How to Pick a Healthy Breakfast Cereal

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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Member Comments

thanks Report
thanks! Report
Good need-to-know information! Thanks! Report
Thanks for sharing. Report
I am used to eating cereal without adding sugar. Fruit additions are unsugared as well. Still a treat! Report
Great suggestions! Report
Why does no one mention Kellogg's All-Bran? One cup (which is actually 2 servings) contains just 160 calories, but has 8 grams of protein, 20 grams of fiber, and only 2 grams of fat. Add a cup of soymilk (90 calories, 7 g. protein, 4 g. fat) and a cup of fresh strawberries (45 calories, 4 g. fiber, no fat) for a tasty, filling, and refreshing breakfast. I eat it about 2-3 times/week. Report
Thanks for sharing Report
I usually do half cup of fiber one then half cup of cherriors but mulitgrain or special k and 1 third of a cup of golden grahams then use unsweetened almond milk. Plus some berries. Comes out around 250 calories but i work out for 3 hours every morning. Report
Good article. Myself I eat 1/2 cup of chex or cherrios. Without any kind of milk on it. I have gluten allergic. So I have to be careful what I am eating Report
I have never liked cold cereal, but I do like oatmeal ( which I call hot cereal) with a little bit of Brown sugar. Report
This article was very helpful!! Thanks! Report
South Beach actually requires more fiber and less sugar per half cup serving of cereal. Cold: choose ones with 6g or more fiber and 8g or less sugar, for instance. I think they often require even less sugar than that. Uncle Sam's, Cheerios, Kashi Go-Lean (not Crunch!), Ezekiel, Nature's Path. Unfortunately, many of these are not particularly tasty, but I find I do better if I mix in a spoonful of jam (sugar free if possible) and put it in yogurt, adding in vanilla and/or cinnamon. FWIW! Report


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.