Can Cereal Be a Quick AND Healthy Breakfast?

I have a soft spot in my heart for cereal. Growing up, it was common for me to sit at the table eating cereal before I left for school, and as an adult, when I’m too lazy to make something to eat, I grab a bowl of cereal. So it’s no surprise that I would find reason to celebrate Cereal Day, but of course, many have already taken to demonizing something that can be a quick and healthy breakfast.

What Is Cereal?

When you think of cereal, what comes to mind? I’m sure some think of a highly processed, colorful, fun-shaped, sugary grain-based food. And they wouldn’t be completely wrong; this does describe some cereals that aren’t the most nutritionally dense breakfast.

But this doesn’t describe all cereals, so let’s take a look at cereal when it’s stripped down to its core, the seed, which consists of bran, endosperm and germ. Cereal grains are the edible seeds of specific grasses that belong to the “Poaceae” family and include wheat, oats, rice, corn, barley, sorghum, rye and millet. Cereal grains are nutritionally dense and contain a variety of nutrients (in different quantities depending on the grain), including protein, B vitamins, fiber, magnesium and iron.

Processing Cereal

Before I continue, let’s pause for a moment to address the processing of cereal. If you haven’t already, I recommend reading our Process This series where we highlight the importance of food fortification and other types of food processing. Cereal is one of the most commonly fortified foods. In the 1940s, to solve health diseases like pellagra and beriberi, many governments began to enrich grains with B vitamins. In 1998  the U.S. Food and Drug Administration made it mandatory for enriched cereal grain products to be fortified with folic acid to prevent neural tube defects in developing fetuses. All of this is why processed cereals aren’t automatically a bad thing.

So What Makes Cereal “Bad”?

Calling all cereals unhealthy or “bad” doesn’t educate consumers on how to build an eating pattern of healthy, nutritionally dense foods. Focusing on what makes some cereals healthier than others can be helpful.

Take oatmeal, for example. Often considered boring, oatmeal doesn’t have to be. You can add a variety of foods including yogurt, milk or soy milk for protein, nuts or seeds for healthy fats, and fruit for extra fiber, vitamins and minerals.  

If you don’t like oatmeal and would rather opt for something that brings back nostalgic memories of Saturday morning cartoons, look for more nutrient-dense options now that you’re all grown up. Check out the Nutrition Facts label to help you choose varieties that contain whole grains, and are higher in fiber and lower in added sugar. When enjoying your bowl of cereal, consider adding some fruit for extra vitamins and minerals or a hard-boiled egg for protein. 

While many are taking the time to make cereal the “bad guy,” let’s remember that there are many different types of cereal that are nutritionally dense, and which make for a quick and healthy breakfast.