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The grocery store devotes a whole aisle to cereal and oatmeal. So, what box should go in your shopping cart? Let's break down the options with registered dietitian Beth Czerwony.

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Setting the Table for a Healthy Breakfast

Podcast Transcript

John Horton: Welcome to the Health Essentials Podcast, where you're just in time for breakfast. I'm John Horton, your host. Now, let's figure out what to eat for the most important meal of the day. Now, if you're like me, a lot of mornings start with a bowl of cereal or oatmeal. They're quick, they're easy to make, and they're usually pretty tasty. But there are just so many options when you go to the grocery store. I mean, there's that entire aisle devoted to cereal and oatmeal. So to help us make the healthiest choice, we're happy to welcome back registered dietician Beth Czerwony. She's among the many experts here at Cleveland Clinic who pop into our weekly podcast to share advice that you can trust. So pull up a seat at the kitchen table. Let's see what Beth has to say today.

Beth, nice to see you again. So welcome back to the show.

Beth Czerwony: Oh yeah, thanks.

John Horton: We're here to talk about cereal, breakfast, things like that. What did you have for breakfast this morning?

Beth Czerwony: So, I had a very dietitian-esky breakfast of my protein drink with my almond milk and my collagen protein. But that's just because I didn't have time to actually eat something this morning.

John Horton: Well, I did not have a dietitian-y sort of breakfast. I had a bowl of Honey Bunches of Oats, which I'm guessing is not going to get that dietitian seal of approval.

Beth Czerwony: Not in the top 10, probably.

John Horton: No. What should we be looking for when you're picking out cereals?

Beth Czerwony: So, you're looking at having a cereal that is going to meet your needs. So, thinking about, if you want something sugary, well, what are your health conditions? If you're trying to have overall health, you're trying to have GI health, that's what we're looking for. But ideally, we want something that's going to keep you full, something that you're going to like to eat. I mean, that's really the most important thing, is if it's not good, you're not going to eat it. So we can always modify things. We can modify what you're having to make it a little bit healthier without really getting rid of all of it.

John Horton: Now, when you're looking at a lot of these cereals, though, I mean — when you walk down that aisle, and I mean, there's a reason they say "magically delicious" instead of "magically healthy. Do you have to worry, I mean, are some of these cereals that you think they're going to be good for you, but I mean, are they really just kind of say sugar bombs that you're having in the morning?

Beth Czerwony: Yeah, I mean, the marketing is outstanding with a lot of these products and they really make it look so delicious. And the wording on it really does make it feel like it's going to be healthier for you. But then, when you look back on the food label and you see that it's got tons of sugar, processed flour, no fiber, those are the things that aren't going to set you up for having a good morning.

John Horton: They're all marketed to kids.

Beth Czerwony: My kids have had many tantrums in the middle of the grocery store because they've wanted to have those. And the mean dietitian mom says no, sometimes, I give in. But then again, maybe mixing some other healthier cereals in there, we can compromise.

John Horton: I mean, if you're a kid, you're starting your day like that, or anybody really starting your day with that just sugar bomb sort of thing, what does that do to get you going in the morning and what does it set you up for later in the day?

Beth Czerwony: Yeah, so I mean the sugar bomb in and of itself is going to give you that immediate rush. It's going to give you that energy. You're going to be feeling pretty good, but then an hour or so later, you're just going to dump. Your blood sugar's just going to go right into the pits. You're going to feel like crud, you're going to have a headache, you're going to be more tired. And the problem with this, especially with the kiddos, is their concentration's going to be altered. So either they're going to be distracted because their stomach is growling because what they ate really didn't fill them up, or they have a headache or they're tired. It's really going to be hard for the kids to pay attention in school when they're not feeling their best.

John Horton: So, Beth, so we're walking down that cereal aisle, that massive aisle, because they just got a million choices it seems like, what should you be looking for on the boxes?

Beth Czerwony: So, the biggest thing is, I say this to all my patients, we're looking at serving size versus portion size. So you want to see, OK, they're going to say a half a cup. Well, who eats a half a cup?

John Horton: No. Nobody.

