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Is Breakfast Cereal Healthy?

I often get questions about breakfast cereals. Parents of school-aged children ask about feeding their families and adults ask for themselves. Which breakfast cereals are healthy? How much sugar is OK to have in a breakfast cereal? Is *fill in the blank with any cereal* good for my child? Are there any healthy breakfast cereals? Of course, there is no one size fits all answer to any of these questions. What is healthy for one person might not be for another, so what is a reasonable and good choice is different for every family. The goal of this post is to give you information so that you can make a knowledgeable decision.



bowl of cereal


Cereals that are Marketed as Healthy


Here we will look at cereals that are commonly perceived to be healthy and compare them to to a cereal that is known to be healthy: oatmeal. I am using oatmeal as my comparison cereal for a few reasons. First, it a simple, single ingredient cereal grain. Second, it is poplar and easy to find. And third, it is low cost. Although different nutrition facts on different cereals use different amounts as a serving size, I am going to use one cup as a standard size for comparison. All nutrient amounts below are based on a one cup serving.


Cereal

Fiber (grams)

Sugar (grams)

Added Sugar (grams)

Protein (grams)

Oatmeal

4

1

0

5

General Mills Multi Grain Cheerios

2

6

6

2

General Mills Fiber One with Real Honey

10

9

8

4

General Mills Wheaties

4

5

5

3

Post Honey Bunches of Oats with Almonds

2

9

8

3

Post Great Grains Dates, Raisins, & Pecans

5

17

5

5

Kellogg's Raisin Bran

7

17

9

5

Kellogg's Special K Red Berries

3

11

10

3

Kellogg's All Bran Original

18

13

12

7

Kashi Go Original

10

6

6

9

Quakers Oatmeal Squares Brown Sugar

5

9

9

6

How to Evaluate if a Breakfast Cereal is Healthy


Fiber

First, find the fiber content. Fiber can contribute to feeling full after a meal, in addition to it being important for digestive and heart health. Most people need between 25-30gm of fiber per day.

Make sure you don't get mislead by the claim about how many grams of whole grains are in the cereal! While whole grains contain more fiber than refined grains, grams of whole grains is not the same as grams of fiber.


Also, high in fiber does not equate with being nutritious. Some cereals will be very high in fiber, but often high in sugar too to compensate for the taste. This leads us to the next nutrient to consider.


Sugar

Next, look at sugar. Most carbohydrate foods contain some sugar--this includes plain oats, wheat, milk, and fruits. It is impossible and not necessary to avoid all sugar that is naturally present in food. It is the added sugar that can contribute to health concerns. Added sugar comes from a variety or sources, such as regular granulated sugar, brown sugar, honey, maple syrup, molasses, and high fructose corn syrup.


To evaluate the added sugar content, you can compare what is in the cereal to the recommendations. The American Heart Association recommends a limit of 24gm of added sugar for women and 36gm of added sugar for men. The US Dietary Guidelines have a more liberal recommendation of less than 10% of calories from added sugars, which would translate to 50gm for a 2000 calorie diet. Using the recommendations as a guide, you can decide if the cereal works in your eating pattern.



Protein

Finally, check out the protein content. In the short term, protein is important to help us stay full after a meal. In the long run, protein helps us maintain our bodies' structures, functions, and strength. Anecdotally, I have found that many adults feel fuller after a meal when it contains 15-30gm of protein.


Daily protein needs for adults are variable, depending on age, weight, activity level, and other factors, but most people need at least 0.8gm per kg of body weight, which is 65gm for a 180lb person. Children need less protein because they are smaller, and their needs range from 19gm in younger school-aged children to 52gm in teenaged boys. With regard to protein content, remember that having milk with cereal will increase the protein content of the meal.


Other Factors to Consider--or NOT Consider: Is Breakfast Cereal Healthy?

Calories

You might have noticed that I did not look at calorie content. This is because calorie content does not add much or any valuable information once you look at sugar and protein. We need calories, and we need breakfast foods to contain calories. Higher calorie foods are not necessarily better or worse than lower calorie foods.

Organic or Natural

Remember that organic or natural claims do not necessarily mean that the breakfast cereal is more nutritious. It might still be high in added sugar and low in nutrients we need.

Health-Related Claims on the Box

Cereals often have claims regarding their ingredients or nutrition. Examples of claims seen on cereal boxes are "more whole grain" "good source of vitamin D," "supports immunity," and "natural fruit flavor." Studies have found little correlation between having claims on the box and the cereal's actual nutrition quality.


Is Breakfast Cereal Healthy?


I think my biggest takeaway message is to look at the data. Use the nutrition facts and ingredients to gather information to inform your decision. Be alert for marketing messages, and confirm the marketing message against the facts. This is not to say that there is never a reason to eat a sweet or less nutritious cereal. Just if you are eating one of those, eat it understanding what it is. To say it simply, don't eat a pastry thinking it is a health food. Eat it for what it is--a delicious pastry.

1 comentario


Invitado
27 oct 2023

What about the added vitamins and minerals in cereal? Are those useful?

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