Is Cereal Healthy? 6 Tips For Choosing a Healthy Cereal

It often seems like there are very few breakfast options. You might be an egg person, perhaps you are a carb lover who enjoys pancakes, waffles, toast, or a bagel, or you might fall into the camp of cereal eaters.

An argument can be made for the pros and cons of every type of classic breakfast, but because cereal for breakfast is one of the most convenient and popular ways to start out the day, you may be wondering, is cereal healthy?

Other common questions include: “Is cereal a good breakfast?”, “Is cereal unhealthy?” and “Is cereal bad for you?”

Knowing whether cereal for breakfast is healthy and will support your diet and health goals will help you determine if it is a good breakfast option or if you need to choose something else.

In this article, we will discuss the pros and cons of cereal for breakfast, whether cereal is healthy or bad for you, and how to choose the best healthy cereals.

We will cover: 

  • What Is Breakfast Cereal?
  • Is Cereal Healthy?
  • Is Cereal a Good Breakfast?
  • Is Cereal Bad for You?
  • Tips For Choosing A Healthier Breakfast Cereal

Let’s get started!

A bowl of muesli and blueberries.

What Is Breakfast Cereal?

Breakfast cereal can refer to a range of products, all of which are typically made from whole grains or processed grains, which may or may not be fortified with additional vitamins and minerals and may include additional ingredients such as nuts, seeds, and dried fruit.

Most people who eat cereal for breakfast add milk or plant-based milk to the bowl and may add additional toppings such as fruit, yogurt, nuts, coconut, or seeds.

Is Cereal Healthy?

One thing that makes it difficult to answer the question, “Is cereal healthy?” is that the range of types of cereals and their constituent ingredients vary extensively.

For example, there are many sugar-laden kinds of cereal that are made from highly-refined grains that go through a process of refining, mixing, extrusion, drying, shaping, and potentially even dyeing and sweetening, hardly resembling the natural ingredients.

For example, cereals like Fruit Loops, Cocoa Puffs, Frosted Flakes, and Lucky Charms all grind the grain into a fine powder, stripping away much of the bran and fibrous, vitamin-rich components of the original grain.

Fruit loops cereal.

Food dyes, flavorings, and sugar are added, along with salt and other processed ingredients.

These types of breakfast cereal are typically considered bad for you, even if they are fortified with extra vitamins and minerals

All of the refined grains, excess sweeteners, and junk ingredients added to make cereal more appealing detract from the nutritional value.

On the other hand, there are some healthy breakfast cereals that use whole grains that retain the natural fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals. 

Even if some amount of processing occurs to mill, grind, and shape the grains into flakes, rings, or other shapes, as long as the whole grain is used, these breakfast cereals are often not bad for you, especially if they use organic ingredients.

There may be little to no added sugar, and there may even be nutritious add-ins like slivered almonds, flaxseeds, and dried cranberries.

These types of breakfast cereals are not only not bad for you, but they can actually be good for you.

Examples include muesli, unsweetened Shredded Wheat, and Food For Life Ezekiel 4:9 Organic Sprouted Grain Cereal.

Shredded wheat cereal.

Is Cereal a Good Breakfast?

Cereal can be a good breakfast, but it is not necessarily the healthiest breakfast choice.

For example, some studies suggest that replacing high-carbohydrate breakfasts, such as cereals, with eggs can provide greater feelings of lasting fullness and can possibly contribute to up to 65% more weight loss.

One of the main problems with many breakfast cereals is that they often have misleading health claims, being marketed as healthy foods when they, in fact, contain lots of added sugars, refined grains, and little nutritional value aside from fortification with synthetic vitamins and minerals.

The regulations and stipulations regarding product marketing are not necessarily strict enough to yield clear and honest messages to the average consumer. For example, a cereal may report as “made with whole grains “ when nearly all of the ingredients, particularly the first several, are refined grains. 

However, there might be some ingredients found towards the bottom of the long list that are indeed whole-grain. Unless you are going to do a lot of digging and serve as your own undercover detective, you might grab a box of breakfast cereal that is touted as being healthy when it is not much more than a bunch of refined carbohydrates.