Beth Czerwony: Right? So, you have to know, "OK, am I going to have a cup, if I'm going to have a cup and a half?" And then look at that. So again, we're looking at serving size, portion size. We're also going to be looking at sugar. So we always want to make sure that sugar is in single digits proportion, not serving per se, because remember, we really want to have single digits for this whole day, and we've talked about this. We also want to look at fiber. Fiber is what's going to help slow down that digestion. It's going to trickle that blood sugar into your skin, so you're not going to have these highs and lows. It's going to help keep you fuller longer. But it's also going to help with digestion, so you have good GI health. So looking at something that's going to be 3 grams of fiber or more per serving is going to be important.

And so really looking at those types of things. You don't want sugar to be within the first five ingredients on the ingredients list because that's going to tell you, that's going to be one of the major contributors to the calories. And then remembering, too, that sugar comes in different forms. So staying away from high fructose corn syrup is something that a lot of times the cereals will have. They'll say they're low in sugar, but then it'll be high on that high fructose. So just being very savvy of what the ingredients are really telling you, so that you really know how to navigate.

John Horton: Is sodium a concern with some cereals, too?

Beth Czerwony: It can be. It really can be. And again, sweet and salt go together. So a lot of times, when we're looking at something sweet to make it taste sweeter, a lot of times, manufacturers will add that sodium in. And so really looking at that again as well. And again, specifically, if you're salt sensitive, if you have hypertension, if you have kidney issues, those are things also that you're really going to be mindful of. So there's a lot of things, unfortunately, and takes you a lot of time if you've got other health conditions to really look at those labels and know what you're looking for.

John Horton: Yeah. And I know you had mentioned that sugar shouldn't be in the top five. I'm assuming then that the things you do want to find in there would be your whole grain. So what sort of things should you be looking at in the ingredient list?

Beth Czerwony: Yeah, you really want to look for whole grain flour. Those are going to be bran. There's even things like chicory and different kinds of fiber that are going to add in those things as well. So those are the things that really we're looking for because again, we want something that's going to be a little bit higher fiber, it has more staying power and it's going to keep you fuller a lot longer. So whole grains are always going to be the way to go.

John Horton: I take it there are also ways you can beef up your cereal by adding some fruit or nuts, or what are some of the recommendations you give people?

Beth Czerwony: Yeah. I mean, I think anytime that you can add in some fresh fruit to your morning is going to be a good way to get that five servings that we recommend a day. So having some fresh berries. You really want to try to stay away from maybe some of the dried fruits because it'll have a little bit more sugar in it. So you're really not saving yourself, doing yourself any favors with that. But certainly adding in some flaxseeds. Again, if your cereal itself doesn't have a lot of fiber, you can add in the flaxseed, you can add in some chia seeds as well. Any kind of walnuts or almonds that's going to give you fiber as well. And then again, different consistency, different textures, that's going to give you a better mouth feel.

John Horton: Yeah, you mentioned flaxseed. I know my parents, who are the healthiest 70-plus-year-olds, I won't give away ages entirely — but they gave me an entire giant bag of flaxseed to put on my cereal. And to be honest, I didn't even notice it's in there. And I feel like I'm getting a little healthy boost every time I put a big spoonful on.

Beth Czerwony: Yeah. I mean it's pretty neutral with the flavor. It's not going to necessarily overpower anything, especially if you've got a lot of different flavors in that cereal anyway. And again, it really does help with overall bulk forming to help with good GI health. And that's really what we want at the end of the day, is to have overall better health from the foods that we're consuming.

John Horton: Yeah. Well, they set a good example and you should always listen to mom and dad, so I figure you start there. So we've been talking about whole grains and obviously one of the big ones there is oats and oatmeal. Is that a choice where you can really do no wrong, or is there good and bad with some of the oatmeals that are out there?

Beth Czerwony: There's always a way, I feel like, to make it unhealthy. I think that there's always ways, because a lot of times, people are fearful of eating really healthy clean kinds of things. So the food manufacturers really do market it by adding in big bouts of sugar and brown sugar and these flavorings and that type of thing. So when we're looking at instant oatmeals, a lot of times, they'll just have a lot of sugar that again, really does advertise towards the kids because it's quick, it's easy and it tastes good. I really like having old-fashioned oats. It doesn't take that much time. A lot of people will do overnight oats and that's pretty easy to do, make it the night before, have it ready to go. So I mean, there really are ways, if oatmeal is something that you like and you want to experiment with, it is a really good base to build a good hearty breakfast from.

