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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

  • Good information - 5/14/2014 5:44:39 AM
  • Best option is to avoid cereal all together but use it as a treat meal. Like I see in the comments YES its a processed source and most are loaded with SUGAR which you don't want on a daily diet. - 5/12/2014 10:25:50 AM
  • A lot of cereals are high in sodium too. If we have to have cold cereal, we go with shredded wheat. - 5/12/2014 10:21:13 AM
  • I notice the Kashi cereal is often mentioned as a healthy cereal - even in this article of low sugar. Each Kashi cereal I have checked is HIGH in sugar. Just yesterday I checked a box of one that looked appealing. 16 grams of sugar!!!!! That is 4 teaspoons of sugar per serving! - 5/10/2014 9:15:06 AM
  • Cereal is not a real food. It is also very expensive compared to oatmeal.
    Fresh fruit cut up for the children would be a better choice. - 5/10/2014 8:25:30 AM
  • It never ceases to amaze me the number of "know it alls" commenting here that don't even have a spark page. Are they really members or just nuts that like to pooh pooh everything in life.

    If you are so clever about cereals, milk, oil or whatever what on earth are you doing here making smart a$$ed comments. - 5/10/2014 7:49:08 AM
  • I like cereal once or twice a week. Love Kashi's Indigo Morning and Cinnamon Harvest.
    Before yoga I like the GNC Lean Bar --- especially strawberry. - 5/10/2014 6:43:52 AM
  • DADKAJ
    What a waste of space this article is. Cheerios? You must be joking. What is wrong with plain oats, nuts, seeds and fresh fruit? Come on!
    Anyway, eggs and baked beans are the best to fill the stomach, maintain a satiety and to keep blood sugar stable. Do not be worried about a button of hard butter for making the scrambled eggs. They will taste delicious and fill you up for longer. Stop buying low-fat milk, it is a lie - they sell you a by-product of fatty dairy produce such as butter and cream for a virtually the same price of proper milk. Cut down on processed carbohydrates and get rid of the insulin spikes, which only drives further fat storage! Cereals breakfast, other than the least processed oats or other non-wheat grains (buck-wheat) is a crime on misled consumers. Stop paying the corporations for altering a natural food, making it worthless and go for natural diet. - 5/10/2014 5:05:43 AM
  • JMDENISON
    Cereals are a franken food. They are heated, cooked and over processed, starchy and subject to GMO's and other health hazards.
    Best foods are fresh organic veggies and meats. Do yourself a favor and skip cereal entirely. Anything that can remain on a shelf for a year or two and not degrade is not a food. It is healthier to eat the box instead. - 5/10/2014 2:10:46 AM
  • JMDENISON
    Why don't you tell the truth. THERE IS NO "BREAKFAST CEREAL" which is healthy. They are a scam of really, really bad nutrition. The grain companies market, fancy package and sell a nickel's worth of product for $3 to $4 per box and try to market no nutrition as nutrition.
    I am infuriated by this article. It is trash, pure and simple. A marketing ploy from mega agra. You want nutrition, have eggs, cheese, quality organic meats, etc. for breakfast.
    Skip the cereal, bagels, toast, grains, etc. for breakfast. Eat the box instead at it will be healthier.
    Sparkpeople is mega agra people is lies and deception when it says there is a "good cereal". Cereals should be banned like cigarettes, booze for kids and all sorts of other evils. You want to eat a teaspoon of a cereal, go ahead, but anything else is pure folly.
    - 5/10/2014 2:04:53 AM
  • BAYUSHIZERO
    Low Fat Milk and/or Skim Milk are not the best choices for pouring over one's cereal.

    Whole Milk does without all of those carcinogenic additives that lowfat and skim milk contain. - 5/10/2014 1:26:56 AM
  • 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