Often you are too busy in the morning to prepare a large breakfast, so you are forced to either scarf down a bowl of cereal, eat a sugar-packed pastry, or skip breakfast altogether.
As a kid you probably remember selecting cereal not by how it tasted or the nutritional value, but rather by what prize came inside. Times have not changed that much; the breakfast aisle at the grocery store is still loaded with colorful boxes of dry cereal featuring many of today’s favorite cartoon characters with enticing plastic toys. Even as an adult the bright colors and cute characters on the packages may get your attention, but it’s necessary to look beyond the advertising to find out which cereals are truly best for you.
The trick is to find a cereal that is full of healthful elements, low in sugar, and contains no saturated and trans fat, yet still tastes great. It doesn’t matter how “healthy” a cereal is—if it doesn’t taste good, you’re probably not going to eat it every day. Ready-to-eat cereal is one of the most popular breakfast choices in the United States. According to PBS Kids, every year Americans eat enough cereal to stretch a chain of the empty boxes to the moon and back.
Cereal can be a quick, easy, and nutritious way to start the day. It should provide the right amounts of nutrients needed to help maintain your blood-glucose level so your body doesn’t go into fasting mode. This will help you feel better than if you eat a meal high in sugary carbohydrates or don’t eat at all.
If time is available, sit down and enjoy a bowl of cereal and milk with a glass of 100-percent fruit juice. It’s best if you drink all the milk in your cereal bowl since milk is a good source of protein. Besides, many vitamins and minerals are sprayed onto the cereal and go into the milk. If you have to eat on the run, grab a handful of cereal, a whole piece of fruit, and a bottle or carton of low-fat milk—this way you can still get a nutrient-packed meal and make the right choices.
Your cereal should be nutrient dense and contain plenty of fiber but little sugar and fat. Fiber will help reduce blood cholesterol levels, may lower risk of heart disease, help reduce constipation and diverticulosis, and help give a feeling of fullness with fewer calories. When selecting a cereal, look for varieties that contain five or more grams of fiber per serving, less than eight grams of sugar, and about 25 percent of the Daily Value (DV) for key vitamins and minerals. Most refined (processed) grains contain little fiber. When looking at the fiber content on the Nutrition Facts label, a good rule of thumb is that 5 percent DV or less means the product is low in fiber, and 20 percent DV or higher means the product is high in fiber. You should gradually add fiber-rich whole grains to your diet so that your digestive system can adjust. Consuming too much fiber at once may cause bloating, flatulence (gas), diarrhea, and/or cramping. Also, drink plenty of liquids and chew foods slowly to break down the fiber and allow the digestive system to work smoothly and comfortably. You can add even more fiber by topping a high-fiber, whole grain cereal with fruit or a handful of nuts.
Cooked cereals can be an excellent breakfast option. A few examples of fiber-rich cooked cereals include: oatmeal, rolled oats, grits, cream of wheat, and whole-grain couscous. The nutritional content of “instant” cooked cereals is comparable to other cooked cereals. However, “instant” cereals may contain more sodium, so it’s important to read the Nutrition Facts label. To add flavor and nutrition to cooked cereals, top with fresh fruit, nuts, or jazz them up with spices like cinnamon.
Between the different brands, it’s important to look at the Nutrition Facts label and see which one contains more nutrients per serving, which includes vitamins, minerals, and protein. The Nutrition Facts label has a column for cereal only and another column for cereal with milk. However, don’t depend on your morning ready-to-eat cereal to provide you with 100 percent of the DV for certain vitamins and minerals. Instead, you should get these nutrients from vegetables, fruits and whole grains (which also provide fiber, phytochemicals, and other antioxidants). If a cereal provides 100 percent of the DV for vitamins and minerals, then it is comparable to a nutrient supplement. Cereals with added soy protein, flax, and dried fruit usually do not contain enough of those ingredients to improve your health as they may claim.
Shopping for cereal can be one of the most confusing tasks when scouring the aisles at the grocery store. It is important to understand what counts as one serving, because most Americans are used to eating servings much larger than recommended. In ready-to-eat breakfast cereal, one serving is one cup of flakes or rounds or 1¼ cup of puffed cereal. One serving of cooked cereal is ½ cup. A typical serving size for most ready-to-eat breakfast cereals is one cup, so compare the price per cup instead of the cost per ounce as indicated by the unit price on the shelves of many stores. Some cereals are heavier (raisin bran-type cereal), so you end up with fewer cups for the same weight as another brand. The Nutrition Facts label should tell you how many servings there are per box. Be aware of where the cereals are placed on the grocery shelves. More expensive brands are at “eye-level,” or at a level that makes them easy to see, grab, and toss in the cart. Lower-priced items are on the bottom shelves and store brands that may be cheaper and just as good are placed on higher or lower grocery shelves. Many times organic or natural cereals may be placed in a separate section within the cereal aisle.
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and beginning your day without it is like trying to start your car without gas. By taking a few minutes to eat a bowl of healthy cereal, it will jump start your metabolism and make your entire day more productive.