(CNN) — Cereal is healthy only if you choose wisely.
Ready-to-eat breakfast cereal can make for a convenient, healthy and balanced breakfast, especially if it’s made with whole grains, is low in sugar and is served with fresh fruit.
Depending on the type you choose, it can have just as much protein as an egg, the same amount of fiber as oatmeal and almost as much calcium as a cup of yogurt, once you add low-fat milk.
Ready-to-eat cereals are also typically fortified with vitamins and minerals, including B vitamins and iron, which can help to meet a day’s goals.
To make sure your breakfast cereal is a healthy one, aim for one with at least 3 grams of fiber (4 or 5 grams is even better) and fewer than 8 grams (two teaspoons) of sugar. Some that top our list include Kashi’s 7 Whole Grain Flakes and Barbara’s Cinnamon Puffins (for kids and adults).
The worst offenders are sugary cereals that lack fiber and protein, which can cause a blood sugar spike and crash before lunchtime. For example, Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes with Marshmallows has 12 grams of sugar, 0 grams of fiber and 1 gram of protein.
Compare that with Kellogg’s Raisin Bran cereal, which has 18 grams of sugar, partly from the natural sugar in raisins, but also has 7 grams of fiber and 5 grams of protein. The latter will keep you more satisfied.
And here’s a tip: If your child can’t immediately transition from, say, Post’s Cocoa Pebbles to Barbara’s Puffins, consider sprinkling some of the sugary cereal over the healthier stuff. It’s a sweet compromise.
Portions play a role in a cereal’s healthfulness too, and it’s often easy to keep pouring out of the box. A cup can appear a lot smaller than you’d think, so consider using a measuring cup to gauge serving size, which will keep calories in check.
And watch where you keep cereal: A recent Cornell study found that women who had breakfast cereal sitting on their kitchen counters weighed 20 pounds more than their neighbors who didn’t.
Lisa Drayer is a nutritionist, author and health journalist.