The 5 Criteria for Healthy Breakfast Cereals

Auriane Alix
Good news for cereal lovers: you don’t have to cut them out of your diet.
Photo by Nyana Stoica on Unsplash

I am a real cereal lover. When I was a kid, I loved to open the cupboard, grab a bowl, pour cereal in and fill it with fresh milk. That crispy, creamy feeling, the sweet taste, the freshness of the milk, and the cereal gradually softening and melting… It was my daily breakfast and snack.

At some point, however, I began to become aware of nutrition, calories, and how my body was starting to store fat. For a little while, I removed them from my diet. But I missed them, so I replaced them with the supposedly healthy “adult cereals”. Which, in reality, are not healthier at all.

Today, cereals are again part of my almost daily diet, but under very strict conditions. My focus is on feeding my body well, with nutrient-dense foods that keep me feeling full for a long time and provide my body with all the nutrients it needs.

I’m not a nutritionist, but here’s how I choose the cereals that are allowed in my shopping cart.

1. Main enemy: added sugars

Never more than 15g of added sugars per 100g of cereals. This is my very first condition.

Sugar is one of the main responsible for weight gain. Long story short, when the blood sugar level rises following the consumption of sugar-rich products, it causes a peak in insulin. The insulin must then rebalance the blood sugar level. It transports it to 3 reserves: muscle tissue, liver, and adipose tissue (fat). The first two reserves are quickly saturated. Insulin, therefore, transports the excess sugars, already converted into glucose at this stage, to the fat tissue, where they are stored as fat.

Besides, once the insulin drops, this causes a sudden drop in energy, which leads to cravings and hunger.

That’s why you don’t want to raise your sugar level in the morning. At the supermarket, turn the package over and look for the nutrition table, and more specifically the line “added sugars”. Because some sugars can be naturally present and pretty healthy, like those found in fruit. Some cereals can contain up to 25g or even 30g of sugar per 100g.

My limit is 15g, which is already a lot. The lower the figure, the better.

2. A legible list of ingredients

If you can’t pronounce it, or if you have no idea what it is, then it’s probably not good for you. Same thing if you fall asleep before you get to the end of the list. Rule #2: Ingredients should be understandable and few in number.

Watch out for names that sugar can hide under. Molasses, evaporated cane juice, glucose, dextrose, fructose… They are infinite, and all refer to this terrible white substance. Try to avoid them at all costs.

In addition, the list of ingredients in most countries is supposed to be displayed in descending order of prevalence. The first ingredients are those present in major quantities. Make sure they are good and do not consist of oil or sugar.

3. Pay attention to the oils used

Most of the time, granola requires the presence of oil. That’s good. Some oils are full of good vitamins for your body. But not all of them.

“A granola that’s higher in total fat isn’t necessarily unhealthy. If the mix contains nuts and seeds, the overall fat content will be higher — but much of it comes from healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.” — The Washington Post

Look for saturated fats in the nutrient information. They should be as low as possible.

“Too much saturated fat can cause cholesterol to build up in your arteries. Saturated fats raise your LDL (bad) cholesterol. High LDL cholesterol increases your risk for heart disease and stroke.” — MedlinePlus

Also, avoid hydrogenated oils and palm oils for this reason:

Many granolas list hydrogenated oils and palm oil which won’t do your heart — or the planet — any favours. Look for brands that use healthier alternatives like coconut or macadamia oil.” — Amodrn

4. Pick whole cereals

Whole grains are naturally more nutritious and help control insulin levels.

Whether it is oats, wheat, or other, make sure it is whole. This is indicated on the package and in ingredient lists, often in bulk. Eating white, refined cereals more or less amounts to eating white sugar.

5. Make sure it’s packed with proteins and fibers

To ensure your body gets all the nutrients it needs, favor cereals filled with protein and fiber. Again, all the information you need is in the nutrition charts.

Protein is not only found in animal products. There is protein even in broccoli. It is the main nutrient for your muscles and keeps you feeling full longer.

“Protein is a critical part of the processes that fuel your energy and carry oxygen throughout your body in your blood. It also helps make antibodies that fight off infections and illnesses and helps keep cells healthy and create new ones.” — Webmd

Fibers have four main benefits:

“- Fiber slows the rate that sugar is absorbed into the bloodstream. When you eat foods high in fiber, such as beans and whole grains, the sugar in those foods is absorbed slower, which keeps your blood glucose levels from rising too fast. This is good for you because spikes in glucose fall rapidly, which can make you feel hungry soon after eating and lead to overeating.
- Fiber makes your intestines move faster. When you eat whole grains rich in insoluble fiber, it moves faster through your intestines, which can help signal that you are full.
- Fiber cleans your colon, acting like a scrub brush. The scrub-brush effect of fiber helps clean out bacteria and other buildup in your intestines, and reduces your risk for colon cancer.
- Fiber helps keep you regular. A high-fiber diet helps you have soft, regular bowel movements, reducing constipation.”

Final thoughts (and additional tip)

If possible, for health and environmental considerations, choose organic cereals. But beware: not all granolas in organic stores are good. I found some that were packed with sugar on top of being expensive.

Always be aware of what you’re buying. Learning how to decode ingredient lists and nutritional charts is essential to nourish your body properly. Just because it says “light” or “healthy” on the package doesn’t mean it is. Remember that industries are fighting for you to choose them over other brands. Anything is good to trap you.

My last piece of advice would be this: don’t eat granola with milk. Eat it with plain yogurt instead. It’s delicious, creamy, and much more nourishing. You’ll pour fewer cereals in your bowl, get more proteins with the yogurt, and be full for much longer. Combine it with fruit, whether bananas, apples, or berries, depending on your taste.

Enjoy your breakfast!

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