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How to Pick a Better Breakfast Cereal

Shelves full of sugar right at children's eye level.
Look at cereal from the eye level of a
child and you find bright rows of sugar.

It all started when I bumped a cereal box off the shelf in the grocery store. As I bent down to pick it up, I glanced at all the boxes in front of me and noticed something disturbing. I was looking at the shelves from the height of a child and all I could see were boxes filled with sugar.

A 5-year old walking down that aisle would be confronted with bright colors and cartoon characters screaming BUY ME at eye level.

I also noticed that names had been subtly changed from when I was a kid to hide their unfortunate ingredients. "Sugar Pops" was now "Corn Pops," "Sugar Smacks" had become "Honey Smacks" and "Sugar Frosted Flakes" was just "Frosted Flakes."

That's when I decided it was time to share a few commonsense ways for you to find, buy and enjoy the healthiest cereals.

1950s Sugar Crisp Commercial
They said it was candy right in the commercial!

Start by looking up. The healthiest options are often put on the top shelf. They don't sell as well as the poor choices but the people who want them are diligent about seeking them out. The unhealthiest options are generally put on the lower shelves within easy reach of kids.

Think twice about any cereal with a cartoon character on the front or that's shaped like a toy. When there's little nutritional value inside, cereal companies will resort to marketing gimmicks and packaging to push unhealthy choices.

Read the ingredient label and make three important decisions.

  • ONE: Select only cereals with at least 3 grams of fiber per serving. This can dramatically lower your risk of a heart attack.
  • TWO: Choose only the ones with 5 grams of sugar or less per serving. You'll help prevent dramatic blood sugar spikes and crashes and lower your chances of obesity.
  • THREE: Make sure each serving has at least 3 grams of protein to help build muscle.

Look for the words "whole wheat," "whole grain" or "bran" to be near or at the top of the ingredient list. Cereals high in these ingredients tend to have more fiber and have been directly linked to weight loss in adults. Skip cereals high in "refined grains."

Avoid cereals with trans fats. Even if the label says zero, scan the ingredient list for the words "Partially Hydrogenated, Shortening, Interesterified or Stearate-Rich." Those are all code words for unhealthy trans fats and they have no place at the breakfast table.

Buy unsweetened cereal and top it with fresh fruit like a sliced banana, blueberries or strawberries. Avoid cereals with dried fruit added. Dried fruit is a concentrated blast of sugar and some cereals "enhance" the fruit by filling it with artificial colors to make it more appealing. Be careful! To save money, a few companies have even resorted to mashing together fats, dyes and flavorings to make them appear like pieces of fruit.

If you're dealing with a picky eater, prepare a cereal half and half. Fill half the bowl with a low-sugar and high-fiber option. Then mix in half a serving of the less healthy choices. You can try something like half a serving of fiber and half a serving of marshmallow puffs. That way your picky eater gets both the tasty stuff they want and the healthy stuff they need.

Put a serving of a good for you cereal in a blender to crush it into a much smaller serving size. Then mix it in with another cereal, hot oatmeal or a breakfast shake.

Speaking of oatmeal, don't forget your cereal can be hot. A bowl of oatmeal with some fresh fruit mixed in is a delicious way to start on a cold winter morning.

Finally, skip cereals with vitamins or antioxidants ADDED. Large clinical trials have determined that most people get little or no benefit from taking multivitamins. They've also found that antioxidant supplements can actually increase your risk of death. Something that's of little use - or dangerous in pill form - isn't going to become better for you because it's injected into your food.

[Click Here to learn more about the dangers of Multivitamins.]

Keep your cereal healthy by choosing 1%, skim milk or soy to go with it. Avoid milk products like rice or almond because they're so low in protein. Don't even think about coconut milk because it's extremely high in fat. For more details about the different types of milk, Click Here for our article: Milk Roulette - Choosing a Healthier Option.

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CAUTION: Check with your doctor before
beginning any diet or exercise program.

Updated 11/24/14

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  • Big Flakes or Small?

    Be careful choosing cereals with SMALL flakes. People ate an average of 72 calories more when they filled their bowl with cereal that had small flakes versus large ones.

    The small flakes fit together tighter and the bowl doesn't look as "full" as when it's filled with large flakes.

    If your favorite cereal has small flakes, or is dense like granola, make sure to carefully measure out a serving first, don't just pour it into the bowl.