Bowled Over – Choosing the Healthiest Cereal
Take a stroll down the cereal aisle, and you'll find boxes containing everything from mini cinnamon buns to high-fiber health pellets. But clearly, not all cereals are created equal. A bowl of cereal can be at the heart of a healthy breakfast – but start your day with some of the sugary ones marketed to kids, and you may as well be eating a handful of cookies for breakfast.
So how do you choose the best one? When you first pick up the box, notice if it feels heavy or light for its size. Heavy cereals like nuggets and granolas are calorie-dense – meaning that they have a lot of calories relative to their serving size. So check the serving sizes so you know how many calories you're eating. A ½ cup of some granolas could cost you over 200 calories – you could eat nearly two cups of bran flakes for the same number of calories. If you like these 'heavy' cereals but want more volume in your bowl, mix them with something lighter - like a plain bran flake.
A serving of a 100% whole grain cereal can have as much, and sometimes more fiber than a serving of beans. Look for cereals that have about 5 grams of fiber per serving, but check nutrition facts to be sure of the exact amount. Just because a food is 'made with whole grain' is no guarantee that it has much fiber. The 100% whole grain varieties are much more likely to hit the 5 gram target.
Many cereals are teeming with sugar, and you want to keep the amount of added sugar as low as you can. But if your cereal contains dried fruits, like dates or raisins, the natural fruit sugar is included in the overall sugar count, so you can't really tell from the nutrition facts how much of the sugar is from the fruit and how much is added. As a guideline, look for cereals with less than 10 grams of sugar per serving ,or less than 20 grams if the cereal contains dried fruit.
Salt makes sweet foods taste sweeter, so you might be surprised to see a lot of sodium in your favorite flakes. Some have more than 300 mg per serving – about what you'd get if you ate 10 soda crackers. Usually, less processing and fewer ingredients mean the least amount of sodium. My shredded wheat has absolutely no sodium, and the ingredients list is pretty short: whole grain wheat.
While most cereals aren't particularly high in protein, many now have protein added to them, which is great. A bowl of cereal with 8 grams or so per serving, coupled with a cup a cup of milk or yogurt, will give you a nice shot of protein to keep you satisfied until your next meal. That's assuming, though, that you finish your milk; the protein in the milk won't do you much good if you leave it in the bottom of the bowl.
Susan Bowerman is a paid consultant to Herbalife.