A bowl of cereal can be less healthful than a doughnut, according to a new ranking of kids' breakfast cereals published by Consumer Reports. Eleven cereals ranked by the venerable group had more sugar than a glazed Dunkin' Donut. The culprits include Kellogg's Honey Smacks (nee Sugar Smacks) and Post Golden Crisp, both of which get almost 60 percent of their calories from sugar. Talk about a sugar high!
What's a parent to do? Registered dietitians know how to eat smart at breakfast—without denying your sweet tooth. This is good news not just for kids but for the many grownups who still love sugared cereal. Sarah Krieger, a registered dietitian who teaches kids how to make a wholesome breakfast at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg, Fla., is among them. Right now she craves Cocoa Krispies, which she attributes to being pregnant. Otherwise, her sugary fave is Frosted Mini-Wheats. Here are nine ways to build a breakfast that's both healthful and satisfying:
• Go for protein. Study after study has shown that eating breakfast makes for better cognitive performance through the day and less weight gain over time. To make that happen, a key ingredient is protein, which provides lasting energy. One good choice: peanut butter on a whole-grain English muffin.
• Fiber up. Consumer Reports considered fiber one of its key ranking criteria, right up there with the amount of sugar. Its winners among cereals marketed to children: Cheerios and Kix, both with 3 grams of fiber per serving, and Life and Honey Nut Cheerios, both with 2 grams. Step outside the realm of cereals marketed to kids, and there are lots of good choices, including Raisin Bran, with 5 grams of fiber per serving, Grape-Nuts, with 7 grams, or Kashi Go Lean Crunch, with 9 grams. Children need at least their age plus 5 in fiber; a 5-year-old should eat at least 10 grams of fiber a day. Adults need 25 to 35 grams, and cereal is a great way to get it.
• Sugar can help the fiber go down. Some cereals that have added sugar also have real health benefits: A serving of Frosted Mini-Wheats, for instance, has a whopping 6 grams of fiber, which dietitians say helps make up for the 12 grams of sugar per serving.
• Look for whole grains. Not only do whole grain cereals have more fiber, but they also have more natural vitamins and minerals. Finding good whole-grain cereal can take some detective work. For instance, oatmeal in the round box has more fiber than single-serving packaged oatmeal because the instant oatmeal is more highly processed. It almost always has added sugar, too. Better to microwave old-fashioned or quick oatmeal, and drizzle on honey or add dried cherries if you like it sweet.
• Be unconventional. Leftover pizza or pasta makes a great breakfast choice, according to Krieger. Add a piece of fruit and a glass of milk, and you're good for the morning.
• Keep an eye on sodium. Consumer Reports dinged Rice Krispies, but not because it has a lot of sugar—it's got only 4 grams per serving, which is next to nothing compared with Froot Loops, with 12 grams. Instead, Rice Krispies was faulted for being higher in sodium than is necessary, at 135 milligrams, and having almost no fiber (it's puffed white rice). Other cereals heavily promoted to children have up to 270 mg of sodium in a serving, which is a real concern at a time when increasing numbers of children are being diagnosed with high blood pressure.
• Use sweetened cereals like a condiment. Layer a little Cap'n Crunch, with 12 grams of sugar and 1 gram of fiber, on top of shredded wheat, with no sugar and 5 grams of fiber, and you've got a not-so-bad bowlful. Krieger likes her Cocoa Krispies atop plain shredded wheat or Cheerios.
• Beware of sneaky sugar substitutes. Some cereal companies are replacing sugar with artificial sweeteners so they can say their product has less sugar, according to Tara Gudis, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. You wouldn't know that unless you read the fine print in the ingredients. Eating supersweet food, even if artificially sweetened, is a bad idea, Gudis says, because once people are used to really sweet tastes, they're less likely to eat a varied, healthful diet.
• Eat breakfast every day. Consistently eating breakfast turns up in study after study as a key part of healthful living, particularly for kids. "I like cereal," says Gudis. "It's a good way to get people to eat breakfast, and if you pick a high-fiber one, you can get half your fiber knocked out for the day." Eat it with milk, and you're getting protein, calcium, and Vitamin D, too.