What Not To Eat: Cereal Edition
I have spent the last twenty-five years or so talking about what you should be eating. Last week I began a discussion of what not to eat. I can't say that I have deliberately avoided talking about what you shouldn't be eating, it's more that I like to remain positive. There's so much great food that's great for you and that has taken me a lot of time to talk about. Even so, I get a lot of emails asking about advice on foods to avoid. This week I want to talk about breakfast choices and we'll begin with a discussion of cereal.
Let's start with Cheerios. They're healthy, right? Heck, there's even an American Heart Association "Check Mark" on the package. So why would I be talking about them now?
It's true, Cheerios are pretty healthy. Original Cheerios, that is. A one cup serving size is only 100 calories and contains 3 grams of fiber. There's 1 gram of sugar (which is only 1/4 teaspoon), yet they are slightly sweet. Maybe you put a teaspoon of sugar on your cup of Cheerios before you pour on the milk and that would be OK. Excluding the added vitamins, they are made with only six ingredients. One of the six is not all that recognizable, but this still puts original Cheerios in a pretty good light.
But the story doesn't really end there. Virtually every patient that I discuss breakfast with tells me they are eating a healthy breakfast: they have Cheerios. When I dig deeper, however, they almost always say that they have Honey Nut Cheerios. And that's where the problem is.
You see, there are 11 different varieties of Cheerios now and you should not eat 10 of them. In addition to the original there's Honey Nut, Banana Nut, Chocolate, Cinnamon Burst, Cheerios Crunch, Berry Burst, Apple Cinnamon, Fruity, Yogurt Burst and Frosted. Frosted? Really? Frosted Cheerios! Really?! What the heck is that about?
Here's what it's about. Instead of 100 calories you'll eat 138 and those extra calories are all sugar – 13 1/2 grams of sugar. Not only is that bad, but it comes at the expense of fiber and other nutrients. The additional 12 1/2 grams of sugars is about 3 teaspoons of table sugar, which equates to 48 calories. When you do the math on this that means that 10 healthy calories were sacrificed to add in 48 unhealthy ones. (138 total calories minus 48 calories of added sugar = 90 calories in the Frosted Cheerios vs. 100 calories in the regular.) Where'd the 10 healthy calories go? They disappeared and were replaced with sugar.
OK, so you might thinking, "Big deal! It's pretty easy to attack cereal."
True, it is. There's a lot of absolute junk out there that has the nutritional content of cardboard soaked in sugar. Apple Jacks, Lucky Charms, Trix, Fruit Loops, Cap'n Crunch, Frosted Cheerios, Frosted Mini Wheats.... The list is almost endless. Many of these are now marketed as being healthier, but it's not true. There's just not much in these products except white flour and sugar with artificial ingredients.
My issue is with the cereals that start out seemingly healthy like Cheerios. There are other examples, such as shredded wheat, where the wide varieties of Kelloggs Frosted Mini Wheats takes a really healthy brand and adds a ton of sugar to it in the same way as the Cheerios. Special K (which is almost healthy at best) sells a Chocolatey Delight version that's almost as high in sugar as Cap'n Crunch.
So, how to choose? Since you can't really trust what were once brands established as healthy, what can you do?
It's pretty simple, really. Turn the package over. Look at the Nutrition Facts. Note that some cereals list 3/4 cup as the serving size and others 1 cup. Look at the calories. This should be around 100. Next, look at the sugars. This should be less than 4 grams and the lower the better. Lastly, the fiber content – 3 or more grams is optimum.
Calories = 100
Sugars < 4 grams
Fiber ≥ 3 grams.
One think to keep in mind is your serving size. You might want to take a look at the amount of cereal you are pouring. In truth, you may find that you are pouring 2, 2 1/2 or even three cups of cereal. That could mean that you are pouring up to 3 times what you think. Remember, measuring works…
Finally, I want to address the idea of sweetening your healthy cereal. It's best to start with adding fruit to your cereal, but I think that it's OK if you add your own sugar. When you consider that a teaspoon of sugar is 4 grams (about 16 calories), you're far better off with a healthier cereal, like shredded wheat or Cheerios, and adding a single teaspoon of sugar. It's certainly better than the 4 teaspoons of added sugar in Frosted Mini Wheats. If you added 4 teaspoons of table sugar to your cup of plain mini wheats, it would be too sweet to eat! In the end you are better off controlling how much sugar is added.
The best alternative is always making your own food. There are great breakfast alternatives and I'll talk about some of those next week, but here's a great granola recipe to get you started: Easy Granola.
Eat well, eat healthy, enjoy life!
Timothy S. Harlan, M.D.