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Breakfast is key to a healthy sports diet

By Nancy Clark, MS, RD

The Number One Breakfast for Champions

My clients commonly ask what I recommend for breakfast. In general, my answer is any combination of wholesome choices from three food groups. More specifically, my answer is cereal because it’s a simple way to get those three types of foods-whole grains, low-fat milk, and fruit-plus a host of other benefits. By eating a bowl of whole-grain cereal topped with fruit, you can get half of the recommended daily fruit and whole-grain servings before you even get out of your pajamas.

What’s So Great About Cereal?

I’m big on cereals because they are all these positive things:

  • Quick and easy. People of all ages and cooking abilities can easily pour a bowl with no cooking or messy cleanup.
  • Convenient. By simply stocking the cupboard, gym bag, or desk drawer, breakfast will be ready for the morning rush. A plastic bag of dry cereal is better than nothing.
  • Rich in carbohydrate. Your muscles need carbohydrate for energy. Cereal, a banana, and juice constitute a superior carbohydrate-based meal; milk offers a protein accompaniment.
  • Rich in fiber. When you select bran and whole-grain cereals, you reduce your risk of becoming constipated, an inconvenience that can certainly interfere with enjoyment of exercise. You also consume a health-protective food.
  • Rich in iron. By selecting fortified or enriched brands, you can easily boost your iron intake and reduce your risk of becoming anemic. Drink orange juice or another source of vitamin C with the cereal to enhance iron absorption from the cereal.
  • Rich in calcium. Cereal is rich in calcium when it’s eaten with low-fat milk or yogurt or calcium-fortified soy milk. Women and children, in particular, but also men benefit from this calcium booster that helps maintain strong bones and protects against osteoporosis.
  • Low in saturated fat and cholesterol. Cereals are a heart-healthier choice than the standard breakfast alternatives of buttered toast, a bagel slathered with cream cheese, or bacon and fried eggs.
  • Versatile. Rather than becoming bored by always eating the same brand, try mixing cereals to concoct endless varieties of flavors. I typically have 10 to 18 varieties in my cupboard. My friends laugh when they discover this impressive stockpile. I further vary the flavors by adding different mix-ins, such as banana, raisins, dried blueberries, slivered almonds, cinnamon, nutmeg, maple syrup, or vanilla extract.
  • Helpful for weight control. A survey of 17,881 male physicians who were followed for eight years found that the doctors who ate cereal most often for breakfast weighed less than those who ate less cereal (Bazzano et al. 2005). In another survey of 4,218 women, those who ate cereal for breakfast were 30 percent less likely to be overweight than those who skipped breakfast or ate something else for breakfast (Song et al. 2005). Does this mean cereal aids in weight control? Hard to say. But a cereal breakfast does provide milk and calcium, and some researchers believe that helps control weight (Zemel et al. 2004).

The Scoop on Cereal

Cereal, in general, is a breakfast for champions, particularly if it is a whole-grain, high-fiber cereal that contributes to lower blood pressure and reduced risk of heart attacks. However, some brands offer far more nutritional value than others. Here are five tips to help you make wise choices as you romp through the cereal aisle.


  1. Choose iron-enriched cereals. An iron-rich diet is particularly important for active people because iron is the part of the red blood cell that carries oxygen from your lungs to your muscles. If you are anemic (have iron-poor blood), you will feel tired and fatigue easily during exercise. Iron-rich breakfast cereal is a handy way to boost your iron intake, particularly if you eat little or no red meat (the best source of dietary iron).
    You can tell which cereals have iron added to them by looking for the words fortified or enriched on the label or by checking the nutrition facts panel. You should choose a brand that supplies at least 25 percent of the daily value. Table 3.1 provides information that can help you select the brands enriched with iron to supplement the small amount naturally occurring in grains.

    If you prefer all-natural or organic cereals with no additives, remember that "no additives" means there is no iron added, as is often the case with Kashi, Puffins, granola, Shredded Wheat, Quaker 100% Natural, and other all-natural brands. If you like, you can mix all-natural cereals with iron-enriched varieties (e.g., granola with Cheerios, Shredded Wheat with Wheat Chex), or you can choose iron-rich foods at other meals or take an iron supplement.

