Guidelines for picking healthy breakfast cereal and tips to keep your blood sugar balanced.

Katie Shields, MS, RDN

Photo: Johanna Parkin / Getty Images

Cold cereal is a quick and convenient breakfast option that can be part of a healthful, diabetes-friendly diet when you know what kind to buy. Our easy-to-follow guidelines will help you steer clear of overly sugary, processed cereals and build a balanced breakfast to maintain steady blood sugar and energy levels all morning. We're even sharing a dietitian-approved list of lower-sugar cereals full of whole-grain goodness, satiating fiber and flavor to keep your taste buds happy.

Go for whole grains

It's easy to understand what makes whole-grain cereals great: they're rich in essential nutrients-like B vitamins-and full of satiating fiber, and regular consumption is linked to improved health outcomes. But confusing manufacturer marketing claims can make it hard to tell how much whole grain is actually in each box. Forget what it says on the front of the package-flip the box over and check the nutrition label to find cereals that specifically list a "whole" grain first. Look for ingredients like "whole-grain wheat," "whole wheat," "stone-ground whole wheat," or "whole-kernel corn," as well as whole buckwheat, bulgur, barley, quinoa, millet, buckwheat or amaranth as the first ingredient.

Ingredients like "oats," "oatmeal" and "brown rice" are inherently whole grains and don't need to specify "whole." But if you see "wheat flour," "multigrain" or a different ingredient listed first, steer clear, as these are clues that the cereal doesn't contain as much, if any, whole grains.

Read more: What Is a Complex Carbohydrate?

Skip the sugars

While the first thing to look for on a box of cereal should be its whole-grain content, it's equally important to check how much sugar is in your cereal. Even if a box boasts 100 percent whole-grain ingredients, if it contains more than 10 grams of sugar per serving-or includes artificial sweeteners-put it back on the shelf. Another good tip-off to a high sugar content is whether a cereal features tiny marshmallows, frosting or tempting flavors (e.g., chocolate or peanut butter).

Remember, sugar may also appear on the label as sucrose, agave, cane sugar, dextrose or high-fructose corn syrup. If you need an extra dash of sweetness, try adding 1/2 cup of fresh fruit, like berries or half a banana, to add fiber and an antioxidant boost. Fresh fruit is a better choice than dried fruits, which are higher in carbs and more calorically dense. A sprinkle of cinnamon or a splash of vanilla extract can also add subtle sweetness without adding any calories or carbs.

Pictured recipe: Peach-Blueberry Parfaits

Pour on protein

Adding a cup of milk to your cereal bowl is the gold standard for good reason-8 ounces of cow's milk provides around 8 grams of satiating protein and 12 grams of carbohydrates. Skim or fat-free milk has only 90 calories in one cup, whole milk has 150 calories, while 1 percent and 2 percent fall somewhere in between in terms of calories.

You can also swap milk for 1/2 cup of low-fat plain Greek yogurt, which is a great source of blood sugar-stabilizing protein and rich in good-for-your-gut probiotics for healthy digestion and immune function. For a dairy milk alternative, use unsweetened soymilk, since it offers more protein (6-7 grams per 8-ounce serving) compared to other nut-based milks (learn more about milk alternatives).

Read More: Best Yogurts for Diabetes

Boost your breakfast cereal

A tablespoon of chopped nuts, like almonds or walnuts, adds crunchy texture plus heart-healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which are linked to lowered risk of heart disease. Fat also slows digestion to help you feel fuller longer and avoid a mid-morning energy slump.

Sprinkle your bowl with 1 tablespoon of ground flaxseed meal or 1-2 teaspoons of chia seeds for extra fiber and omega-3 fatty acids.

Pick a better box of cereal:

In general, focus on cereals that have:

Serving size: at least 3/4 cup

Calories: ≤160 calories per serving

Carbs: ≤30 grams (ideally <25 grams)

Fiber: at least 3 grams (ideally >5 grams)

Sugars: ≤10 grams

Sodium: ≤200 mg

Fat: ≤3 grams (unless a healthy fat source)

Protein: 3+ grams

Look for whole-grain ingredients first and do your best to avoid artificial sweeteners, colors and preservatives.

Our top recommendations:

Photo: Cascadian Farm

Cascadian Farm Organic Honey Nut O's

Serving size: 1 1/4 cups / 3/4 cup (We provide the numbers listed for the standard serving of 1 1/4 cups and also for a 3/4-cup serving-which aligns with our nutrition criteria and still allows for a generous serving of cereal.)

Calories: 160 / 96

Fat: 1.5 g / 1 g

Sat Fat: 0 g / 0 g

Trans Fat: 0 g / 0 g

Sodium: 250 mg / 150 mg

Carbohydrates: 35 g / 21 g

Sugars: 8 g / 5 g

Fiber: 3 g / 2 g

Protein: 4 g / 2 g

Photo: Love Grown

Love Grown Original Power O's

Serving size: 1 cup

Calories: 130

Fat: 1.5 g

Sat Fat: 0 g

Trans Fat: 0 g

Sodium: 100 mg

Carbohydrates: 23 g

Sugars: 2 g

Fiber: 4 g

Protein: 6 g

Photo: Arrowhead Mills

Arrowhead Mills Organic Oat Bran Flakes

Serving size: 1 cup

Calories: 140

Fat: 2.5 g

Sat Fat: 0 g

Trans Fat: 0 g

Sodium: 80 mg

Carbohydrates: 24 g

Sugars: 3 g

Fiber: 4 g

Protein: 5 g

Photo: Kashi

Kashi Organic Sprouted Grains Cereal

Serving size: 1 1/4 cups / 3/4 cup (We provide the numbers listed for a standard serving of 1 1/4 cups and also for a 3/4-cup serving -which aligns with our nutrition criteria and still allows for a generous serving of cereal.)

Calories: 190 / 114

Fat: 1 g / 0.5 g

Sat Fat: 0 g / 0 g

Trans Fat: 0 g / 0 g

Sodium: 110 mg / 66 mg

Carbohydrates: 45 g / 27 g

Sugars: 9 g / 5 g

Fiber: 6 g / 4 g

Protein: 6 g / 4 g

Photo: Annie's

Annie's Organic Frosted Oat Flakes

Serving size: 3/4 cup

Calories: 130

Fat: 1 g

Sat Fat: 0 g

Trans Fat: 0 g

Sodium: 90 mg

Carbohydrates: 27 g

Sugars: 8 g

Fiber: 3 g

Protein: 3 g

Photo: Barbara's

Barbara's Puffins Original

Serving size: 3/4 cup

Calories: 90

Fat: 1 g

Sat Fat: 0 g

Trans Fat: 0 g

Sodium: 170 mg

Carbohydrates: 24 g

Sugars: 5 g

Fiber: 5 g

Protein: 3 g

Photo: Cascadian Farm

Cascadian Farm Organic Cinnamon Crunch

Serving size: 1 cup

Calories: 140

Fat: 3 g

Sat Fat: 0 g

Trans Fat: 0 g

Sodium: 140 mg

Carbohydrates: 29 g

Sugars: 11 g

Fiber: 3 g

Protein: 2 g

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