What to Look For in a Healthy Cereal

[Note: It’s July, the month that we go a little crazy over cereal at Project Angel Heart! This year for our Summer Cereal Drive, we’re hoping to collect 15,000 boxes of cereal (through donations of both “virtual” and physical boxes) to help fill breakfast bags for people living with life-threatening illnesses. You can help us reach our cereal drive goal!]

If you’re looking for a quick, no-cook breakfast option, cereal is a go-to for many of us. In fact, it is one of the breakfast items Project Angel Heart sends to the nearly 20 percent of our clients who qualify for breakfast bags. Healthy breakfast cereal provides an easy meal, extra calories for those who need to gain weight, and, when paired with other breakfast items, makes for a balanced meal. But all cereals are not created equal, so how do you find one that will keep you feeling full and energized until lunch?

The first step in choosing a healthy cereal is to steer clear of the sugar-filled marshmallow and chocolate-coated options. Once you’ve avoided those, you’re still left with quite a few choices, so pick up that box and turn it over to take a peek at the ingredients list and the nutrition facts panel. These are some of the things you’ll be looking for. Try to pick a cereal with at least one of these goals in mind:

1. Whole Grain 

The first ingredient should be a whole grain like whole wheat, oats, brown rice, barely, or whole grain corn. Whole grains provide a variety of good-for-you nutrients that we don’t get from refined grains.

2. Low on Sugar

Look at the sugar content—ideally aim for less than 4 grams of sugar per serving, but if it is under 8 grams of sugar per serving you’re in a decent range! Too much added sugar can contribute to unhealthy weight gain and inflammation in the body, so try to reduce it where you can. If you find you need some extra sweetness in your bowl, you can toss in about a quarter to half a cup of frozen berries, a tablespoon of dried cranberries or raisins, or a small sliced banana.

3. More Fiber

Check out the fiber content—you want there to be more than 2 grams of fiber per serving. If you find one with 4-5 grams per serving or more, you’ve found a real winner! Fiber plays an important part in your body’s digestion and can help reduce cholesterol levels. Try to get it from whole grains, vegetables, fruit, and beans.

Here’s an example of a pretty good looking nutrition facts panel:
A healthy cereal nutrition panel

Give your breakfast the extra boost 

Want to make your breakfast even better? Try pairing it with some protein, which helps you stay full longer and supports healthy muscle mass/weight. You can add:

  • 2% milk (the obvious choice for cereal!)
  • Yogurt (try plain or pick one without too much added sugar)
  • Cottage cheese (can be high in sodium, but a good source of protein)
  • A hard boiled egg or scrambled/pan fried egg on the side

You can also try adding 1 or 2 tablespoons of nuts or seeds like almonds, walnuts, flax, hemp, or chia seeds to give you a boost of heart and brain-healthy fats.

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Meghan Perkins is Project Angel Heart’s registered dietitian. After a semester studying baking and pastry arts at culinary school, Meghan quickly found her passion for clinical nutrition and transferred to the University of Northern Colorado to earn her bachelor’s degree in dietetics. Meghan has worked in clinical and private practice settings, educating patients about how their food choices impact their health with an emphasis on CKD, diabetes, heart disease, celiac disease, and weight management. In her free time, Meghan enjoys exploring Denver by bike with her husband, trying new coffee and tea shops, hiking in Crested Butte, and relaxing with her dog Barney. 

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