Nearly 400 new cereals hit the market last year alone. Adding to the confusion as you stand in the store aisle: Nutritional differences among brands are greater than among almost any other kind of food, experts say. Call it snap, crackle, huh?! While some cereals pack in the nutrients, others are just dessert in a box. But even with all the rows and rows of choices, it is possible — even simple — to pick the right kind for your body and taste buds.
If you have a sweet tooth…
Add your own healthy sweet stuff. Start with a no-sugar (shredded wheat) or low-sugar cereal (Kashi 7 Whole Grain Nuggets) and sprinkle on pomegranate seeds. Or blend 1/2 banana and 1/2 cup milk and pour in. Also great: 1 teaspoon mini chocolate chips (4 grams of sugar).
If you’re trying to lose weight…
Pick a cereal with fewer than 150 calories per serving. Cereals range from 60 to 350 calories per serving, so read the label carefully and watch the serving size. If you like a lighter variety, such as puffed wheat or brown rice cereal (about 70 calories per serving), toss on 2 tablespoons of a high-fiber cereal to fill you up.
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If you eat little or no red meat…
Look for a cereal that’s packed with iron. A USDA study shows that most women consume about 13 milligrams daily, shy of the advised 18 milligrams. Kellogg’s All-Bran Complete wheat flakes and Post Grape-Nuts have more than half of what you need for the day. Since vitamin C-rich foods help your body absorb the iron, toss a few sliced strawberries into your bowl.
If you don’t like milk…
Resist the urge to leave most of it in the bowl. When cereal is fortified with nutrients, they’re sprayed on, so they dissolve in the milk. If you don’t drink the milk, you’ll leave those nutrients behind. Not a fan of milk? Plop a cup of Greek yogurt into your cereal bowl instead. Or eat cereal solo — and get your calcium from other foods.
Choose more whole grains
Quinoa, spelt, amaranth and kamut are showing up in cereal, along with traditional whole-grain oats, wheat and brown rice. Different grains may taste better or offer slightly different nutrients, but experts say the most important thing is to make sure your cereal contains at least 16 grams of whole grains; that amounts to one third of your daily needs. Look for the “whole grain” stamp, or check brands at WholeGrainsCouncil.org.
Go for extra fiber
All whole-grain cereals have some fiber, which is a great thing. The soluble kind in oats, barley and brown rice can whisk cholesterol out of your body, reducing the risk of heart disease. Plus, fiber can help keep you feeling full for longer. The ideal amount of fiber is 5 grams a serving. If your favorite brand has less, add fruit to boost the benefits.
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Look for bonus nutrients
For rich sources of bonus nutrients, try Nature’s Path Qi’a Superfood cereal (with chia, buckwheat and hemp) and Uncle Sam Original cereal. Experts are also enthusiastic about plant sterols (in Trader Joe’s Heart Healthy Whole Grain instant oatmeal), which might lower high cholesterol.
Try upscale add-ins
Move over, raisins. Today’s cereals also pack flax and freeze-dried berries. In addition to improving taste, they boost the healthful benefits of cereal by upping the fiber and protein content. Meanwhile, sugar is appearing in the fancier forms of maple syrup, honey and molasses. Such unrefined sources of sweetness have an advantage over processed sugars: They could help fight cancer and heart disease. Just remember that all sweeteners have the same amount of calories and count as added sugar — so stick with less than 8 grams per serving.