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Healthy Cereal Choices to Start Your Day

The bottom line on your morning bowl
Written by 
Rachel Meltzer Warren, M.S., R.D.N.

If you begin your day with a bowl of healthy cereal, your diet is likely off to a good start. People who regularly eat cereal tend to consume more calcium and fiber and have an overall healthier diet than those who don’t; they also have a lower risk of hypertension and type 2 diabetes. Of course, there’s a wide range of cereals on the market. While many are health heroes, others contain as much sugar as you’d find in a donut. Read on as we reveal the pros and cons of the five major types of cereals you’ll find at your supermarket:


Wheat

Pro: People who consume the most whole wheat have less inflammation, and eating whole wheat can decrease the risk of conditions like gall stones, constipation, diverticulitis and gas. Wheat cereals are generally high in fiber, as long as they’re not made with refined (white) wheat.

Con: Wheat cereals can still be loaded with sugar. They also contain gluten, which means you should avoid them if you have celiac disease or a sensitivity to gluten.

Bottom Line: Look for cereals with six or fewer grams of sugar per serving and “whole wheat,” “whole grain wheat,” “100% wheat” or “wheat bran” at the top of the ingredients list (packaging claims can be deceiving, so look closely).


Corn

Pro: Many corn-based cereals are gluten-free, making them a smart choice for people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. Note, though, that some include gluten-containing ingredients, or are not made in a dedicated gluten-free facility.

Con: They’re relatively low in fiber, and can be heavily sweetened.

Bottom Line: Opt for low-sugar corn-based cereals such as flakes or puffs. Try mixing them with a high-fiber cereal to up your bowl’s ability to keep you feeling satisfied long past breakfast. Corn is usually genetically modified, but if you’re concerned about this, you can now find organic, whole-grain corn flakes from crops that haven’t been altered.


Rice

Pro: Rice-based cereals can be a good choice for people with a high level of food sensitivity (including celiac disease, gluten sensitivity or a wheat allergy), as rice is considered to be a hypoallergenic food. Shop carefully if you have such a concern, however, as other allergenic ingredients may be used in a rice-based cereal.

Con: If made from white rice (as many rice-based cereals are), they are low in fiber. Additionally, there are concerns about arsenic contamination in rice.

Bottom Line: Choose low-sugar rice-based cereals that are made from brown rice—they’re higher in fiber and B vitamins. Limit your intake to one to three servings of rice a week.


Oat

Pro: Eating oats daily can improve heart health, thanks to the cholesterol-lowering fiber beta-glucan. People who eat at least 3 grams of this fiber from oat-based foods every day can expect to lower their total cholesterol and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol by up to 10 percent, according to a recent review of studies.

Con: Some oat-based cereals are packed with ingredients that diminish the whole-grain health benefits. Granola, for example, tends to be loaded with oil and sweeteners like sugar and maple syrup.

Bottom Line: Stick with low or no-sugar oat-based options: Muesli, Os and oatmeal are all good choices.


Alternative Whole Grains

Pro: Whole grains help with weight management, keep your gastrointestinal system on track and lower the risk of chronic conditions like heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Less familiar options are becoming more popular in breakfast cereals: Millet, for example, is particularly high in antioxidants, and quinoa delivers all of the essential amino acids our bodies can’t make on their own.

Con: Cereals made from these grains can be harder to find and pricier than more conventional choices.

Bottom Line: If they’re available to you, give them a try—you may just find a new grain you like and add variety and nutrients to your diet in the process. Some stores carry them in plastic bags rather than boxes, which can be more economical. You can also reheat the whole grain left over from dinner last night and add fresh fruit, cinnamon and nuts to make it a complete breakfast.


More: Quick and Easy Breakfast on the Run

Reference(s) 
Clinical Nutrition (February 2012)
Consumer Reports
Journal of the American College of Nutrition (August 2010)
Journal of the American Dietetic Association (November 2006)
Nutrition Reviews (June 2011)
Obesity (December 2007)
Whole Grains Council
About the author 
Rachel Meltzer Warren, M.S., R.D.N. is a New York-based nutrition writer, educator and counselor, and author of the The Smart Girl's Guide to Going Vegetarian (Sourcebooks).