More than 283 million Americans ate cold cereal in 2020, according to a Statista report, and about 43 percent of cereal eaters tend to eat it as a snack, per a Mintel report. It’s safe to say that cereal is a staple in our diets, but is cereal healthy, or should we choose something else for our breakfast or snack?
The answer is a bit nuanced, and oftentimes it depends on the type of cereal you choose, which is why choosing a nutrient-dense option is important. “Remember, while cereal can be a quick and convenient food option, it’s essential to choose wisely and be mindful of portions to enjoy it as part of a balanced diet,” says Danielle Crumble Smith, RDN, LDN, a dietitian with Top Nutrition Coaching. For instance, look for cereal brands that are low in added sugar and higher in fiber and protein.
Also, eating cereal on its own without any other nutritious foods paired with it can limit you. “Over-relying on cereal as a primary food source can lead to an imbalance in nutritional intake and potentially missing out on essential nutrients provided by more varied, whole-food-based meals,” Smith says.
You might feel energized (but not for long).
Read on to learn what happens to your body when you eat cereal every day. And if you are spooning into a bowl, make sure to choose these 9 Best Healthy Cereals on Grocery Shelves, According to Dietitians.
Many cereals are made of refined grains, which are essentially whole grains with the outer shell stripped off. This process makes the grains softer, more uniform, and easier to mold into consistent shapes. But removing the outer part of the grain removes much of the fiber content along with other nutrients, and less fiber means less work for digestion, and the process of converting carbohydrates to energy takes place more rapidly, giving you a quick hit of energy, says Annette Snyder, RD, a dietitian with Top Nutrition Coaching.
That can be a good or bad thing. A source of quick energy can be beneficial if you’re planning to work out shortly after. Eating something with higher fiber (and fat) content before endurance or high-impact exercise can result in digestive discomfort and can delay the release of the stored energy from the carbohydrates, which could affect the quality of your workout, Snyder says.
Your blood sugar levels may rise and then crash.
If you’re not planning to work out after eating a bowl of cereal, consider choosing a breakfast with balanced amounts of fiber, protein, and fat. “These are all key components to sustaining your energy levels over several hours, versus only simple carbohydrates (like those from refined-gain cereals),” Snyder says. “There isn’t much work needed for the body to get at the stored energy in simple carbohydrates, and they will hit your system and be gone in a much shorter time frame.” And that translates to an energy crash.
If your cereal is high in sugar and low in protein and fiber, it can cause your blood sugar to spike and then crash. “The spike and subsequent crash in blood glucose levels can lead to fluctuations in energy levels, making you feel energetic shortly after eating but tired and lethargic later,” Smith says.
You might feel hungry shortly after.
Cereals get a bad rap because they’re often loaded with sugar. “When you consume a sugary cereal, the sugar and refined grains it contains are quickly digested and absorbed into your bloodstream, which results in a rapid rise in blood glucose levels,” says Crumble.
In response to the surge in blood sugar, your pancreas releases insulin, a hormone that helps cells take in glucose for energy or storage, which helps lower blood glucose levels. If the initial surge in blood glucose is too rapid and large (as is often the case with high-sugar foods), the subsequent insulin response can be so robust that it drives blood glucose levels down too rapidly. This can lead to a sudden drop in energy, or a “crash,” which is often characterized by feelings of fatigue, irritability, and hunger, Smith says.
A rapid rise and drop in blood sugar can also contribute to insulin sensitivity. “Over time, regular consumption of high-sugar foods can lead to increased insulin release, which may reduce the sensitivity of cells to insulin,” Smith says. This can increase the risk of type 2 diabetes.
To help prevent a blood sugar rollercoaster, choose a cereal with as little added sugar as possible. Smith recommends aiming for less than 5 grams of added sugar per serving. “Many cereals marketed as ‘healthy’ or ‘natural’ can still be loaded with sugar,” Smith reminds us. For reference, a serving of Special K Red Berries has 10 grams of added sugar while Honey Nut Cheerios has 12 grams.
Many cereals are low in fiber and protein, and if the box you pour doesn’t contain enough of these satiating nutrients, eating it first thing in the morning can bring on the cravings. “If you choose a low-fiber cereal, it doesn’t take long for the body to break down those carbohydrates into energy, and it doesn’t take long to leave your stomach, which leads to hunger,” Snyder says.