    Because the iron in cereal is often poorly absorbed, you can enhance iron bioavailability-your body’s ability to absorb iron-by drinking some orange juice or eating fruit rich in vitamin C along with the cereal (try oranges, grapefruit, cantaloupe, and strawberries). 
  2. Choose cereal fortified with folic acid. The B vitamin folic acid is found in small amounts in grains but in higher amounts (100 to 400 micrograms, 25 to 100 percent of the daily value) in fortified foods such as breakfast cereals. Folic acid is associated with a lower risk of certain types of birth defects. Folic acid had been thought to reduce the risk of heart disease, but results of the latest vitamin therapy trials have been disappointing (Lichtenstein et al. 2006). 
  3. Choose high-fiber bran cereals. Cereal with at least 4 grams of fiber per ounce (30 g) is the best breakfast choice. Fiber is beneficial for people with constipation. Research suggests that fiber also has protective qualities that may reduce your risk of heart disease as well as curb your appetite and assist with weight loss.

    Bran cereals can provide far more fiber than most fruits and vegetables. High-fiber cereals include Kashi Good Friends, All-Bran, Fiber One, Raisin Bran, Oat Bran, Bran Flakes, and any of the multitudes of cereals with bran or fiber in the name (see table 3.1). You can also boost the fiber content of any cereal by simply sprinkling Kashi, All-Bran, or Fiber One on it. 
  4. Choose wholesome cereals. By "wholesome cereals," I mean those with sugar not listed among the first ingredients. (Ingredients are listed by order of weight, from most to least.) By reading the nutrition facts on box labels, you can learn the amount of sugar in a cereal. Simply multiply grams of sugar (listed under Total Carbohydrate) by 4 calories per gram to determine the calories of sugar per serving. Quaker Toasted Oatmeal Squares, for example, has brown sugar and sugar listed as the third and fourth ingredients. A 1-cup serving contains 10 grams of sugar (10 g sugar 4 cal/g = 40 cal) in 210 calories. That means almost 20 percent of the calories are from added sugar.

    Some kids’ cereals are 45 percent sugar, or more dessert than breakfast. Although sugar does fuel the muscles and is not the poison it is reputed to be, sugary cereals tend to pamper your sweet tooth rather than promote your health.

    Maya, a flight attendant and avid exerciser, avoided all cereals with sugar listed among the ingredients, even the lightly sweetened ones such as Total, Wheaties, or Bran Flakes. She restricted herself to the sugar-free Puffed Wheat and Corn Flakes, cheating herself of variety and enjoyment. She failed to recognize that sugar is a carbohydrate that fuels, not poisons, the muscles.

    The small amount of sugar in cereal is relatively insignificant in comparison to the sugar Maya ate in frozen yogurt, Twizzlers, and gummy bears. I encouraged her to focus more on a cereal’s fiber and whole-grain content than on its sugar content. The overall healthfulness of a breakfast cereal far outweighs those few nutritionally empty sugar calories. I told Maya that 10 percent of daily calories can appropriately come from sugar. Hence, the 4 grams (16 calories) of sugar in Wheaties could certainly fit into her day’s 240-calorie sugar budget. Given this perspective, she decided to relax her sugar rules to include more variety, especially brands with health-protective fiber and iron. 
  5. Choose low-fat cereals. Rather than fret about a cereal’s sugar content, you should focus more on its fat calories. Fat is the bigger health threat because it’s linked with weight gain, heart disease, and cancer. If you like the higher-fat cereals, such as granola or Cracklin’ Oat Bran, use them for a topping sprinkled on a foundation of a lower-fat cereal.

Cereal Alternatives

Cereal may be one breakfast of champions, but it’s not the only one. For you non-cereal-eaters, rest assured that other breakfasts can fuel you for a high-energy day. See the recipes in part IV for some wholesome high-carbohydrate breakfast breads and muffins you might want to enjoy with a glass of low-fat milk and some fruit or juice.

Dimitri, a businessman and breakfast skipper who needed to lose the 20 pounds (9 kg) of fat that had crept on since his years as a collegiate soccer player, decided to eat dinner for breakfast. He loved his chicken and potatoes, so instead of trying to have small portions at dinnertime, he ate his full dinner in the morning and then had cereal for supper. He lost weight easily and happily. Although few people are willing or able to make the effort to prepare dinner for breakfast, the point is that any breakfast is better than no breakfast, a bigger breakfast is preferable to a skimpy breakfast, and a hearty breakfast that includes wholesome foods is best for your health and performance.

Fast-Food Breakfasts

If you are destined to eat breakfast at a fast-food restaurant, be sure to make wise food choices.


This is an excerpt from Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook 4E.

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