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Read labels to find healthy cereals

Copyright 2002 President Fellows Harvard College behalf HMS MediServices Phoby LizGreen HMS MediServices Anthony Leader Komaroff MD Harvard Health Publications

Copyright 2002 President and Fellows of Harvard College on behalf of HMS Media Services, Photo by Liza Green, HMS Media Services, Anthony Leader Komaroff, MD, Harvard Health Publications

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Updated: September 24, 2012 6:17AM

Dear Doctor K: I know breakfast is important, but in our house we only have time for cereal. How can I make sure to at least choose a healthy one?

Dear Reader: You’re right to make breakfast a priority, no matter how busy your mornings. A good breakfast can help you concentrate, maintain the right weight and get the nutrients you need to stay well. And the right cereal is a very healthy, and quick, breakfast. But not all cereals are created equal. Some are largely empty calories and contain too much sugar and salt. Some cereals that are heavily marketed to children, in particular, are unhealthy because they contain way too much sugar.

Whether you want a nutritious cereal for yourself or your children, here are five things you should look for:

Whole grains. The healthiest cereals are made from whole grains. They naturally have the fiber, vitamins and minerals that refined grains lack. The only way to tell if a cereal has whole grains is to read the Nutrition Facts ingredient list on the package. The first ingredient should be a whole grain, such as whole wheat or whole oats.

Fiber. The fiber in whole grains is essential to keep your digestive system functioning properly. Fiber also lowers cholesterol, helps prevent heart disease, keeps blood sugar steady and helps you feel full. Aim for a cereal that has 5 or more grams of fiber per serving.

Low in calories. Calories can add up quickly. Look for cereals with fewer than 150 calories per serving.

Low in sugar. Check the ingredients for added sugars, such as brown rice syrup, high-fructose corn syrup or evaporated cane juice. Avoid cereals with sugar at or near the top of the ingredient list. Aim for a cereal that has 5 grams of sugar or less per serving.

Low in sodium. The healthiest cereals contain fewer than 200 milligrams of sodium per serving.

And don’t forget fruit. Adding fresh fruit (bananas, berries, etc.) or dried fruit (dried cranberries or blueberries) adds flavor plus lots of healthy antioxidants into the mix.

Don’t rely on health claims on the front of the cereal box. The best way to tell whether a cereal is really healthy is to read the Nutrition Facts label and use the criteria I’ve listed above.

In case you’re wondering, the kind of cereal I recommend above is the kind of breakfast I have almost every morning. On other mornings I have whole-grain toast and yogurt. And on Sundays, I have eggs or bagels and smoked salmon or pancakes. Unfortunately, Sundays come just once a week!

We have more information on nutritious food choices in our Special Health Report, “Healthy Eating.” (Learn more about this report at, or call 877-649-9457 toll-free to order it.)

Write to Dr. Komaroff at

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