The studies looked at two-week food diaries kept by 2,000 U.S. households. The study included more than 600 kids aged 4 to 12. Researchers divided the kids into three groups: Those who ate ready-to-eat cereal eight or more times in the two-week period, those who had four to seven servings, and those who had three or fewer servings.
No matter what their age, the kids who ate the most cereal had the least body fat. Nearly 80% of these kids had a body mass index -- a measure of weight adjusted for height -- appropriate for their age. This was true for only 52.6% of the kids who ate very little cereal.
That's a big difference, says study co-author G. Harvey Anderson, PhD, professor of nutritional sciences and director of the program in food safety, nutrition, and regulatory affairs at the University of Toronto in Canada.
"Among the kids that ate cereal infrequently, a 10-year-old would be 12 pounds heavier than a child the same age who ate cereal often," Anderson tells WebMD. "So that is quite a bit."
The findings appear in the December issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. The lead author of the study, Ann M. Albertson, RD, of General Mills' Bell Institute of Health and Nutrition, earlier this year reported similar findings for adults at the annual meeting of the American College of Nutrition.
Cereal, Milk, and Breakfast
What was it that was so good for the kids? Was it merely the fact that the kids ate something for breakfast?
"We do know that the kids who eat ready-to-eat cereals are much more likely to eat breakfast in general," Albertson tells WebMD. "And previous work shows that the habit of eating breakfast is part of a lifestyle that can contribute to healthy weight."
The milk, too, has something to do with it. Anderson's earlier work has demonstrated that people who eat a lot of dairy products tend to be less heavy than those who don't.
But when it comes right down to it, breakfast cereal itself is a good thing, says Leslie Bonci, MPH, RD. Bonci -- pronounced BAWN-see -- is director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and a nutritional consultant for several college and professional sports teams and dance companies. She was not involved in the current study.
"Breakfast cereals -- even the sweet ones -- have protein, vitamins, minerals, and fiber," Bonci tells WebMD. "Yes, they have carbs, too, but they have lots of things that are good for kids. Usually there is very little fat in cereal, and sometimes they have fruit that kids wouldn't eat otherwise. It is a vehicle for a lot of other positive things happening in the diet, early in the day."
When kids or adults eat cereal, Bonci points out, they aren't eating doughnuts or sweet rolls -- which are little more than sugar and fat. Are there better things to eat than ready-to-eat cereal? Sure. But taken together with the facts that 1) it's breakfast, and 2) it's got milk, cereal looks pretty darn good.
"Without a doubt, by eating cereal for breakfast you are jump-starting the body and making it burn calories all day long, which keeps weight down," Bonci says. "And most kids aren't eating cereal out of their hands. They are taking it with milk. So now there is protein on the meal, and you are sitting down to eat. The body finds that more satisfying than grabbing a breakfast bar or Pop Tart and running out the door."
Making Kids and Parents Feel Better
But don't kids like those awful kinds of cereal that are full of bad stuff? Actually, Albertson says, kids like variety. She says General Mills' research shows that the average household with kids stocks about a dozen different brands of cereal. Not all of the favorites are super sugary.
"I talk to a lot of parents and they say, 'How can I put sweetened cereal on the table?'" Bonci says. "I say, well, you want your kids to eat breakfast. They like taste and fun. We can have best of both worlds: Mix plain cereal with sweetened ones. Sweet cereals still have the grain and nutrition and protein from milk."
Albertson agrees that kids' No. 1 choice for breakfast is, hands down, ready-to-eat cereal.
"I have three kids ages 9, 11, and 15. If I can send them out the door with a cereal breakfast, I know I have done a good thing," she says. "Kids who skip breakfast don't make up those nutrients later in the day. If their favorite brand of ready-to-eat cereal makes them eat breakfast, that is a good thing."