Pick Out a Healthy Cereal

STACK Expert Jim Carpentier tells you what to look for and what to avoid when you're cruising down the cereal aisle.

sugary cereal

If you're not aware by now, breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

Athletes should always start their day off strong with a good breakfast, even if it means just having a bowl of cereal. In terms of convenience, you can't beat cereal. But food manufacturers have made healthy cereal options harder to find on grocery store shelves.

Cocoa Puffs, Frosted Flakes, Lucky Charms and other sugary breakfast favorites have labeled themselves as "whole-grain," "all-natural" or "wholesome."

If you're not careful, you could end up eating something worse than the chocolate cake you avoided in the bakery section.

Use the following guidelines to choose healthier cereal.

Read the Fine Print

Never believe the front-of-the-box label. Ignore any health claims made on the front. A company  can state a product is full of "whole-wheat goodness," but that doesn't mean there's a nutritional gold mine inside.

Look instead at the Nutrition Facts panel on the side of the cereal box. First, check to see how many grams of sugar it contains in relation to the serving size. (See Nutrition Labels and Sugar Content.)

Say a cereal calls for a two-thirds cup serving and it contains 10 grams of sugar. That means it is one-third sugar. Using whole wheat or adding fiber to the product may support an eye-catching claim, but it doesn't negate the sugar.

An important thing to remember, however, is that sugar numbers also include natural sugar from fruit. A cereal containing raisins may have a slightly higher sugar count. The bottom line: It's OK if it's real fruit.

Just watch out for fake fruit like the so-called "strawberries" in some fruit-themed cereals. They are probably a mixture of food dyes and gelatin. Another thing that sounds healthy but isn't: yogurt clusters.  The "coating" is essentially oil and sugar and it has no health benefits.

Load Up on Quality Ingredients

Generally less is more when it comes to cereal ingredients. The first two things listed should be whole grain, whole grain wheat or whole grain oats. If the word "whole" does not appear, assume the grain is refined.

Be wary of "made with whole grain" claims, because they can mean the cereal contains only trace amounts. Again, compare the amount of whole grains to the overall serving. If they are close, then the cereal is almost 100% whole grain.

There are exceptions to this rule, specifically when the cereal contains nutritious ingredients like bran, nuts, fruit and soy.

Look Out for "Fake Fiber"

Fiber may help with satiety, but not every type of fiber is healthy. (See Can You Eat Too Much Fiber?)

Cereal companies add in isolated fibers (e.g., oat fiber, soy fiber and corn fiber) that have no proven health benefits since they're processed (meaning the fibers have been removed from the grains and made into powders).

Only intact fibers carry health benefits. These come from whole grains or bran. Ignore bogus health claims.

Calorie Counts

Cereals tend to be higher in calories than we realize, especially heavier ones like granola. Think about how tiny the typical serving size is for common granola: one quarter-cup. Are you really only going to eat that much cereal for breakfast? Make sure the serving size fits your appetite with a reasonable amount of calories.

Make Bland Cereal More Delicious

Take plain 100% rolled oats or shredded wheat and get creative. Add raisins, cherries, prunes or apricots for natural sweetness, and cinnamon or cocoa powder and chopped nuts for greater nutrition and natural flavor. Dried fruits, cinnamon, cocoa powder and nuts are rich in vitamins, minerals and immune-system-boosting antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds. These help your sports performance and exercise recovery.

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