DEAR DOCTOR K: I love to eat cereal for breakfast, but I’ve heard that many cereals aren’t all that healthy. What should I look for in a healthy cereal?
DEAR READER: I spoke with Kathy McManus, director of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital. She recommends reading ingredient lists carefully and choosing cereals that meet the following criteria:
Whole grains: Many cereals are made with refined grains, which are full of carbohydrates that easily and rapidly turn into simple sugars. The absorption of these sugars from the gut causes your blood sugar to spike. These spikes cause your pancreas to “overwork” making insulin. This, in turn, can raise a person’s risk of getting Type 2 diabetes.
Instead, look for a breakfast cereal made of corn, whole wheat or brown rice.
Fiber is the indigestible component of plant food that’s vital for good health. It lowers blood sugar and cholesterol, and it can help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity. Women should consume 21 to 25 grams of fiber per day, while men should aim for 30 to 38 grams per day. Look for cereals that contain 5 or more grams of fiber per serving.
Low sugar: Choose cereals that provide no more than 5 grams of sugar per serving. Unfortunately, that may be easier said than done. Most cold cereals in the United States come preloaded with added sugars.
Low sodium: Sodium hides in many unexpected foods, and cereal is one of them. The current dietary guidelines recommend limiting sodium to 2,300 mg per day. So look for cereals with no more than 200 mg of sodium per serving.
Low calories: Most cereals list a serving size as one cup or just three-quarters of a cup. That’s far less than the average bowl can hold. Your best bet is to look for cereals with less than 150 calories per serving. Finally, complement your cereal with some low-fat milk for protein and calcium, and add fresh fruit for natural sweetness and fiber.
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