How to Choose a Breakfast Cereal
Making a healthy choice in this dicey food category is far from easy.
By Lynn Prowitt
If you are a longtime breakfast cereal eater, it might be that nothing else satisfies you in the morning quite like that bowl of sweet, crunchy, milky goodness. But with a diagnosis of diabetes, most people find that their beloved breakfast cereal is among the most vicious of blood-sugar spikers. The majority of popular cereals are made mostly of refined grains and sugar — the two most common blood-sugar spiking ingredients in the Western diet. You may be thinking, wait a minute, isn't cereal a good way to get whole grains and fiber into my diet? It's usually not. While there are a few winners in the cereal aisle, they are few and far between. See below for tips on sniffing them out.
Choosing Your Cereal
One easy way to pick a good cereal is to choose from those with the shortest ingredients lists. If the cereal is made of bran (wheat or oat), whole wheat, or whole oats (not oat flour) and just one or two other ingredients, it's probably better than most. Avoid rice and rice flour, and the ubiquitous milled corn. You want a cereal that is whole grain (not just "made with whole grains"), low in sugar and sodium, and not full of additives. This is what will give you the best nutrition bang for your cereal buck — and have the least impact on your blood sugar. Some other things to keep in mind:
Look at the serving size (in grams) and the number of grams of sugar. One serving of Fruit Loops (yes, an extreme example, but it illustrates the point) is one cup and weighs 29g. The nutrition facts label also tells us that a serving contains 12g of sugar. You can conclude that a cup of this cereal is roughly one-half sugar.
Ingredients are listed in order by weight, so pay close attention to the first two or three ingredients. If they include a grain that isn't specified as "whole" or sugar (malt, corn syrup, etc.), it's probably not a winner. (An exception would be wheat or oat bran, which is a healthy, unprocessed part of the grain.) Two disappointing surprises: Special K and Product 19 are two cereals with longstanding healthy "halos," and neither contains a whole grain.
Keep an eye out for manmade fiber and fruit bits. Cereal makers know that customers want fiber, so they have taken to pumping up their cereals with functional fiber, or fibers synthesized from foods (e.g., oat fiber). Although research has shown that functional fibers have some of the same beneficial effects as dietary fiber, the verdict is still out on whether or not these manmade fibers come with all of the health benefits associated with the real fiber that's found in plant foods. And those brightly colored fruit bits you see glowing in your bowl are usually made mostly of food dye and sugar, with nary a sliver of fruit to be found. Also note: Yogurt, fruit or nut "clusters" are also notoriously lacking in real food ingredients and made mostly of sugar and salt.
Skip the instant oatmeal. Not only do they add a lot of sugar and salt to instant oatmeal, the oats are so processed they can't be considered whole grains any more. "Quick cooking" oats, on the other hand, are whole grain, but they have a higher glycemic impact than do the old fashioned rolled oats or the even less processed steel cut oats.
Don't forget to count the carbs in your milk. One cup of whole milk contains about 12g (reduced fat and skim contain slightly more). Half and half contains 10g.
Lynn Prowitt is a consulting editor for dLife. She has been writing about health and nutrition for more than 20 years.
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