Studies have found that health claims often mislead consumers into believing that food products are healthier than they are. This isn’t to say that some breakfast cereals aren’t healthy, but you need to be an educated and dubious consumer and look into the product packaging in more detail before believing all of the stated claims.

Cheerios.

Is Cereal Bad for You?

Again, although many people ask, “Is cereal bad for you?” or “Is cereal unhealthy?” the answer isn’t really straightforward given the wide range of commercial breakfast cereals and their resultant nutritional profiles.

Eating cereal for breakfast can be healthy, depending on the type of cereal that you choose and your overall diet.

Here are some tips for choosing a healthier breakfast cereal:

Tips For Choosing A Healthier Breakfast Cereal

#1: Choose Low-Sugar Cereals

The primary factor that makes certain breakfast cereals unhealthy is their high sugar content. 

Choose breakfast cereals that have no more than 5 grams of sugar per serving or that include no added sugar but only contain natural sugar from dried fruits, such as raisins, freeze-dried strawberries, dried cranberries, or dried apple pieces found in the cereal.

A bowl of cereal.

#2: Go for High-Fiber Cereals

Fiber not only aids digestion and feeds the beneficial bacteria in your gut, but it also increases satiety, meaning that if you eat a high-fiber cereal for breakfast, you won’t be hungry in just an hour or two, which is a common problem with highly-refined cereals.

Try to choose a breakfast cereal that contains at least 5 grams of dietary fiber per serving.

Cereal that is high in fiber is also indicative of a recipe that uses whole grains instead of refined grains, as it is the bran portion of a grain that typically contains most of the fiber and nutrients that are stripped away during the refining process.

#3: Choose Organic Cereals

Organic cereals will avoid artificial flavors, colors, and sweeteners. It’s still important to read the nutrition label and ingredient list because “organic” doesn’t necessarily mean healthy. However, organic cereals will be free from chemicals and are typically healthier.

A bowl of cereal and strawberries.

#4: Read the Ingredients List

Because the marketing claims on breakfast cereals can be misleading, take a deep dive into the ingredients list and ensure that the cereal is indeed healthy. 

The first several ingredients should be whole grains, and there should be no high fructose corn syrup, artificial colors, or excessive sugars added (brown rice syrup, date syrup, maltose, fruit juice concentrate, etc.).

#5: Boost the Protein

There are relatively few high-protein cereals, although studies suggest that eating a high-protein breakfast increases satiety.

Look for a cereal with at least 5 to 6 grams of protein per serving, or add protein to the cereal or your breakfast overall. 

For example, adding a cup of milk will add about 8 grams of protein, or you can add the cereal to one cup of Greek yogurt, which will provide about 23 g of protein. Aiming for 20-30 grams of protein per meal is ideal, and nearly every cereal will fall short of this amount if you eat it plain. 

You can also opt to have a small bowl of cereal with some other protein source on the side, such as eggs, turkey or soy sausage or bacon, cottage cheese, or a protein smoothie.

Certain cereals, such as Three Wishes and Catalina Crunch, are high in protein, so they can also be healthier options.

Milk is being poured into a bowl of cereal.

#6: Measure Your Portions

It can be really easy to overeat cereal because most cereals are quite tasty and lightweight.

Pay attention to the serving size on the side of the box. If you find that the serving is insufficient to fill you up, supplement the cereal with other nutritious foods for a more well-rounded breakfast.

Add a handful of nuts, a tablespoon or two of flaxseeds, sliced fruit, a dollop of Greek yogurt, or a side of low-fat cottage cheese, depending on your daily caloric needs and the caloric content of the cereal.

Overall, you don’t necessarily need to avoid eating cereal for breakfast, but choosing healthy cereals and balancing your breakfast with other high-protein foods can improve the nutritional content of your meal.

For some high-protein breakfast choices, read our top picks here.

Bacon and egg breakfast.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, and contributes to several fitness, health, and running websites and publications. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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