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Is Cereal a Healthy Breakfast Food?

The short answer: yes—as long as you choose a good-for-you option.

is cereal healthy
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Cereal is a breakfast staple and an a.m. go-to for many runners for good reason. It’s an affordable, quick, and easy to put together in seconds. You can enjoy it before early morning runs or as a fast and tasty snack to refuel after a workout. The key to making it a nutritious breakfast: Skip the high-sugar varieties and reach for whole-grain cereals.

That said, cereals fall into the carbohydrate category, which is good for us runners who need energy for double-digit miles or intense speed workouts. But it does make you wonder, is cereal actually healthy, and if you love it, which ones should you choose?

We tapped Lori Zanini, R.D., C.D.E., registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator, as well as Amy Goodson, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., registered dietitian specializing in sports dietetics, to break down what nutrients you can get from cereals—and if you can rely on a big bowl as part of a healthy diet.

Is cereal healthy?

Cereals come in all shapes, sizes, and nutritional profiles. Many cereals—unfortunately many of the ones geared toward children—are loaded with added sugars. Research associates large amounts of added sugars with adverse health consequences, such as increased risk of cardiovascular disease, poor gut health and higher inflammation, and disruption in hormone signaling—especially dopamine (as shown in animal studies).

On the other hand, there are plenty of cereals that are made with whole grains, contain low sugar, and are fortified with vitamins and minerals. Fortification of foods started back in the 1920s to close the gaps on nutrients that were commonly showing up as deficiencies in the American diet, Goodson explains.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), only about 12 percent of the American population meet the recommendation for fruit intake and only about 10 percent meet vegetable intake requirements—which are significant providers of a variety of essential vitamins and minerals. So while research shows that fortified foods, like cereal, provide vitamins and minerals such as riboflavin, niacin, thiamin, iron and folic acid, it shouldn’t be a total substitution for foods that naturally contain the vitamins and nutrients that are being added, Zanini says; the quality of the foods we eat matter.

“As registered dietitians, we always recommend that people get as many whole foods in their diet as they can,” Goodson says. Whole foods here means unpackaged and unprocessed items, such as fresh fruits and vegetables. “However, when people choose packaged foods, we’d prefer they choose nutrient-rich options that contain fiber, vitamins, and minerals. And, 100-percent whole-grain cereal can provide that for many people. Plus, when paired with milk, it can be an affordable and very nutrient-rich option.”

Aside from providing nutrients, when choosing whole-grain options and watching out for added sugar, cereal can be a great source of the carbs you need to fuel your training. (Carbs are what give you the energy to clock miles, after all!)

Since cereal is processed, timing your eating with your training is key, and so is watching your processed carb intake when you’re not working at a high volume. As we previously reported, it’s okay to consume processed carbs before, during, and immediately after a workout, but at all other times, you should reach for less processed options.

How do I choose a healthy breakfast cereal?

Ideally, you want to look for a cereal that is 100-percent whole grain; that could be whole wheat, bran, or oat. This type of cereal will likely provide more fiber, as well as nutrients. If you don’t like the taste of “plain” cereal (a.k.a. not the sugary stuff), try naturally sweetening it with fresh or frozen fruit and adding protein with cow’s dairy milk or plain greek yogurt, suggests Goodson. This can also help keep you fuller longer.

Additionally, you’ll want to look out for cereals with excessive amounts of added sugar or sodium, Zanini says. Be sure to seek out those that are also good sources of fiber and protein, which will help stabilize blood glucose levels and keep you full.

Try these 4 healthy cereals

The bottom line: Cereal can be a healthy meal or snack option for active runners when choosing an option that’s made with whole grains, low in sugar, and fortified with vitamins and minerals. But of course, no one food is designed to provide all the nutrients you need, Goodson says. Adding a protein such as milk or yogurt can make it a more complete option, and because cereal is processed, it’s best when consumed on days you’re doing heavy training. Taking a rest day? Skip the cereal and opt for some whole fruits, vegetables, and clean proteins instead.

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