The New Old Breakfast

by Charles Platkin, PhD

Compared to other breakfasts, a large bowl of even the most nutritionally dreadful cereal (about 400 calories) is a bargain. Check out some of these breakfast horrors:

  • Cinnabon Pecanbon: 1100 calories, 56g fat
  • Denny’s French Toast (3 pieces): 1146 calories, 71g fat, 104g carbs
  • Dunkin’ Donuts plain bagel with cream cheese (4 tablespoons): 562 calories, 23g fat, 70.5g carbs
  • McDonald’s Bacon, Egg and Cheese Biscuit: 480 calories, 31g fat, 31g carbs
  • Burger King Croissan’wich with sausage and cheese: 475 calories, 36g fat, 22g carbs

Research has shown cereal to be an excellent option for breakfast, with benefits that include reducing your risk of cardiovascular disease, promoting weight loss, relieving stress, and enhancing memory. Yet sales have been slipping over the last few years, probably due to the increased popularity of other choices (e.g., bagels, pastries, yogurt, muffins, and energy/breakfast bars), and the anti-carb movement.

If you choose your cereal wisely, no other breakfast option can offer as much fiber, calcium, and other nutrients for so few calories and so little fat.

SUGAR ALERT: Most breakfast cereals have added sugar, so the idea is to choose the ones with the least amount added. The best way to compare is by checking the nutrition label. The following ingredients should be absent, or at least lower than fourth on the ingredient list: sugar, brown sugar, molasses, corn syrup, organic cane juice, evaporated cane juice, high fructose corn syrup, and malt syrup. Even cereals that give the appearance of being “nutritious,” like Special K and Product 19, can contain added sugars as key ingredients. Be aware that sometimes cereals are higher in added sugar because of the fruit (which provides health-promoting fiber). Your best bet is to do what I do: take a bowl of 100% whole wheat cereal with no added sugar, such as Puffed Kashi Natural Cereal, and add some Equal, Splenda, or Stevia with some fresh fruit.

WHOLE GRAINS ONLY: It’s important to distinguish whole-grain from refined-grain cereals for their role in preventing chronic diseases. A recent study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that both total mortality and cardiovascular disease mortality were inversely associated with whole-grain, but not refined-grain, breakfast cereal intake. Whole grains also have the added advantage of filling you up faster because they’re high in fiber. Fiber is the indigestible portion of plant foods that provides bulk, which makes you feel full and slows digestion — ultimately keeping you more satisfied. Choose a cereal with at least three grams of fiber per serving.

SERVING SIZE MATTERS: Typically, we eat anywhere from one to three cups of cereal at one sitting — not necessarily the serving size listed on the food label. Because of this, you need to closely monitor how much you’re eating so you don’t go overboard.

If you want to compare cereals nutritionally, keep in mind that cereals have different densities (e.g., flakes, nuggets, puffed), and as a result, it’s more difficult to compare them to each other. Some are quite dense, such as Shredded Wheat or Grape Nuts, so they look like they’re much higher in calories from the food label. It’s tough to compare their nutritional values to less dense cereals, like Rice Krispies or Cheerios, just going by the cups (volume).

In theory, the more dense the cereal (the higher the grams per serving), the less you are likely to eat. So when you’re trying to pick the best cereal, check the weights listed next to the serving size (grams) and compare the calories per gram. Divide the calories by the amount of grams per serving, and compare (e.g., Grape Nuts have 3.62 calories per gram versus Cheerios, which have 3.67 calories per gram). However, if you’re the type to eat that same two cups of cereal no matter which one you have, you’re probably better off with the Cheerios, or you’ll end up with plenty of excess calories.

LURKING FAT: Yes, some cereals contain fat. The ingredients to look out for include added nuts, coconut, and granola. Choose low-fat versions if you love granola. Stay away from items that include “partially hydrogenated oil” anywhere on the ingredient list. That’s code for trans fat, and it’s found in many popular cereals, including: Cinnamon Toast Crunch Cereal, Basic 4 Cereal, Total Cereal, Kellogg’s Mueslix Cereal, and Post Oreo O’s Cereal.

DON’T BE A HEALTH FOOL: Yes, cereals are nutritionally dense and can be very filling — especially the ones made from whole grains. However, just because they have extra vitamins and minerals doesn’t mean you can eat as much as you want. Even if a cereal boasts “High Fiber,” “Excellent Source of Calcium,” or “Organic,” it may still contain a significant amount of sugar, sodium, calories and even fat.

HOT VERSUS COLD: Just because a cereal is hot doesn’t mean it’s good for you. If you have plain Quaker Old Fashioned Oats (served hot), well, the ingredient list is pretty clean compared to most of the cold cereals — it’s 100% natural rolled oats. However, the further away you get from that, they become nutritionally similar to the cold cereals, like Quaker Maple & Brown Sugar Instant Oatmeal.

CEREAL BARS ARE NOT CEREAL: Don’t confuse cereal with cereal bars. In my supermarket, these bars are where they should be — in the candy section — right next to the Snickers bars. Some bars may be low in fat and fortified with vitamins, but they’re not high in whole grains or fiber, so they’re really just fortified candy bars. Also, this is just me, but it’s certainly more satisfying to polish off a bowl of cereal and milk than to chomp on a small bar.

  • Snickers Bar (40g): 190 calories, 10g fat, 24g carbs, 1g fiber [Snickers has healthy nuts]
  • Cocoa Puffs Bars (40g): 160 calories, 4g fat, 26g carbs, 1g fiber

SKIM IT: Choose skim milk to go with your cereal. You get essentially the same nutrients from drinking skim milk as you do from drinking whole milk — minus the fat, of course — so stick to the low calorie version and save about 64 calories and eight grams of fat per cup. The carb content is similar; skim is slightly higher, by less than half a gram.

Overall, cereal is an amazing meal, for breakfast, lunch or dinner — in fact, maybe it could be a diet on its own. If Subway and South Beach have their own diets, why not the Cereal Diet?

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