We’ve all seen cereal boxes with health claims in big, bold letters: “multi-grain,” “high fiber,” or “all natural.”
And then there are the packages featuring Olympic athletes beaming down at us from the cereal aisle, claiming that the cereal inside is “the breakfast of champions.”
We’ve even seen our fair share of commercials geared towards kids with cartoons promoting cereal as part of a balanced breakfast.
Are any of those cereal actually healthy? Balanced? Or even worth eating?
The truth is that most of the cereals you’ll find at the store are pumped full of processed ingredients that manufacturers add in favor of flavor and profit rather than your health.
High-fructose corn syrup, for example, is a staple in most prepackaged cereals and granolas.
It’s cheap, which is why companies love to use it, but it’s also much sweeter than sugar and some believe that it can actually increase sugar cravings.
Lectins are another ingredient almost ubiquitous in processed cereals.
These carb-binding proteins act as a defense mechanism for plants.
They’re very difficult for our bodies to digest and can actually cause small tears in the intestinal lining.
They can also prevent us from absorbing all of the nutrients that we need from our diet.
How healthy does that sound to you?
Your First Meal Counts
While store-bought cereal might not be the best choice, breakfast can still be a great way to start the day.
In fact, research continues to emerge supporting the benefits of a nutritious breakfast in the morning on many aspects of health.
Remember, of course, that everyone is different.
While some of us can’t imagine a morning without breakfast, stopping to eat every morning just doesn’t work for others. Listen to your body and do what feels best to you.
If you are a breakfast eater, here are a few of the possible benefits to your morning meal (but again, everyone is different – it’s important to test what works best for you):
It keeps blood sugar levels steady.
Eating a healthy breakfast in the morning is crucial to prevent hypoglycemia and keep blood glucose normal.
Recent studies actually suggest that skipping breakfast can lead to spikes in blood sugar later in the day, even after lunch or dinner. (1)
It can help keep the weight off.
Breakfast is intended – as its name implies – to break the fasting state between dinner and lunch.
When you skip breakfast, your body remains fasting. When you finally do eat lunch, your body might hold onto the energy and store it as fat, unsure of when the next meal will come.
This can be especially true if you start skipping breakfast when your body is accustomed to it.
For those of us susceptible to mid-morning cravings, a healthy breakfast can also keep us on track and prevent over-eating throughout the rest of the day.
A solid, nutrient-packed breakfast will prevent this and can be used as energy to push you through the morning.
It can mean a healthier diet overall.
There’s evidence that suggests that breakfast eaters have a better diet quality.
Those who skip breakfast tend to eat more snacks, drink more soda, and are more likely to overeat during the night.
Non-breakfast eaters are also more likely to be overweight or obese than those who eat breakfast (2).
While the association between diet quality and eating breakfast remains unclear, it’s likely because breakfast can be used to add in nutrients, curb cravings, and keep energy levels up.
Those are just a few great reasons to start each morning with a healthy breakfast.
What a Healthy Breakfast Really Looks Like
Our parents have drilled it into our heads that breakfast is the most important meal of the day (not necessarily the case), but what exactly makes up a healthy breakfast?
Keeping a healthy balance of nutrients is key to getting an energizing start, powering you through the day, and maintaining a fat-burning diet. Let’s break down what components a healthy breakfast should include.
This should be the center of your meal.
Protein digests more slowly than carbohydrates, so it’s perfect for keeping you feeling full. This can cut out the urge to snack later on in the day, so loading up early in the day is essential for maintaining a healthy weight.
Foods that are rich in proteins are also usually filled with other important nutrients, especially when compared to carbohydrate-heavy breakfast options, like bagels or pastries.
Basing your breakfast around protein can help easily round out the rest of the meal.
My recommendation: Start your day right by squeezing in at least 20 grams of protein.
Try this recipe: Chocolate Chia Seed Pudding
Eggs, legumes, protein powder, and nut butters are also simple and versatile ways to pack in the protein. For a tasty alternative that will get you excited to wake up in the morning, try out my chocolate chia seed pudding.
Pancakes, waffles, French toast… most traditional breakfast foods are crammed with carbohydrates.
The truth is, however, that heaping on the carbs (starchy carbs) isn’t the best idea.
Carbohydrates – especially refined carbs – cause a spike in blood sugar followed by a sharp crash. This can leave you feeling sluggish and drained.
Not exactly the best way to start the morning!
Plus, carbohydrates are digested pretty fast. This means that you’ll be left feeling hungry again in no time, which can spur snacking throughout the day (and usually not on the healthy stuff).
