Do you feel overwhelmed when pushing your cart down the cereal aisle? You're not alone. Between the dizzying array of choices and the seemingly endless number of label claims, it can feel like a Sisyphean effort to select a wholesome option, one that won't be a "cereal killer" to your physique.
Choosing wisely or foolishly has major health ramifications. Too many cereals have sugar levels that are more appropriate for dessert than a healthy breakfast. A bowlful of sugar will leave you crashing and cloudy before lunchtime.
To help you keep your sanity in the cereal aisle, here are eight options that provide the biggest nutritional bang for your buck and are worthy of bowling you over.
If you hate mushy oatmeal, it's time to go back to the basics. Steel-cut oats are produced when whole-oat grains are passed through steel blades, cutting them into pellet-like pieces that produce an especially hearty and chewy cereal. Because steel-cut oats are less processed than rolled or instant oats, they take longer to digest, leading to a milder effect on blood sugar. This can keep your hunger at bay so you're not ready to tackle the vending machine come mid-morning.
Oats are especially rich in beta-glucan, a type of soluble fiber shown to shave down blood cholesterol numbers, which could support heart health. They also deliver avenanthramides—tongue-twisting antioxidants that have been shown to help quell exercise-induced inflammation.
The downside is that steel-cut oats take some time to cook in the morning, which isn't helpful if you're in a hurry. But if you soak steel-cut oats overnight, you can slash the cooking time to just a few minutes. Place one cup of steel-cut oats in a saucepan and pour in 2-1/2 cups water. Bring to a slight simmer, turn off the heat, and let the oats rest covered overnight. Come morning, simply stir in some milk and any desired spices and reheat over medium-low.
Brown Rice Farina
Few people ever consider brown rice farina as a cereal option, but it makes for a delicious porridge to kick-start a day of clean eating. Gluten-free and easy to digest, farina is made by grinding up whole-grain brown rice into smaller pieces that cook into a porridge-like consistency in less than 10 minutes. Bob's Red Mill makes the easiest version to find, but some other companies make similar products under the name "brown rice cereal."
Jazz up brown rice farina with spices like cinnamon, nuts and fruit. For an added protein boost, you can even stir in some protein powder.
Among the sea of boxed cereals now available, you can certainly do a lot worse than ye olde shredded wheat. An ingredient list that contains only one item—whole wheat —is a welcome relief. After all, who says, "Yum, caramel color?"
Each serving of shredded wheat supplies 6 grams of dietary fiber and, mercifully, 0 grams of sugar. Just add milk, chopped nuts, and berries for a bowlful of nutritious goodness. Make sure to avoid any version made with a sugary coating that can blow up your six-pack.
By the way, when selecting boxed cereals, steer clear of those that contain hydrogenated oil in the ingredients list. This is a euphemism for killer trans fat.
Granola is the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of the cereal aisle. On one hand, you can pour yourself a bowlful of healthy oats, antioxidant-packed dried fruit, and crunchy nuts that are loaded with body-friendly healthy fats. However, too many granola brands are sneaky sugar smugglers, providing as many gut-busting sugary calories as a boxed cereal featuring a cartoon character. This often comes courtesy of the liberal use of added sweeteners such as evaporated cane juice or brown rice syrup.
To scoop up a granola that'll do your body some good, turn over the box and read the nutrition facts. Ideally, you're looking for a brand that delivers no more than 10 grams of sugar per serving and at least 3 grams of dietary fiber. Ditto for other boxed cereals. Beyond oats, some brands contain other power grains like quinoa and amaranth. You can even find granola such as Kind Healthy Grains that supply a decent amount of muscle-friendly protein.
Hot Multigrain Cereal
Forget the sugary packets. When it comes to a fast-cooking hot cereal, you're better served by seeking out a bag of multigrain cereal such as Bob's Red Mill 10 Grain, which contains a bundle of pulverized nutrient-rich whole-grains like corn, oats, and millet, with no added processed sugars.
Studies strongly suggest swapping out refined grains for whole grains to help you skim off the fat. One reason is that their extra fiber can promote stable blood sugar levels, which discourages fat storage. Whole grains will also help you maintain your energy until lunch.
Historically, cereals don't have a reputation for being protein heavyweights. But the brand Kashi changed all when they unleashed their GOLEAN cereal, which contained a whopping 13 grams of muscle-building protein per serving. That's more than a third of its calories from protein! Add milk on top of that and you have a bona fide protein powerhouse to kick off your day.
In recent years, other high-protein cereals have followed suit. There are a couple of caveats, however. Much of this protein often comes from soy, and this may be of concern to anyone who worries about the potential negative impact high intakes of processed soy can have on hormones. The other concern is the amount of sugar that has wiggled its way into a number of protein cereals. The original Kashi GOLEAN has a modest 9 grams of sugar in each serving.
Cereals that boast their fibrous virtues—often in their name—can deliver up to 15 grams of dietary fiber per serving. That's an impressive amount, considering the daily requirement for women and men is 25 grams and 38 grams, respectively.
With a dietary focus on protein, many bodybuilders struggle to get their daily fiber quota. After all, there isn't any fiber in a hunk of steak or a scoop of powder. So a high-fiber cereal can make it a lot easier to get your daily totals up.
When possible, look for a brand such as Barbara's High Fiber Medley, which gleans some of its fiber from whole-food sources such as oats and whole wheat, not just bran. Cereals containing seeds such as flax and chia, like Nature's Path Qi'a Superfood Cereal, also pack in a blast of fiber—of both the soluble and insoluble varieties—to go along with respectable levels of protein and plenty of healthy fats.
Don't drop a box in your cart that sullies its stellar fiber levels with too much sugar. Remember, no more than 10 grams of the sweet stuff per serving.
Quinoa flakes are made by steaming and then passing whole quinoa grains through rollers to flatten them. This makes gluten-free quinoa much faster to cook, which is a blessing to anyone accustomed to mornings that are a blur of multitasking. Quinoa flakes may sound like an obscure choice, but given the quinoa craze that has taken hold of the country in recent years you're almost guaranteed to find a box in your town. Ancient Harvest is the easiest brand to find, but others are popping up.
A major nutritional benefit of quinoa flakes is that they contain a full arsenal of amino acids. These can kick-start your muscle-making machinery after an overnight fast. For a lightning-fast hot morning cereal, add 1/3 cup quinoa flakes and 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon to 1 cup simmering water. Keep stirring—don't let it sit—until it's creamy in texture.
If you're going to embrace your inner Martha Stewart and make your own granola, quinoa flakes are a great alternative to oats. This much-ballyhooed grain is here to stay, so take full advantage!