During the week, I don't want to wake up and ponder what to eat for breakfast; I need a routine. In the winter, it's easy. I have oatmeal with some brown sugar and a few nuts. But with a New York City summer approaching, hot cereal is losing its appeal, and I'm looking for a cold replacement that's not a nutritional disaster. The problem is that the cereal aisle has gotten a lot more complicated than I ever remember it being. I needed some help.
So before I went shopping, I consulted nutritionists and dietitians for their ideas. Here's what I found out from them and what I discovered at the store:
• Don't judge a cereal by its cover. Going by the name is not necessarily the best way to make sure you end up with something healthful, says Heather Bauer, a New York City-based dietitian and author of The Wall Street Diet. At the store, I looked at a cereal called King Vitamin, which may well rule when it comes to vitamins but has just 1 gram of fiber per serving. And its first three ingredients are corn flour, sugar, and oat flour (i.e., not whole grains—see the next tip).
• Look for cereal that's high in fiber and has whole grains as well. This is perhaps the most confusing part of cereal shopping. Here's an extensive definition of a whole grain.
The short version: A whole, unprocessed grain has three parts, the germ (a great source of vitamins and minerals), the bran (where you get fiber), and the endosperm (where you get starch), says Tara Gidus, a nutrition performance coach and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. You want fiber, but you also want the other parts of the grain. To make it more confusing, different grains have different amounts of fiber.
So Gidus recommends looking at the nutrition label and aiming for at least 5 grams of fiber per serving. If there's a 100 percent whole grain stamp on the front of the package, you're getting whole grains. If not, look in the ingredient list. The easiest trick is to look for the word "whole"—as in, for example, whole wheat flour—or the simple name of a grain, like oats or barley. It gets very complicated, since words you might think signal whole grains, like "mixed-grain," "multigrain," or various kinds of flour, may not actually do so. (Here's a good resource for sussing out whole grains in an ingredient list.)
• Keep an eye on the sugar, but don't be absolutist. The nutritionists I talked to suggested limiting sugar to as little as 8 grams or less per serving and as much as 15 grams or less. It makes sense to be a little less strict about cereals that have sugar-containing dried fruit, they said.
Or, do a little math: Take the grams of sugar, multiply that by 4 calories each, and you'll come up with the number of calories from sugar in each serving. Then look at that as a percentage of the total calories per serving. So, take Cookie Crisp, a cereal I used to beg my mother to buy for me. It has 11 grams of sugar per serving. That's 44 calories from sugar out of a total 100 calories per serving. In other words, 44 percent of Cookie Crisp's calories come from sugar. Not great. (I take back all those things I used to say about you on the playground, Mom.) A good target is no more than 25 percent of calories from sugar, says Gidus. Not good with math? "Look at the label to make sure sugar isn't one of the top three or four ingredients," says Monique Ryan, a Chicago-based nutritionist and author of Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athletes.
• Watch your portion size if you're worried about calories. Cereal is easy to eat endlessly: You get to the bottom of the bowl, refill it, and before you know it, you've put away 700 calories. Note the serving size on the nutrition label, and don't assume it's the same from one product to the next. It varies partly because an ounce of cereal translates to as little as one-fourth cup for very dense granolas to 1½ cups for airy cereals like puffed rice. "Measure out what that is," advises Bauer, "and put it in the bowl you use so you can see how big or little that is."
• Don't be afraid to mix it up. One technique is to buy a very basic, unsweetened cereal like shredded wheat and add things to make it taste better: a teaspoon of sugar, cinnamon for flavor, fresh or frozen fruit (as opposed to the sugarcoated, freeze-dried stuff you find in most cereals), or a few nuts. You can buy store-brand basics, too, which will save money, says Gidus. (Brand-name cold cereals are expensive, at about 50 to 55 cents a serving for the ones I bought, compared with 14 cents for my winter oatmeal.)
At the grocery store, I first checked out the cereals I've loved before, hoping they'd meet the guidelines. No dice: Honey Bunches of Oats is low in fiber and whole grains, and Cracklin' Oat Bran gets 30 percent of its calories from sugar and, unusually for a cereal, contains saturated fat. So I ended up with these three, all of which list whole grains at the top of their ingredient lists: plain old Shredded Wheat (6 grams of fiber and no sugar per serving), Kashi Autumn Wheat (6 grams of fiber and 7 of sugar per serving), and Kashi GoLean Crunch! Honey Almond Flax (8 grams of fiber and 12 of sugar per serving). I'll tell you how it goes.
How does your favorite breakfast cereal stack up?