Cereal is often the number one go-to breakfast choice for parents, considering it takes a mere 30 seconds to throw together and serve, and it is widely accepted by kids. After all, it's crunchy, fun to eat, and often sweet. In fact, cereal is a lot sweeter than most people realize, especially those cereals that are marketed to kids. What may seem like a healthy "whole grain" choice, may actually be the equivalent to serving your kids dessert for breakfast.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) recently conducted an analysis on over 1500 breakfast cereals—including 181 cereals specifically marketed to children—and figured out that a child who eats a bowl of cereal a day for a year would end up consuming about 10 pounds of sugar from that source alone. In the document, it states that the most popular children's cereals average about two teaspoons of sugar per serving, which is similar to three "Chips Ahoy" cookies. Over one third of the calories in a serving of children's cereal came from sugar alone, and most of these cereals contained over a third of the recommended daily amount of sugar.
Out of the 181 cereals that were specifically marketed to kids, very few were low in sugar and there wasn't a single one that did not contain added sugar, which clearly indicates that the manufacturers are capitalizing on children's biologically-driven affinity for sweet foods. Not surprisingly, the EWG found that the health claims plastered all over cereal boxes ("Good source of fibre" or "Excellent source of Vitamin D") often distracts consumers from what actually matters—the ingredients.
As mentioned in the MacLeans Magazine cover story, "Death By Sugar," that unveils the truths about the damaging health effects of sugar, Canadians eat, on average, about 88 lbs of sugar per year. What's more shocking is that the average 9-year-old boy eats 126 lbs of sugar per year, and the average male teen, 138 lbs. As a Dietitian, this sadly doesn't surprise me too much—I've seen some fairly shocking food journals in my counseling practice, many that absolutely ooze SUGAR. Sugar appears in everything from cereal to salad dressing, and from condiments to crackers. If it comes in a package or box—even if it claims to be healthy in some way—it likely contains added sugar.
This is why my family and I decided to cut back significantly on processed, packaged foods last Fall. We didn't make the now-popular resolution to go "sugar-free" (because I knew that was unrealistic for us), but rather to focus on whole foods that come in their natural form—fruits, veggies, intact whole grains, eggs, hormone/antibiotic-free meats, beans and lentils, etc. In doing that, we naturally cut back on our sugar consumption by A LOT.
What draws many families to boxed cereal (among other processed, packaged foods) is the convenience factor. As a Mom to a three-year-old and 10-month-old, I get it. But I also know that what we feed our kids now will affect them long-term. As parents, we set the stage for what our kids will view as "normal" when it comes to food. If we're constantly feeding them food from a package, they will grow accustomed to the over-powering sugary, salty tastes and perhaps not appreciate the true flavours of real food. They will grow to think that eating means opening a package or box. Cooking from scratch not only benefits our kids (and ourselves) from a nutrition stand-point, but also opens up the opportunity for kids to learn how to cook and prepare food—something that will benefit them for life.
It may seem impossible to trade your favourite breakfast cereal in for something healthier, but it's not. There are plenty of healthy-but-still-easy options out there.
If you absolutely can't kick your cereal habit, make sure that you're reading the ingredients list first and foremost. If sugar (or any form of sweetener, such as brown rice syrup, agave syrup, glucose, honey etc.) is one of the first 3 ingredients, put it back. If there are more than 6 or 7 ingredients total (unless they are all natural ingredients that you recognize), put it back. When looking at the nutrition facts table, aim for at least 4 grams of fibre and less than 8 grams of sugar per 30 gram serving size. Read more here about why you should always read the ingredients list on food products and the top five ingredients to avoid.
Cold cereal isn't the only convenient option. Hot cereal is our favourite go-to breakfast, because it's much more filling and satisfying and the kids love it. Our favourite is slow-cooker steel-cut oats. It's great because I can prepare it the night before, but if I forget, I'll throw 1/3 cup rolled oats into a bowl with 2/3 cup milk and a pinch of salt, microwave on high for 2 minutes, and then add berries and a bit of maple syrup or vanilla yogurt. I also made this delicious breakfast quinoa recipe the other day and it was a huge hit.
A fruit smoothie is another easy but healthy option. Use milk, yogurt, nut butters, and seeds to boost the protein content for a more filling smoothie, skip the fruit juice and go easy on added sweeteners, such as honey or maple syrup. Protein-packed eggs are also an excellent breakfast option, perhaps paired with fruit and a homemade high-fibre muffin. A breakfast that includes protein has shown to help prevent unhealthy snacking later in the day. Here are a few more easy, healthy, kid-friendly breakfast options if you're interested.
Having cereal once in a while is not a huge deal, much the same as enjoying any treat or "fun" food. Making cereal your morning staple, however, is not healthy. Most cereals are not "health foods" as they claim, but more so sugar-ladened processed grains in a box.
It's easy to get caught in the "health trap" while grocery shopping. Watch out for these 10 "health foods" (including breakfast cereal), that aren't healthy at all.
I'm constantly posting family nutrition tips and resources over on my facebook page. Feel free to stop by!