The contents in your breakfast bowl can make or break the nutritional start to your day. Learn how to spot the superstars in the cereal aisle for maximum nourishment to benefit your body and keep you feeling full.

We Americans sure do love our cereal. A whopping 96% of us buy at least one box of it during each grocery run, and a quarter of us enjoy it for breakfast at the start of each day. It is easy to see why. Cereal is a tasty, inexpensive, and ready-to-eat source of sustenance. But the thing about cereal is that it runs the gamut when it comes to nutrition. Knowing what to look for in the cereal aisle will ensure your first meal of the day packs a nutritional punch.

The ugly truth about breakfast cereals

The reality is that most cereals are highly processed foods laden with refined grains, artificial flavors, and added sugars. Added sugars offer no nutritional value and have contributed significantly to the rise in obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. For this reason, health experts warn children and women to cap their daily added sugars at 25g per day and men to 36g per day. Unfortunately, many cereals surpass more than a quarter of the daily 25g allotment in just one serving – if you can actually stick to one serving, that is. People routinely eat as many as two servings in one sitting without realizing, further adding to the daily sugar count before the day has even begun.

Cereal can be surprisingly healthy – as long as you choose the right one

Fortunately, a wide collection of low-sugar, health-boosting cereals made entirely of whole grains are readily available these days. You may have heard how important it is to get enough grains into your life. When grains like wheat, barley, oats, and rye are whole, they are wonderful for health because they are rich in protective nutrients like dietary fiber, minerals, and phytochemicals that have powerful cholesterol-lowering and anti-inflammatory properties. In fact, study after study confirm that the more whole grains you eat, the longer you could live, making you less likely to develop cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and respiratory disease.

How to spot a nutritious cereal

Selecting a healthy cereal is pretty simple once you get the hang of looking over ingredient lists, serving sizes, and nutrition facts to differentiate the truly healthy ones from those that are not. While there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to what makes a healthy cereal, there are certain criteria you should aim for. A healthy cereal bowl will:

  1. Be made of whole grains or bran. Make sure the ingredient list shows only “100% whole” or “whole” grains as the top ingredients. Corn, wheat, and rice not specified as whole or brown are assumed to be refined, and bran, oats, and quinoa are generally whole.
  2. Clearly mark a realistic serving size. Serving sizes vary from cereal to cereal, and the more you eat, the more calories you get. Some cereals try to get away with listing unrealistically low serving sizes to reflect smaller calorie counts.  Avoid this trap - know how much you eat and adjust the nutrition information accordingly.
  3. Limit the amount of added sugar. Select cereals that have no more than 6g of added sugar per 1 dry ounce or 28g. Sugar can take on many names like “cane syrup,” “cane sugar,” “honey,” “fructose,” “fruit juice concentrate,” or “sucrose.” Leave some wiggle room for naturally occurring sugar in dried fruit.
  4. Have a high amount of fiber. Make sure your cereal earns an “excellent source of fiber” badge by providing at least 5g of fiber per serving.
  5. Contain a good amount of protein to keep your meal balanced. Many sugary cereals have only 1 or 2g of protein per serving, but healthier varieties can have as much as 10g, helping you keep full for longer. Some cereals are fortified with protein, while others, like oatmeal, are naturally higher. For an extra protein boost, top your cereal with raw nuts or greek yogurt.