When it comes to breakfast, few options are as quick and inexpensive as cereal. Unfortunately, your basic box doesn’t always get high marks for nutrition — and proposed changes from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) would even disqualify several popular brands (such as Honey Nut Cheerios, Special K Original Cereal, and Raisin Bran) from including the term “healthy” on their packaging.
Cereal is typically high in carbohydrates and low in protein, which doesn’t make for a balanced meal, notes Sherry Roberts, RDN, MPH, CDCES , a registered dietitian-nutritionist and certified diabetes care and education specialist with CRM Counseling, a coaching and wellness company in Centerville, Minnesota. Many cereals also contain added sugars, she says. Too much added sugar may increase your risk of heart disease, dementia, diabetes, and obesity, per the American Heart Association (AHA).
But the news isn’t all bad: Research published in the March 2022 JAMA Network Open found that cereal fiber specifically was associated with lower inflammation and lower risk of heart disease in older adults.
There are many ways to avoid common cereal pitfalls and turn your bowl into a nutritious, well-rounded breakfast. Let these dos and don’ts guide you toward a healthier way to start your day.
1. Do Select Whole-Grain Options for Plenty of Fiber
The first step toward making your cereal healthier is to choose one that’s made of whole grains. Whole grains are great sources of fiber, and fiber helps improve blood cholesterol levels and lowers your risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes, per the AHA.
“Fiber is an important nutrient that many of us aren’t getting enough of, and cereal can be a good way to increase your intake,” notes the registered dietitian-nutritionist Paula Doebrich, MPH, RDN, the owner of Happea Nutrition, a private practice in New York City.
Make sure that whole grains like whole wheat, quinoa, bulgur, and millet are listed as the first ingredients on the label, suggests the Seattle-based registered dietitian-nutritionist Ginger Hultin, RDN, the author of Meal Prep for Weight Loss.
Also, check the nutrition facts label to see that the cereal provides roughly 20 percent of your daily value (DV) of fiber per serving, Doebrich says. “Avoid cereals that provide 5 percent of daily value or less.” The updated nutrition facts label lists this percentage so you don’t have to do the math, according to the FDA.
2. Don’t Choose Added Sugars
Breakfast cereals can contain surprising amounts of added sugars. Kellogg’s Smart Start Antioxidants cereal, for example, packs a whopping 18 grams (g) of added sugar per 1¼ cup serving. That nearly covers the daily added sugar limit of 25 g for women and 36 g for men, which is what the AHA recommends.
“It’s always best to stick to cereals that have less added sugar, as they will usually be lower in calories and higher in fiber,” Doebrich says.
Roberts suggests choosing cereals that have less than 5 g of added sugar.
3. Do Add Fruit for More Flavor, Fiber, and Nutrients
Incorporating fresh or unsweetened frozen or dried fruit is an easy way to boost the flavor and nutrients of your morning bowl of cereal. Especially if your favorite cereal is lacking in fiber, Doebrich notes.
One cup of fresh blueberries, for example, provides nearly 4 g of fiber, according to estimates from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). You’ll also score 14.6 milligrams (mg) (16.2 percent of DV) of vitamin C and 29 micrograms (mcg) (24.2 percent of DV) of vitamin K.
Plus, fruits like blueberries, strawberries, bananas, and raspberries provide sweetness without added sugars, Doebrich notes.
4. Don’t Overfill Your Bowl
Unless you’re measuring out your cereal, it’s easy to pour double or even triple the serving size, putting a sizable dent in your daily calorie total. The original All-Bran, for example, offers 120 calories per two-thirds cup serving. If you get too generous with your portion, you could wind up with a 240- or 360-calorie bowl — not including any additions like milk, fruit, nuts, or seeds.
If you’re trying to lose weight, Doebrich suggests measuring out your cereal. “It will help you track your food intake, making it easier to follow your diet,” she says.
5. Do Boost Protein With Yogurt
Swapping standard milk for yogurt is an excellent way to make your cereal healthier. Greek yogurt has nearly as much calcium as milk, but about three times as much protein. One cup of plain nonfat Greek yogurt contains 25.2 g of protein and 272 mg (nearly 21 percent of DV) of calcium, per the USDA.
Research shows that protein increases satiety. So, including a protein source in your cereal may mean you feel full on a smaller serving size than if you skipped it, leading you to consume fewer calories overall. This may help with weight management, per an article in the August 2020 Reviews in Endocrine and Metabolic Disorders.
6. Don’t Choose a Low-Protein Milk Alternative
If you’re looking for a plant-based alternative, soy may be your best option, “as it also provides plenty of protein,” Doebrich says. “Other plant milks tend to be lower in protein, so you might be missing out if you use almond or oat milk.” Almond milk, for example, contains only 1.3 g of protein per cup, according to the USDA. That’s not much in comparison to the same amount of nonfat cow’s milk, which has 8.4 g of protein and 322 mg (nearly 25 percent of DV) of calcium per cup.
Plant-based milks can also have added sugars, so whichever you prefer, just be sure to choose an unsweetened version, Hultin says.
7. Do Sprinkle On Some Nuts and Seeds for Protein and Healthy Fats
“I recommend that my clients add nutrients and flavor to their cereal with an ounce of nuts,” Hultin says. An ounce is about the amount that can fit in the palm of your cupped hand, she adds.
Nuts provide protein, fiber, and healthy fats. For example, 1 ounce (oz) of pistachios (without shell) offers 5.8 g of protein, nearly 3 g of fiber, and 4.3 g of polyunsaturated fats, per the USDA. Mono- and polyunsaturated fats can help reduce low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or “bad”) cholesterol in your blood, which can lower your risk of heart disease and stroke, according to the AHA.
Feel free to choose your favorite nut, but if you need ideas, walnuts, almonds, and hazelnuts are all great options, Hultin notes.
Keep in mind that nuts are high in calories, so stick to 1 oz for approximately 160 to 180 calories, per the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Not a fan of nuts? Seeds are a great alternative. One ounce of chia seeds, for example, provides 4.7 g of protein, 9.8 g (35 percent of DV) of fiber, and 6.7 g of polyunsaturated fats, per the USDA. Other seed choices include flax, sunflower, hemp, and pumpkin.
Seeds are also calorie dense, so stick to an ounce or two per day, Harvard Health suggests.
8. Don’t Skimp on Vitamins and Minerals
Many cereals have been fortified, which means extra nutrients were added to them, according to the National Cancer Institute. “Fortified cereals deliver important nutrients that are often missing from our diets,” Doebrich notes.
Common nutrients added to cereals include iron, calcium, zinc, and folate. On January 5, 2023, the FDA gave cereal manufacturers approval to increase fortification levels of vitamin D. This food fortification is essential, given that research reveals roughly 50 percent of the worldwide population isn’t getting enough of the “sunshine” vitamin.
Hultin advises caution, however: Because some fortified cereals have high levels of vitamins and minerals, she recommends working with a registered dietitian to figure out which nutrients you need more of and how much to look for in fortified foods and supplements.