Nothing says “quick and easy breakfast” like a bowl of cereal. When you’re shopping the cereal aisle, it can be puzzling to find 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.
Her advice: “Flip to the nutrition label, where the facts are located.” Once you’re reading the right part of the box, keep these tips in mind:
“Aim for a cereal that has 200 calories or less per serving size.” -- Kristen Smith, RD
1. Pay attention to portions.
A serving size of cereal can vary from 1/2 cup to more than one cup. Most people eat more than that.
"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 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 keep 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 at least half the grain ingredients are whole. If it says “100%” it means all grain ingredients are whole.
3. Aim for high fiber.
A high-fiber diet can cut your odds of getting 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 have 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 make stroke and heart disease more likely. Choose a cereal that doesn’t have more than 220 mg a serving.
5. Keep sugar and fat in check.
Get ready for some sticker shock. One serving of some cereals has as much sugar as three chocolate chip cookies.
Look for brands that have 10 grams or less per serving.
“Start your breakfast with too much sugar, and your glucose levels will rise too quickly,” Zanini says. "Keeping blood sugar stable throughout the day helps regulate your hunger and mood and prevents future complications from diabetes.”
6. Add protein.
Try nonfat Greek yogurt, which has enough protein to help you feel full, Smith says.
Need a nondairy alternative? Soy yogurt is an option. Some brands offer an impressive 8-10 grams of protein per serving.
If you're adding a yogurt topping, check the label to make sure it doesn't have too much sugar per serving.
7. Warm up.
Hot cereals are a great breakfast option. “Steel-cut oats, oat bran, millet, and quinoa are all whole grains, loaded with fiber, and if you don’t choose a flavored version, contain zero sugar,” says Lindsay Martin, RD, a dietitian at Hilton Head Health, a weight loss spa in Hilton Head, SC.
Hot cereals also keep your appetite in check. In one study, people who ate oatmeal for breakfast felt fuller afterward than people who had dry cereal.