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 Expanding portion sizes in the US marketplace: implications for nutrition counseling. Young, L.R., Nestle, M. Department of Nutrition and Food Studies, New York University, NY. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 2003 Feb;103(2):231-4..

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 Effects of serving high-sugar cereals on children's breakfast-eating behavior. Harris, J.L., Schwartz, M.B., Ustjanauskas, A., et al. Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, Yale University, 309 Edwards St, Box 208369, New Haven, CT. Pediatrics, 2011 Jan;127(1):71-6. Epub 2010 Dec 13.. And—shockingly—researchers found kids would gladly eat lower-sugar options if presented with them Effects of serving high-sugar cereals on children's breakfast-eating behavior. Harris, J.L., Schwartz, M.B., Ustjanauskas, A., et al. Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, Yale University, 309 Edwards St, Box 208369, New Haven, CT. Pediatrics, 2011 Jan;127(1):71-6. Epub 2010 Dec 13.. 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 Consumption of added sugars and indicators of cardiovascular disease risk among US adolescents. Welsh, J.A., Sharma, A., Cunningham, S.A., et al. Nutrition and Health Science Program , Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, Atlanta, GA. Circulation, 2011 Jan 25;123(3):249-57. Epub 2011 Jan 10..

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 Breakfast cereals and risk of type 2 diabetes in the Physicians' Health Study I. Kochar, J., Djoussé, L., Gaziano, J.M. Division of Aging, Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School, 1620 Tremont Street, 3rd Floor, Boston MA. Obesity, 2007 Dec;15(12):3039-44. Consumption of breakfast cereal is associated with positive health outcomes: evidence from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute Growth and Health Study. Albertson, A.M., Thompson, D., Franko, D.L., et al. Bell Institute of Health and Nutrition, General Mills Inc, Minneapolis, MN. Nutrition Research, 2008 Nov;28(11):744-52. Breakfast cereal is associated with a lower prevalence of obesity among 10-12-year-old children: the PANACEA study. Panagiotakos, D.B., Antonogeorgos, G., Papadimitriou, A., et al. Department of Nutrition-Dietetics, Harokopio University, Athens, Greece. Nutrition, Metabolism, and Cardiovascular Diseases, 2008 Nov;18(9):606-12. Epub 2008 May 23. Dietary intake of whole and refined grain breakfast cereals and weight gain in men. Bazzano, L.A., Song, Y., Bubes, V., et al. Department of Medicine, Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts. Obesity Research, 2005 Nov;13(11):1952-60.. But another study revealed that while whole grains were associated with fewer health risks, the same is not necessarily true of refined grain cereal Is intake of breakfast cereals related to total and cause-specific mortality in men? Liu, S., Sesso, H.D., Manson, J.E., et al. Division of Preventive Medicine, Department of Medicine, Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2003 Mar;77(3):594-9.. 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 contribution of breakfast cereals to the nutritional intake of the materially deprived UK population. Holmes, B.A., Kaffa, N., Campbell, K., et al. King's College London, Diabetes & Nutritional Sciences Division, School of Medicine, London, UK. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2012 Jan;66(1):10-7. doi: 10.1038/ejcn.2011.143. Epub 2011 Aug 10..

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

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