How's this for a scary fact: More than half of cereals marketed to kids have more sugar than three Chips Ahoy cookies in just one cup. And sugar's not the only problem— seemingly healthy options like Raisin Bran can add nearly 15 percent of the daily value of sodium before it’s even lunchtime.
Get (Ce)real—The Need-to-Know
The first hurdle when it comes to breakfast cereal is eating only one serving. One serving of Frosted Mini Wheats is just 175 calories. So why not dive right in? Take a second look for an easy answer— that serving is just five biscuits, making it easy to double (if not triple) that 175 calories in one breakfast. Plus, studies show serving sizes and bowls have grown in recent decades, upping that calorie count even more .
But it's not just about the calories—sugar is another big breakfast cereal offender. One study found breakfast cereals high in sugar can contribute significantly to kids’ total sugar consumption . And—shockingly—researchers found kids would gladly eat lower-sugar options if presented with them . And in addition to having no nutritional benefits on its own, that added sugar can also increase the risk of tooth decay, weight gain, and heart disease .
Ready? Break(fast)!—Your Action Plan
Okay, okay, so cereal isn’t all bad. Eating whole-grain cereal has been associated with a decreased risk of type 2 diabetes and better overall health in some studies    . But another study revealed that while whole grains were associated with fewer health risks, the same is not necessarily true of refined grain cereal . Additional research with low-income study subjects found that breakfast cereals—especially whole-grain options—eaten with milk were an essential source of necessary nutrients like B vitamins, iron, zinc, and calcium .
The USDA recommends reserving that daily allotment of sugar for nutrient-dense foods that rely on some sweetness for palatability. And (drum roll please) whole grain cereals are one such food! In other words, if sugar’s the only way to choke down whole-grain cereal, it’s not nearly as bad as sugar-packed, refined-grain cereal. Look for at least 3 grams of fiber per serving to stay fuller longer, and count on cereals with dried fruit having slightly more natural sugars. Avoid boxes that list sugar high on the ingredient list, including catchphrases like high fructose corn syrup, honey, brown sugar, and dextrose—the higher on the list, the more in the box!
Photo by Caitlin Covington