Breakfast cereal and milk is a popular way to start the day, but is it healthy? It’s an old cliché, but the golden rule of breakfasting like a king is no less true. Eating a decent breakfast doesn’t just give you more energy to see you through the morning. It also improves your mental acuity and powers of concentration. Additionally, it boosts your metabolic rate and helps replenish your muscles for those evening workouts. So check the calories in your breakfast cereal and watch out for some nutrition pitfalls. It really can provide a great meal for your body.
There’s also evidence that those who make a habit of eating breakfast suffer far less from energy swings and sugar cravings.
Moreover, they tend to make better food choices in the evening.
Put another way, eating breakfast seems to be an essential element in any weight loss or maintenance plan. For most of us, time is tight in the morning.
Therefore, let's look at one of the most popular ways of starting the day. A quick, easy and potentially very nutritious breakfast – cereal and milk.
Healthy Breakfast Cereal Options
Once upon a time, choosing a breakfast cereal was easy – it was either cornflakes or porridge.
Today whole supermarket aisles are crammed with numerous colourful boxes. Each contain different cereal varieties and combinations, all aimed at titillating your taste buds.
If you’re after a healthy breakfast cereal, the huge choice on offer is a potential minefield. Choose right and your breakfast will be packed with high quality carbohydrates.
Likewise you'll get plenty of fibre and a good dose of vitamins and minerals too.
Choose wrong and you’d be better off eating the cardboard box it came in. But remember 2 golden rules and you won’t go far wrong.
Look for whole grains in your breakfast cereal
The first rule is to ensure that whatever breakfast cereal you choose, it comes from 100% whole grain. That's the best way to ensure you're off to a good healthy start.
Make sure it has not been refined.
The reason is simple. Most of the fibre and nutrients in cereal grains such as wheat, rye, oats, etc. are found in the germ and outer husk of the grain.
The middle section (known as the endosperm) is rich in carbohydrate, but comparatively lacking in other nutrients.
When grains such as wheat are refined, the nutritionally rich germ and husk are discarded. Consequently the nutritionally inferior portion is retained and sold on to us. Refined breakfast cereals contain much more calories per gram than their unrefined counterparts.
The healthiest breakfast cereals are the lower calorie sugar-free options
Rule number two is to avoid breakfast cereals with added sugar.
Many cereals have added sugar, and some contain huge amounts. As much as over 50% of the total calories in your breakfast cereal can come from sugar.
These calories are released quite rapidly into the bloodstream. This not only means that those calories are less sustaining through the morning, but they can also disturb the natural energy regulation systems in the body. This is especially true in those whose insulin systems are less tolerant of blood sugar swings.
Don't forget, that sugar will also rot your teeth and contains zero nutrients or fibre.
The table below shows just how nutritionally superior sugar free whole grain breakfast cereal is compared to a refined and sugary product.
*Values provided per 100g (dry weight) product
Figures supplied by Australian Food Composition Database - FSANZ
Healthy milk options to go with your breakfast cereal
A good whole grain breakfast cereal provides most of its calories as high-quality carbohydrate. The addition of milk, which is rich in protein helps to provide an almost ideal protein and carbohydrate balance.
One cup (250ml) milk will provide around 9 grams of protein, enough to double the average protein from the breakfast as a whole.
Milk is also a rich source of calcium, which nicely compliments the low-calcium content of the cereal.
When it comes to choosing milk, you’ve got the option of full cream, reduced-fat or skimmed. These contain around 3.5%, 1% and 0.15% fat respectively. Put another way, that's 725, 495 and 380 kilojoules.
Other than the fat and energy content, these kinds of milk offer very similar amounts of other nutrients although reduced-fat and full cream milk contain more vitamin A and D than the skimmed milk since these are fat-soluble vitamins.
Opting for either of these can help make good the shortfall of the cereal in the vitamin department.
Those watching their weight or who are trying to keep their fat intake low are probably best opting for skimmed milk.
However, if you find this a bit thin and watery, semi-skimmed or reduced fat is a good compromise.
Full fat milk shouldn’t be ruled out.
Remember though that although it’s only 3.5% fat by weight, it provides nearly 60% of the available calories as fat. Put another way, for the same number of calories, skimmed milk provides double the protein and most of the vitamins and minerals compared to full cream.
How to make a bowl of breakfast cereal and milk even healthier and more nutritious
A bowl of whole grain cereal topped with reduced fat milk certainly provides a healthy balance of protein and carbohydrate and is also rich in a wide range of nutrients too.
It can be made even better.
One option would be to go for an organic whole grain cereal.
Apart from the reassurance of knowing your cereal is free from any pesticide residues, organic produce tends to be richer in trace elements and organic cereals generally attract only a small price premium over the normal varieties, making them a cost-effective way of introducing organic produce into your diet.
Go for whole grain, sugar free cereal and reduced fat milk to balance your meal.
Breakfast cereal does though fall short in a couple of areas.
The main one is vitamin C, of which there’s not much.
The easiest way to get around this is to have a glass of fresh citrus juice with breakfast. Orange and grapefruit are popular choices.
Alternatively, you could top your cereal with some fruit.
Citrus fruits are rich in C, but don’t forget that so are the berries. Choose from strawberries, blackberries, blueberries and raspberries as well as currants.
If you do choose this option, you also add valuable phytochemical antioxidants which is the other area for improvement. It can also improve the taste and enjoyment quite considerably.
How Healthy is Breakfast Cereal and Milk? Here's The Verdict
Excellent, especially if you opt for an oat-based cereal containing cholesterol-lowering fibre and top it with skimmed milk
Training and Recovery
Very good. Plenty of high-quality muscle-fuelling carbohydrate and a reasonable amount of protein. Just make sure the calories in your breakfast cereal don't come from sugar.
Pretty good, apart from a low level of vitamin C
Antioxidant Protective Effect
Poor – but you can boost this with the addition of fruits and/or fruit juice (also boosting the vitamin C content)
So there you have it. My take on breakfast cereal and milk. A popular and potentially healthy and nutritious start to the day. Look out for more in the mealtime nutrition series. I'll be discussing the nutritional merits and shortfalls of a range of popular meals.
Got a favourite meal and want to know how it stacks up? Let me know in the comments below! Or you can always get in touch here.