Harvard Health Letter

Boost the power of your breakfast cereal

One serving each of whole-grain cereal, low-fat milk, and fruit meet the requirements for a healthy breakfast.

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Learn which ingredients will give your day a healthy start.

Grocery store shelves are filled with dozens of breakfast cereals all promising important health benefits. But how do you know if you're getting what you need? "Labels and marketing promises on boxes can be confusing. It's best to go cereal shopping with a plan," says Kathy McManus, director of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital. She advises that you complement cereal with milk for protein and calcium and with fresh fruit for natural sweetness and some fiber. Don't worry if the cereal is organic or not. But do read ingredient lists carefully, and aim for the following markers of good nutrition.

Whole grains

Look for a breakfast cereal made of corn, whole wheat, or brown rice. These are whole grains rich in fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Many cereals are made with refined grains, which can cause your blood sugar to spike.


Fiber is the nondigestible component of plant food that's vital for good health. It lowers blood sugar and cholesterol, and it can help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity. The Institute of Medicine recommends 21 to 25 grams of fiber per day for women, 30 to 38 grams per day for men. How much do you need from cereal? "A typical serving of cereal should have 5 or more grams of fiber," suggests McManus.

Low sugar

McManus recommends no more than 5 grams of sugar per serving of cereal. But that can be a challenge. The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research organization, found that 92% of cold cereals in the United States come preloaded with added sugars. The only way you can be sure how much sugar you're getting is to read the Nutrition Facts label on the side of the cereal box.

Low sodium

Sodium hides in many seemingly healthy foods, and cereal is one of them. Some cereals have up to 300 milligrams (mg) of sodium per serving! The American Heart Association recommends limiting sodium to 1,500 mg per day. Aim for a cereal with no more than 200 mg of sodium per serving.

Low calories

You don't want to eat up half a day's worth of calories in a bowl of cereal, but it wouldn't be too hard to do if you ignored serving sizes. Most cereals list a serving size as one cup or just three-quarters of a cup, which is far less than the average bowl can hold. Best bet: look for cereals with less than 150 calories per serving, and use a measuring cup when serving yourself.

Don't skip breakfast!

Eating breakfast is linked to a lower risk for diabetes, obesity, and blood pressure.

You've probably heard that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. You may also be the type of person who doesn't think twice about skipping a meal when you first wake up. But bypassing breakfast can lead to a number of problems, ranging from low energy to weight gain and a greater risk of diabetes. "Many studies show the importance of eating breakfast to reduce risk for chronic disease and help maintain significant weight loss," says Kathy McManus, director of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital.

For example, studies have shown the following:

  • Women who consume breakfast infrequently increase their risk of developing diabetes by 28% compared with women who consume breakfast daily.

  • People who eat breakfast cereal, especially whole-grain cereal, significantly decrease their risk of developing diabetes.

  • Daily breakfast consumers have lower rates of diabetes, abdominal obesity, obesity, metabolic syndrome, and hypertension than people who eat breakfast three times or less each week.

  • People who've kept off more than 30 pounds of excess weight for a year are more likely than others to have breakfast every day.

What should you look for in a good breakfast? "In general, a healthy breakfast would include lean protein, whole grains, and fresh fruit," says McManus. One example is an egg-white omelet prepared in small amount of healthy oil (canola, olive) with spinach, mushrooms, and onions, along with one slice of whole-grain toast and a fresh orange. Another example is one serving of oatmeal with two tablespoons of walnuts, chopped apple, and 4 ounces of plain nonfat Greek yogurt.