My recommendation: Keep your carbohydrate intake to a minimum for breakfast; a quick rule of thumb is to make sure that you’re getting at least double the amount of protein and fiber for a healthy, well-rounded meal.
For the carbs you do eat during breakfast, stick to fibrous carbs, whole grain and gluten-free.
Check out my super delicious recipe for blueberry paleo porridge; it’s a delicious and low-carb.
Try this recipe: Paleo Porridge (3 Ways)
Healthy fats should be an essential addition to every meal.
Not only do they make everything more flavorful and keep us feeling satisfied for longer, but they are also full of health-boosting properties.
Most of us know about the role of omega-3 fatty acids in heart health, but did you know they have a vital function in brain health too?
They help enhance cognitive function, relieve inflammation, and reduce the risk of chronic disease.
There’s no reason not to jumpstart your day the right way with some healthy fats.
My recommendation: Unsaturated fats should be a core component of every meal, including breakfast. Add a slice of avocado, a handful of unsalted nuts, or a sprinkle of chia seeds to take advantage of the nutritious benefits of healthy fats.
Fiber is the one thing most of us don’t get enough of, so why not get a head start and up your fiber intake first thing in the morning?
Fiber moves through the body undigested, but blocks hunger while keeping our digestion regular.
It’s also usually found in nutrient-dense foods, so if you’re getting enough fiber then you’re probably also getting enough of the vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants of the foods it’s found in.
My recommendation: Always fit in some fiber in the morning.
Vegetables are a great source of fiber (and lots of other nutrients), so try to add in some veggies when able. Green smoothies, omelets, and frittatas are all excellent ways to sneak in a few vegetables and meet your fiber quota for the day.
Try this recipe: Fiber Starter Breakfast Bowl
Fruits and seeds are also full of healthy fiber; try my fiber starter breakfast bowl to kick breakfast into high gear.
Revamp Your Cereal
Good news for cereal lovers: despite the fact that most of the cereal you’ll find at the grocery store is high in sugar, artificial colors, and corn syrups, cereal isn’t inherently bad.
With a few quick fixes, you can still enjoy this classic breakfast favorite. Here’s how:
1. Pick a solid base
Most commercial cereals are sugary, carb-heavy, and offer little in the way of nutrition. Instead, ditch the cereal aisle and make your own healthy base for your cereal.
Chopped walnuts, shredded coconut, and ground flax seed all make great “foundations” for your cereal.
Not only do these alternatives add more nutrients, heart-healthy fats, and fiber, but they also add even more flavor. Your taste buds will thank you.
2. Pile on the protein
Remember, protein should be a main component in every meal.
It is, after all, what keeps us energized, and focused throughout the day. It also keeps us full, so it’s critical for any healthy cereal for weight loss.
A dash of almonds, a pinch of hemp seeds, or a scoop of my protein powder can keep protein at the center-stage of your breakfast.
3. Fill it with fiber
Like protein, fiber is key to blocking cravings and preventing overeating. Nuts, seeds, and fruits are all great sources of fiber and perfect breakfast additions.
Raspberries, blackberries, apples, and peaches are all low in sugar but high in fiber (and flavor). A handful of fruit can give your breakfast an upgrade, both in nutrition and in taste.
4. Choose a healthier milk
For some, it’s hard to imagine a bowl of cereal without the milk. If that’s the case for you, make sure you’re picking your milk wisely.
Going dairy-free can help you avoid the slew of antibiotics, hormones, and digestive problems that can come with cows’ milk.
To get the most out of your breakfast, opt for dairy-free milk, like rice, coconut, or almond milk.
5. Top it off
What you top off your cereal with can really take your breakfast to the next level.
Maca powder, goji berries, and cacao are all awesome ways to cram in extra nutrients and disease-fighting antioxidants, plus add a bit of flair to your cereal.
Check out my homemade granola cereal – it features cacao nibs and is one of my very best breakfast recipes for weight loss.
Start the Day Right
How we start each morning can make a big impact.
What you have for breakfast can have significant effects on mood, energy, and overall health. Most importantly, making smart choices with what you put into your body at the beginning of the day can set a healthy course for the rest of the day.
Next time you’re in the mood for a good old-fashioned bowl of cereal, skip the grocery store and head for the kitchen to make your own healthy version.
It’s guaranteed to get your day off to a great start.
Burn Fat All Day
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Yuri Elkaim is one of the world’s most trusted health and fitness experts. A former pro soccer player turned NYT bestselling author of The All-Day Energy Diet and The All-Day Fat Burning Diet, his clear, science-backed advice has transformed the lives of more than 500,000 men and women and he’s on a mission to help 100 million people by 2040. Read his inspiring story, “From Soccer to Bed to No Hair on My Head” that started it all.