Cereal is such a staple in the American diet, that people eat it more than any other classic breakfast choice (toast and bacon come in second and third), and four out of five Americans eat it for dinner, according to a YouGov survey. Yet cereal has been maligned as a sugar-laden highly processed food, largely devoid of natural nutrients (other than what's been added back in the form of fortified B vitamins).

If you're one of the healthy-minded consumers who has ever wondered how terrible cold cereal really is for you, then chances are you've turned the box to read the label on the side panel. Most ingredient lists show that boxed cereals contain processed grains as well as a list of things you can’t pronounce. Yet here’s the surprise: Cereal may not be as bad as you think – as long as you choose what goes in the bowl wisely.

Is Cereal Healthy?

It goes without saying that cereal will never be in the same category as chickpeas or kale in terms of its nutritional value, but there are some redeeming qualities about cold cereal. The catch? This applies only if you’re choosing whole-grain cereals.

Although most Americans are eating enough total grains, few are eating enough whole grains while over 40 percent don’t eat any at all, as noted by the Whole Grains Council. That’s a worrisome trend, given that whole grains can reduce the risk of numerous diseases, including heart disease and type 2 diabetes, and as a bonus, could help you manage your weight. “Half the grains you eat every day should be whole,” says Catherine Fody Flanagan, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.N., V.L.C.E., a dietitian in Long Island, NY. If you’re following the Dietary Guidelines, that’s a minimum of three to five servings (one cup of whole-grain, ready-to-eat cereal is considered a serving).

Whole grains are only part of the story, though, as it’s what in the whole grains that count, starting with fiber. Those whole grains are loaded with fiber (soluble and insoluble), which make these cereals a healthy carbohydrate source, especially if you’re following a plant-based diet, says Lauren Hubert, M.S., R.D., a dietitian in Boston. The shocker? Only five percent of women and nine percent of men in the United States are meeting their daily fiber needs (25 grams for women, 38 for men), according to a study presented at a recent American Society for Nutrition meeting.

And you can’t ignore the other nutrients found in whole-grain cereal. They include minerals like iron, selenium, and magnesium and B vitamins like thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and folate. Each comes with unique benefits, Flanagan says. Iron, for instance, helps carry oxygen in the blood while magnesium aids in bone formation and B vitamins are involved in the energy production and maintenance of a healthy nervous system. In fact, a study from Advances of Nutrition concluded that regular consumption of ready-to-eat cereal can help ensure people are getting the nutrients they need and may even aid in reducing the risk of being overweight or developing diabetes or heart disease.

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What to Look for in a Cereal

Don’t get duped into thinking all cereal is healthy because it’s not. As Hubert says, “Not every cereal is created equal.”

Some cereals, after all, use processed and refined grains that lack fiber and contain lots of added sugar for flavoring. “Too much sugar, especially at breakfast, can lead to a high blood sugar spike, then subsequent drop, which can lead to lethargy, more intense hunger, and overeating,” Hubert says. These effects are even worse if you’re eating a high-sugar breakfast cereal source without a protein source. And of course, high-sugar foods, something many children’s cereals are considered, raise the risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and numerous other health woes, Flanagan says.

Factor in the high calories from the added sugar even added fat, and you’ve now turned cereal into a health hazard. As Flanagan notes, high-fat intake can raise the risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure, to name a few.

Besides, who sticks with the serving size when it comes to these nutritionally bereft cereals? If you keep dipping your hand in the box to pull out more because you’re so hooked on the sugary taste, you’ll be in danger of overeating, which can lead to weight gain, Hubert says.

How to Choose a Healthy Cereal

With the plethora of cold cereals on the market, vegan ones included, how can you find the healthiest ones? You already know the most important criteria, namely that the cereal be whole grain. “Look for a cereal made of 100 percent whole grains with 16 grams of whole grains per serving or at least eight grams of whole grains if it includes refined grains, too,” Flanagan says. Adults should eat a minimum of 48 grams of whole grains every day, which is why she also says you don’t have to save cereal for breakfast. Eat it as a snack in place of foods like salty chips and crackers.

Check that grains are listed first on the ingredient list. Searching for the Whole Grain Stamp by the Whole Grain Council is a good way to verify that the cereal is whole grain. Bonus? Opt for ones with sprouted grains, as sprouting can increase nutrients and their bioavailability, Flanagan adds.

At the same time, check the cereal’s fiber content. While Hubert recommends looking for one with two to four grams per serving, Flanagan says it should provide at least five grams of fiber per serving.

Next, look for sugar content of fewer than five grams per serving. Another guideline when it comes to sugar? Check how many grams of sugar there are in relation to grams of total carbohydrate. “The closer the number of grams of sugar to total carbohydrate, the higher the added sugar content is,” Flanagan says. Verify that the carbohydrate content is coming from fiber.

Some of the healthiest whole grains can be found in Kashi, Muesli, Grape-Nuts, Shredded Wheat with no sugar frosting, as well as classic steel-cut oats, which is oatmeal you make that has no added sugar.