Nothing says “quick and easy breakfast” like a bowl of cereal. But when you’re shopping the cereal aisle, it can be tricky to know which are the healthiest options, especially if you’re buying with a health condition in mind, like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, or cholesterol.
The first rule: Skip over the descriptions or health claims you see on the front of a package. “That’s where manufacturers place most of their marketing,” says Lori Zanini, a dietitian and diabetes educator in Los Angeles.
“Flip to the nutrition label, where the facts are located.” Once you’re reading the right part of the box, here are some guidelines to keep in mind:
A serving size of cereal can vary from 1/2 cup to more than one cup -- and most people eat more than what’s suggested.
With that in mind, “aim for a cereal that has 200 calories or less per serving,” says Kristen Smith, RD, a dietitian for the WellStar Comprehensive Bariatric Program in Atlanta. Use a measuring cup to keep yourself honest, and stick to the recommended serving size.
2. Go for whole grains.
Refined grains (like you find in cornflakes) have been stripped of fiber and nutrients. “Only some, but typically not all, of the nutrients are added back, and unfortunately, not the fiber,” Smith says.
A smarter choice: whole grains like wheat, brown rice, and corn, which contain the entire grain kernel.
“Whole grains provide a substantial amount of vitamins and minerals, which help your body function,” Smith says. “They also reduce the risk of heart disease, and because they take longer to digest, will make you feel fuller, longer.”
Look for key first ingredients like “100% whole” wheat, oats, or another grain, as well as a yellow stamp on the package from the Whole Grains Council. If the box says “Whole Grain,” then typically at least half the grain ingredients are whole; and if it says “100%” it means all grain ingredients are whole.
3. Aim for high fiber.
A high-fiber diet can cut your risk for both heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Yet most people get only about 16 grams of fiber a day: That’s far less than the recommended amount of 25 grams for women and 38 grams for men.
“Fiber content in cereals varies greatly, but choose one that provides at least 5 grams per serving,” Zanini says. “More is even better.”
4. Steer clear of sodium.
Even super-sweet cereals can contain high amounts of sodium. “Some have more than 500 milligrams per serving -- a third of the day’s recommended limit for most people,” Smith says. Too much salt in your diet can raise blood pressure and increase your risk for stroke and heart disease. Choose a cereal that doesn’t have more than 220 mg a serving.