Here's an eye-opening fact about breakfast: People who skip it are 4 ½ times as likely to be obese as those who always eat it. Here's another: A new Harvard health study found that those who consumed whole grain cereal seven or more times per week had the lowest incidence of heart failure. Still not excited?
Yet another study from the University of Minnesota reported that the risk of all coronary events was reduced by 10% for each 10 g of grain fiber consumed per day. And because cereal is one of the best sources of these lifesaving whole grains, that means a single daily serving has the potential to slash your risk of heart disease, the number one killer of women. A higher whole grain intake is also linked to lower rates of breast cancer, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and stroke. And then there's this: Cereal is fast and convenient and comes in a gazillion varieties. But that's also its potential downfall. If you don't know what to look for, you could end up with a bowl full of empty calories instead of a nutritional powerhouse. To make sure you're getting the most bang for your cereal buck, follow these tips:1. Be a fiber fiend. Look for the words high fiber on the box; that ensures at least 5 g per serving. But don't stop there. Check the label; in some brands, the benefits of fiber are overshadowed by the addition of refined grains, added sugar, or cholesterol-raising fats.
2. Go "whole" hog. Where that fiber comes from matters, too, so check the ingredient list to find out exactly what those flakes or squares are made from. Millet, amaranth, quinoa, and oats are always whole grain, but if you don't see whole in front of wheat, corn, barley, and rice, these grains have been refined.
3. Watch for hidden sugar. The "total sugars" listing doesn't distinguish between added and naturally occurring sugars. There's no need to avoid the natural sugars found in nutrient-rich whole grains and fruits. But added sugars tack on extra Page 25 of 81 calories without vitamins or minerals and can wreak havoc on your blood sugar and energy levels. The best way to tell is to scan the ingredients again. The following terms represent added sugars: brown sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, high fructose corn syrup, invert sugar, maltose, malt syrup, molasses, sugar, and sucrose. Skip cereals that list any of these within the first three ingredients (which are listed by weight).
4. Avoid sugar alcohols or artificial sweeteners. They're sometimes added to boost sweetness without calories. I'm not a fan of anything artificial, and sugar alcohols can bloat your belly, so I recommend avoiding them. Steer clear of cereals containing sucralose, aspartame, sorbitol, mannitol, xylitol, maltitol, maltitol syrup, lactitol, and erythritol. Instead, add natural sweetness by topping your cereal with fresh fruit.
Cynthia sass, MPH, RD, is Prevention's nutrition director. As a registered dietitian, she's been helping women healthfully navigate grocery aisles for more than a decade.
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Cynthia's videos give cereal lovers tips on portions, blood sugar control, and more at prevention.com/cereal.