Cereal can be one of the most nutritious foods a growing athlete can eat. It can also be one of the unhealthiest.
As a stand-alone crunchy snack or a full-fledged breakfast, cereal can be part of a healthy diet for the growing swimmer. Just look at how it can be incorporated into the daily diet: Combined with milk (or a non-dairy alternative) as a breakfast option, as an after-school snack, for pre- or post-training fuel, or eaten dry between competitive events.
Cereal is also an easy way to add in calories at the end of the day, especially if an athlete is trying to gain weight or just meet the high calorie demands of a rigorous training schedule.
As part of an athlete’s nutrition plan, there are a few things to focus on when choosing a healthy cereal to add to the training diet:
Tip #1: Check the Sugar Content
Many cereals on the market today pack a punch of sugar that would equal a bona fide dessert.
Did you know Golden Grahams have about 10 grams of added sugar per ¾ cup, which is equivalent to 3 Starburst candies? Less than a cup of Cocoa Puffs offers up the sugar of one Reece’s Cup. And, those Honey Nut Cheerios? Munching on a serving is like eating 2 ½ Chips Ahoy cookies.
What to do: Choose a cereal that has the lowest amount of sugar per serving. Look for cereals with around 5 to 6 grams sugar per serving. Good examples are: Cheerios, Rice Krispies, Kix, Wheaties, Life, and Shredded Wheat.
Remember, athletes can add fresh or dried fruit to sweeten the bowl.
Be aware that serving sizes can be different with each cereal type. For example, granola-type cereals typically fall in the range of a ¼ to 1/3 cup serving size, while ‘puff’ cereals are typically ½ cup to 1 cup serving size. Many athletes eat a multiple of cereal servings and this will affect the total sugar intake.
Tip #2: Look for Fiber
Cereal can be an easy way to get the day started with a healthy fiber source, which can be helpful in preventing constipation and keeping the young athlete “regular.” Cereals made with wheat, bran or oats are always a good bet for a healthy fiber source. To make sure the athlete is getting a good source of fiber from cereal, pick options with more than 3 grams of fiber per serving.
What to Do: Look at the ingredient list for whole grains, such as 100% whole wheat, oats, or bran. Ingredients are listed by weight, so look for whole grains to be listed as the first ingredient.
Watch out! Multi-grain doesn’t always mean whole grain. Look at the ingredients to be sure. “Made with whole grain” can be deceiving, with as little as 10% whole grains included in the product.
Tip #3: Is it Fortified?
Cereal can be a good source of iron, calcium, vitamin D and other nutrients, as these nutrients are added back in during processing (this process is called fortification). You can get a sense of whether or not a cereal is a good source of nutrients by looking at the Daily Value (DV) chart on the Nutrition Facts Panel.
Nutrients are standardly listed as a percentage of nutrient requirements from a single serving of the product. The DV’s are based on a 2,000-calorie diet.
Let’s look at calcium, for example. The DV standard for food product labeling is 1,000 mg calcium per day. If a cereal has 20% of the DV for calcium, it means that one serving will meet 20% of an individual’s calcium needs for the day, or 200 mg calcium per serving. A high source of nutrients will have at least 20% of the DV or more, while a low source will contain 5% or less.
What is your favorite healthy cereal?
Jill Castle, MS, RDN is a registered dietitian, childhood nutritionist, and youth sports nutrition expert. She is the author of Eat Like a Champion: Performance Nutrition for Your Young Athlete. Learn more about Jill at jillcastle.com and check out her free list of 70 Awesome Pre-Workout Snacks for Kids.