Breakfast Cereals: Healthy or Unhealthy?
By Hrefna Palsdottir, MS — Updated on March 13, 2019
Sugar & Carbs
Marketed to Children
Cold cereals are an easy, convenient food.
Many boast impressive health claims or try to promote the latest nutrition trend. But you may wonder whether these cereals are as healthy as they claim to be.
This article takes a detailed look at breakfast cereals and their health effects.
What is breakfast cereal?
Breakfast cereal is made from processed grains and often fortified with vitamins and minerals. It is commonly eaten with milk, yogurt, fruit, or nuts (1Trusted Source).
Here’s how breakfast cereals are typically made:
Processing. The grains are usually processed into fine flour and cooked.
Mixing. The flour is then mixed with ingredients like sugar, cocoa, and water.
Extrusion. Many breakfast cereals are produced via extrusion, a high-temperature process that uses a machine to shape the cereal.
Drying. Next, the cereal is dried.
Shaping. Finally, the cereal is shaped into forms, such as balls, stars, loops or rectangles.
Breakfast cereals may also be puffed, flaked, or shredded — or coated in chocolate or frosting before it is dried.
Breakfast cereal is made from refined grains, often by a process called extrusion. It is highly processed, with many ingredients added.
Loaded with sugar and refined carbs
Added sugar may very well be the single worst ingredient in the modern diet.
It contributes to several chronic diseases, and most people are eating way too much of it (2Trusted Source, 3Trusted Source, 4Trusted Source).
Notably, most of this sugar comes from processed foods — and breakfast cereals are among the most popular processed foods that are high in added sugars.
In fact, most cereals list sugar as the second or third ingredient.
Starting the day with a high-sugar breakfast cereal will spike your blood sugar and insulin levels.
A few hours later, your blood sugar may crash, and your body will crave another high-carb meal or snack — potentially creating a vicious cycle of overeating (5Trusted Source).
Excess consumption of sugar may also increase your risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer (6Trusted Source, 7Trusted Source, 8Trusted Source).
Most breakfast cereals are loaded with sugar and refined grains. High sugar consumption is harmful and may increase your risk of several diseases.
Misleading health claims
Breakfast cereals are marketed as healthy.
Breakfast cereals are marketed as healthy — with boxes featuring health claims like “low-fat” and “whole-grain.” Yet, their first listed ingredients are often refined grains and sugar.
Small amounts of whole grains don’t make these products healthy.
However, studies show that these health claims are an effective way to mislead people into believing that these products are healthier (9Trusted Source, 10Trusted Source).
Breakfast cereals often have misleading health claims printed on the box — yet are filled with sugar and refined grains.
Often marketed to children
Food manufacturers specifically target children.
Companies use bright colors, cartoon characters, and action figures to attract children’s attention.
Unsurprisingly, this causes children to associate breakfast cereals with entertainment and fun.
This also affects taste preferences. Studies show that some children prefer the taste of foods that have popular cartoon characters on the packaging (11Trusted Source, 12).
Exposure to food marketing is even considered a risk factor for childhood obesity and other diet-related diseases (13).
These same products often have misleading health claims as well.
While the colors and cartoons make the products more appealing to children, the health claims make the parents feel better about buying such products for their kids.
Cereal manufacturers are experts at marketing — especially toward children. They use bright colors and popular cartoons to attract children’s attention, which studies show affects taste preferences.
Selecting healthier types
If you choose to eat cereal for breakfast, here are some tips to help you select a healthier option.
Try to choose a breakfast cereal with under 5 grams of sugar per serving. Read the food label to find out how much sugar the product contains.
Aim for high fiber
Breakfast cereals that pack at least 3 grams of fiber per serving are optimal. Eating enough fiber can have numerous health benefits (14Trusted Source).
Pay attention to portions
Breakfast cereals tend to be crunchy and tasty, and it can be very easy to consume a high number of calories. Try to measure how much you’re eating, using the serving size information on the packaging for guidance.
Read the ingredients list
Ignore the health claims on the front of the box, making sure to check the ingredients list. The first two or three ingredients are most important, as they comprise the majority of the cereal.
However, food manufacturers may use tricks to hide the amount of sugar in their products.
If sugar is listed several times under different names — even if it is not in the first few spots — the product is probably very high in sugar.
Add some protein
Protein is the most filling macronutrient. It increases fullness and reduces appetite.
This is likely because protein changes the levels of several hormones, such as the hunger hormone ghrelin and a fullness hormone called peptide YY (15Trusted Source, 16Trusted Source, 17Trusted Source, 18Trusted Source).
Greek yogurt or a handful of nuts or seeds are good choices for extra protein.
If you eat breakfast cereal, make sure it’s low in sugar and high in fiber. Pay attention to portion sizes, and always read the ingredients list. You can also enrich your cereal by adding your own protein.
Choose unprocessed breakfasts
If you are hungry in the morning, you should eat breakfast. However, it’s best to choose whole, single-ingredient foods.
Here are a few great choices:
oatmeal with raisins and nuts
Greek yogurt with nuts and sliced fruit
scrambled eggs with vegetables
Whole eggs are an excellent breakfast choice because they’re high in protein, healthy fats, and nutrients. What’s more, they keep you full for a long time and may even boost weight loss.
One study in teenage girls found that a high-protein breakfast of eggs and lean beef increased fullness. It also reduced cravings and late-night snacking (19Trusted Source).
Other studies note that replacing a grain-based breakfast with eggs can help you feel fuller for the next 36 hours — and lose up to 65% more weight (20Trusted Source, 21Trusted Source).
It’s best to choose whole foods like eggs for breakfast, as they’re very nutritious and filling. High-protein breakfasts may help reduce cravings and promote weight loss.
The bottom line
Breakfast cereals are highly processed, often packed with added sugar and refined carbs. Their packages regularly have misleading health claims.
If you eat cereal, read the ingredients list and approach health claims with skepticism. The best cereals are high in fiber and low in sugar.
That said, many healthier breakfast options exist. Whole, single-ingredient foods — such as oat porridge or eggs — are a great choice.
Preparing a healthy breakfast from whole foods is not only simple but starts your day with plenty of nutrition.
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