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Nutrition Articles  ›  Pitfalls and Plateaus

How to Pick a Healthy Breakfast Cereal

Watch Out for these Breakfast Cereal Scams

-- By Becky Hand, Licensed & Registered Dietitian
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Diet advice is everywhere—in the newspaper, the new government guidelines, and on the SparkPeople site. "Limit sweets, cut down on sugary foods, and decrease consumption of refined carbohydrates," it says. So, bold words like "Reduced Sugar" or "Whole Grain" catch your attention on food packages. You quickly take hold of a box of this "New and Improved" breakfast cereal as you stroll the aisles at your local grocery store.

However, experts from five universities reviewed the leading kid’s cereals, including these reduced sugar versions, only to discover that the calorie amount was equal to the regular high-sugar variety. In fact the ONLY one that had somewhat fewer calories was General Mills Cinnamon Toast Crunch—and it only dropped by 10 calories in each serving.

"How can this be?!" you scream. Well, the manufacturers replaced the sugar with other forms of refined carbohydrates. So the manufacturers are legal in their marketing endeavors, but the calorie amount is virtually the same. Seeing is believing. Check out the nutrition labels the next time you are in the grocery store. You’ll be truly amazed…as well as deceived, frustrated and angered. So place the box back on the shelf as quickly as you grabbed it, and select a breakfast cereal based on the following SparkPeople tips:

  • For a fiber-rich, healthy breakfast cereal enjoy whole grain cereals like oatmeal, Cheerios, Wheaties, shredded wheat, raisin bran or Kashi.
  • Add sweetness with fresh, frozen, or fruit canned in its own juice. Give sliced bananas, canned peaches, frozen blueberries, or fresh strawberries a try.
  • Top it all off with some low-fat milk or soymilk.
  • If you, your spouse, or children are screaming for the sweeter stuff, first try to go half-and-half. For example, half chocolate puffs mixed with half Cheerios. The amount of sugar and flavorings is more than ample to sweeten the contents in the entire bowl. Trust me on this one—it works. My 9- and 14-year-old have no complaints with this morning ritual!
Ignore those catchy claims on the front of the box. Go straight to the nutrition facts label. Here's what to look for:
  • Remember the "Rule of Fives": Choose cereals with at least 5 grams of fiber per serving, and less than 5 grams of sugar.
  • Look for each serving to contain at least 3 grams of protein.
  • Read the ingredients list. The top ingredients should be "whole wheat", or "wheat bran"—not just "wheat". These whole grains are naturally low in fat, and high in fiber.
  • Avoid cereals that list hydrogenated oils, artificial dyes or colors, and chemical preservatives as ingredients—these have no place in a healthy diet!
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About The Author

Becky Hand Becky Hand
Becky is a registered and licensed dietitian with almost 20 years of experience. A certified health coach through the Cooper Institute with a master's degree in health education, she makes nutrition principles practical, easy-to-apply and fun. See all of Becky's articles.

Member Comments

  • I used to really like cereal, but after staying away for a while, every one I try anymore just tastes like cardboard.

    I do still like Count Chocoula despite how unhealthy it is, but at least I only eat it "in season" now XD - 2/22/2014 11:38:46 AM
  • With my son being a teenager, he seldom asks for cereal anymore. If I have a taste for a cereal, I generally look for ones with high fiber and protein. Little or no sugar and low in fat.
    - I love the FiberOne brand! - 1/26/2014 12:54:16 PM
  • Love the half and half idea. Going to start it with my two Froot loop loving toddlers! :) - 1/2/2014 9:28:28 AM
  • 5 rule is sooo easy to remember! Thanks ; ) - 11/2/2013 1:50:13 AM
  • NATURELADY101
    Short and sweet...but providing good information. I had never heard of the rule of five before. Thanks... - 10/30/2013 8:30:54 PM
  • As with most areas in life, EVERYTHING in moderation, including cereals. One bowl of the bad stuff a week and the other 6 days, oatmeal, shredded wheat/ fruit. No new news here. - 10/17/2013 11:17:24 AM
  • GOODWITCH333
    Raisin Bran does not follow the rule of five. It has 18-19 grams of sugar!!! - 10/17/2013 5:29:14 AM
  • Cereal is not real food. I know parents turn to it for breakfast for their children because it is fast and easy. I see this as a convenience for parents and not the health of their children.
    *smh*. So sad..... - 10/16/2013 12:15:42 PM
  • Good article. Thanks for sharing. - 9/14/2013 7:21:43 AM
  • CAROLVY
    Be careful eating a lot of those high fiber cereals if your body isn't used to it. I started a high fiber diet including cereal, and ended up with appendicitis. I believe strongly it was from introducing too much fiber to my system all at once. - 9/11/2013 12:18:51 PM
  • I have never tried yogurt in my cereal before I may have to now, though I have mixed cereal in my kids yogurt, he likes the crunch. I like to use vanilla almond milk, I usually get the unsweetened but the flavor alone adds enough, and fruit is always a great way to go. - 9/8/2013 9:26:46 PM
  • I purchase a healthier cereal, then I add 10 almonds and some yogurt, and my skim milk. I can usually get it to 20 gm of protein, with a fair calorie count. A little wheat germ can bump it up as well. - 9/7/2013 8:47:25 PM
  • CANUCKSFAN2
    For the most part I eat Cherrios or Mini Wheats for breakfast, along with some toast, but every now and then, I get something like Fruit Loops or some other sugary cereal. And on Sundays I have hashbrowns, eggs, toast, coffee and bacon. - 9/7/2013 7:50:30 PM
  • PCAMERON
    Unfortunately, all cereals that are not specifically identified as organic are likely to have GMO ingredients. GMO ingredients have been tied to gut distress and may contribute to weight gain. - 9/7/2013 4:39:33 PM
  • My southern mom gave me a hot grits with butter breakfast, I still like this best. I also enjoy Cheerio's with sliced fruit, banana's or peaches. - 9/7/2013 12:21:42 PM