe it or not, keeping the box in plain sight may make you more likely to top off your bowl or take a couple of handfuls here and there all day long. Grazing like this can add up to a serving or more, says Womenâs Health.
Healthy cereal makeover: Put the cereal away after you pour it. If you like to snack on your favorite flakes during the day, portion out the serving size you want in little snack-sized baggies. Consider mixing basic whole grain flakes with nuts, seeds, and mini chocolate chips for a satisfying trail mix.