Is Cereal Healthy?

Research shows people who eat cereal for breakfast may eat more underconsumed nutrients than those who eat other breakfast foods.

December 01, 2022

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Photo by: Israel Sebastian/Getty Images

Israel Sebastian/Getty Images

Cereal is a staple in my household and I typically have several boxes stashed on my kitchen counter. I typically offer cereal to my kids with milk thinking that’s the only way to eat it — but is it? My son and daughter ask for plain cereal in a bowl with cow’s milk on the side (not inside the bowl). Recently, I heard someone tell me they eat cereal with water (yes, water). But is how folks are eating cereal changing? And is it any healthier than it used to be? Read on for more information on how cereal habits are changing and whether or not cereal can be a healthful part of your diet.

How Are People Eating Cereal?

According to the latest 2017-2018 National Health and Nutrition Examination Sirvey Dietary Intake Research, most folks age two to 60+ are eating cereal with cow’s milk. If you turn to social media, you can find some interesting and creative ways folks like to munch on cereal. Some like to make their milk extra cold by adding ice to it before adding the cereal, some use OJ instead of milk, they use cereal as a topping for yogurt or ice cream, and even as breading for chicken. Folks also eat cereal with fruit and data shows that bananas are the number one fruit eaten with ready-to-eat cereal.

When Are People Eating Cereal?

According to NHANES data, 80% of cereal eaters consume it at breakfast. There are also folks (especially kids) who eat cereal as “pre-breakfast” with milk and fruit to make it more balanced. It’s eaten first thing in the morning and followed by a larger breakfast later in the morning. Fourteen percent of cereal eaters consume it as a snack. Data reveals that moms prefer their kiddos opt for cereal instead of less nutritious food like chips, candy, or fried foods. Seven percent of cereal eaters have it as a light dinner, dessert or a post-dinner snack. I certainly have offered my kids cereal when we were in a time crunch.

Is Cereal Healthy?

According to NHANES data, the top five breakfast foods people eat include eggs (omelets), ready-to-eat cereal, bread, frozen breakfast foods (like frozen waffles), and donuts or pastries. However, according to NHANES data those who eat ready-to-eat breakfast cereal take in higher amounts of under consumed nutrients (specifically calcium, vitamin D, fiber, and potassium) compared to those who eat other breakfast foods. And, when compared to non-cereal eaters, research continues to show that ready-to-eat cereal eaters have higher nutrient intakes and are more likely to meet nutrient recommendations.

What about calories, sugar, and other nutrients to limit? The NHANES data reveals that compared to other breakfast choices cereal has slightly fewer calories and contributes the same amount of added sugar (22%) of total daily recommendations. Ready-to-eat cereal also contributes less saturated fat and sodium compared to other breakfast choices.

“People can feel good knowing that a nutritious breakfast doesn’t have to be complicated or break the bank. Many cereals deliver whole grain, fiber, vitamins, and minerals all in one bowl, which are not always easy to find in other breakfast choices,” explains Amy Cohn, RD, Senior Nutrition Manager at General Mills, who says that when she wants to get creative eating her cereal, she adds Cheerios to her smoothies. “The addition of Cheerios not only adds important nutrients to smoothies, but also amplifies the taste, texture and satisfaction.”

Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian and consultant who specializes in food safety and culinary nutrition.

*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.

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