John Horton: And you can add a lot of that same stuff we were talking about previously. The fruit, the nuts, the flaxseed, all that stuff can go right on the top, too, and kind of dress it up a little bit.

Beth Czerwony: Absolutely, because it is neutral. It's pretty a neutral flavor. And so if you want to make it a little bit tastier, certainly adding in, and spices to whether it's cinnamon.

John Horton: You always think that oatmeal, it's got to be bland or whatever, but I guess you can spice it up, you can have fun with it. I mean, you can experiment.

Beth Czerwony: And you can make it seasonal, too. So depending on when you want to have it, it really can reflect what's going on in the season.

John Horton: Hey, the fruit of the season, whatever's at the produce stand, you throw it on there.

Beth Czerwony: That's right.

John Horton: Oatmeal obviously is the big one. What other grains should be in your breakfast rotation? So there's so much out there and I don't feel like we experiment a lot.

Beth Czerwony: Yeah, I think a lot of times, people are very intimidated by some of these ancient grains that we talk about, but they've been around, and so looking at that, we're looking at things like, my favorite, quinoa. And a lot of times, people don't think that quinoa can actually be cooked into a hot cereal, but it's actually very popular and there's lots of recipes out there to make it sweet. You can make a savory polenta as well. And so again, people think that that's more for dinner, but you can make a hot polenta in the morning. Looking at things like kamut and millet and those types of things. And again, you don't necessarily have to have those independent and just eat a big bowl of that, but you can certainly add that to that oatmeal or maybe some granola and again, make it a little bit more interesting than just the plain base of whatever you're starting with.

John Horton: Yeah. I've even seen things where people use brown rice, which I don't think you'd normally think of rice as a breakfast staple, but I guess that would make a lot of sense, too.

Beth Czerwony: It's really whatever you want it to be. I think just being creative, and again, using spices is going to be to your benefit because a lot of times, too, people are nervous about using a lot of fats in foods and so spices are really good alternatives. You don't have to add a ton of butter if you're having a hot cereal.

John Horton: So overall with breakfast, I mean, what should be, then, the key things that you're looking for when you're picking out your cereal, your oatmeals or something like that? I mean, bottom line, what should you go for?

Beth Czerwony: Yeah, I think it's really just trying to get as low of sugar as possible and as high as fiber as you can. And as I said, if you have a sugary cereal and you want to add in some less sugary or non-surgery cereals to mix it together, I think that's a good compromise to at least get you to the point where you can maybe start weaning off some of the sugary stuff and then more towards the healthier options.

John Horton: On the fiber, because you brought that up and I should have asked this before and didn't, what should you be looking for? What's the counter, or what should you be looking for on the side of the box?

Beth Czerwony: So, Americans, we need between 25 and 35 grams for the entire day. So a good way to start is 3 grams of fiber or more per serving. So again, looking back at that food label and knowing how much you're going to have in that serving and then double it or triple it depending on what your portion size is going to be.

John Horton: OK. All right. Anything else that we missed? Anything we didn't talk about?

Beth Czerwony: No, I think that people have to understand breakfast really is the most important meal of the day. It starts you off well. And so just making some good changes and some good choices, and I think it's important just to be a little adventurous, try some different things out. You might like it.

John Horton: Beth, as always, thank you so much for being here with us. It's always a treat.

Beth Czerwony: Yeah, my pleasure.

John Horton: Well, as usual, Beth delivered a healthy amount of information to digest. I'm planning to head to my kitchen now to check the nutrition labels on a few boxes of cereal, which I'm guessing is not good news for my Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Until next time, be well.

Speaker 3: Thank you for listening to Health Essentials, brought to you by Cleveland Clinic and Cleveland Clinic Children's. To make sure you never miss an episode, subscribe wherever you get your podcasts or visit clevelandclinic.org/hepodcast. This podcast is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician.

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