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The Truth About Breakfast

Many popular breakfast foods are loaded with just as much sugar as a lot of desserts have. 

Dawson Leach knows the importance of eating a healthy breakfast. 

“It gets your brain going for school,” says the fifth-grader from Meridian, Idaho.  

At home, Dawson often has a big bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios with milk and a chocolate chip granola bar. He thought this was a healthy breakfast. So he was shocked to learn that it contains more than 40 grams of sugar. That’s about the same amount of sugar as in a king-size Hershey’s chocolate bar. 

Like Dawson, many people would be surprised by how much sugar is in their breakfast. Granola bars and certain cereals are often thought of as being healthy. But these breakfast foods might have just as much sugar as some desserts do. 

“A lot of people think because it says ‘whole grain,’ it’s offering a lot of nutrients,” says nutrition expert Marlo Mittler. “But a lot of these foods are just the same as cookies.”

Dawson Leach knows the importance of eating a healthy breakfast.

“It gets your brain going for school,” says Dawson. He’s a fifth-grader from Meridian, Idaho. 

At home, Dawson often has a big bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios with milk. Then he eats a chocolate chip granola bar. He thought this was a healthy breakfast. So he was shocked to learn that it contains more than 40 grams of sugar. A king-size Hershey’s chocolate bar has about that much sugar!

Dawson isn’t alone. Many people would be surprised by how much sugar is in their breakfast. Granola bars and certain cereals are often thought of as being healthy. But they might have just as much sugar as some desserts do.

“A lot of people think because it says ‘whole grain,’ it’s offering a lot of nutrients,” says nutrition expert Marlo Mittler. “But a lot of these foods are just the same as cookies.”    

What’s for Breakfast?

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Health experts say it’s important to start the day with foods that are high in nutrients. For example, eggs are a good source of protein. That helps your muscles grow. Milk also provides protein, as well as calcium, which helps strengthen your bones. 

“When you have a breakfast that offers a lot of nutrition, you’re going to be able to learn more, focus more, and stay awake and alert,” says Mittler.

Many common breakfast foods, like yogurt and some cereals, do contain nutrients. But experts say the problem is that many of these foods are often packed with sugar.

Health experts say it’s important to start the day with a healthy breakfast.

“When you have a breakfast that offers a lot of nutrition, you’re going to be able to learn more, focus more, and stay awake and alert,” says Mittler.

The best breakfast foods are high in nutrients. For example, eggs are a good source of protein. That helps your muscles grow. Milk provides protein too. It also has calcium, which helps strengthen your bones.

Many common breakfast foods, like yogurt and some cereals, do contain nutrients. But the problem is that many of these foods are often packed with sugar.

Natural vs. Added

Not all sugar is the same. Sugar occurs naturally in foods such as fruits, grains, and milk. Most foods with natural sugar are sources of vitamins and other nutrients, such as fiber, which helps with digestion. Despite those benefits, health experts say we should limit the amount of natural sugar we consume. For example, nutritionists recommend that kids eat only two to four servings of fruit a day. 

Experts are more concerned about added sugar. That’s sugar that is put into foods and drinks—including many yogurts, cereals, juices, and baked goods—as they’re processed and prepared. Eating foods with a lot of added sugar gives you a quick burst of energy. But these foods typically lack nutrients. Mittler says they won’t keep you full or give you the energy you need to get through the morning, and they don’t help you stay focused in school.

Also, foods and beverages that contain a lot of added sugar have been linked to tooth decay, obesity, and other health issues. 

According to the American Heart Association, kids should have no more than 25 grams of added sugar a day. However, on average, kids ages 6 to 11 have about three times that much. 

Not all sugar is the same. Sugar occurs naturally in foods such as fruits, grains, and milk. Most foods with natural sugar have vitamins and other nutrients. Despite those benefits, health experts say we should limit the amount of natural sugar we consume. For example, kids should eat only two to four servings of fruit a day.

Experts are more concerned about added sugar. That’s sugar that is put into foods and drinks when they’re processed and prepared. Flavored yogurts, baked goods, and most cereals and fruit juices have added sugar. Foods with a lot of added sugar can give you a quick burst of energy. But they typically lack nutrients. Mittler says these foods won’t keep you full. They also won’t give you the energy you need to get through the morning. You may not be able to stay focused in school.

Also, foods and beverages that contain a lot of added sugar can be bad for your health. They have been linked to tooth decay, obesity, and other issues.

Doctors recommend that kids consume no more than 25 grams of added sugar a day. However, on average, kids ages 6 to 11 have about three times that much. 

Illustration by Jeff Mangiat

A Healthy Start

So how can you make sure you’re eating a healthy breakfast? Reading nutrition labels on food packaging and drink containers is a good way to start. Any sugar that appears in the ingredients list is added sugar. Spotting it can be tricky, though, because added sugar goes by many different names. Ingredients that end in -ose, such as high-fructose corn syrup, are sugars. Other names for sugar you might see on food labels include corn sweetener, cane crystals, nectar, and honey.

It is also important to note the serving sizes on nutrition labels. They’re often different from the amount you might usually eat. For example, one serving of Honey Nut Cheerios is only three-quarters of a cup. But Dawson was eating about two cups of the cereal for breakfast. 

Dawson says he has learned a valuable lesson. From now on, he’s going to pay closer attention to the nutrition labels on his breakfast foods.

“That will tell you what’s really in it,” he says.

How can you make sure you’re eating a healthy breakfast? Reading nutrition labels is a good way to start. Any sugar that appears in the ingredients list is added sugar. Spotting it can be tricky, though. Added sugar goes by many different names. Ingredients that end in -ose, such as high-fructose corn syrup, are sugars. Other names for sugar you might see on food labels include corn sweetener, cane crystals, nectar, and honey.

It is also important to note the serving sizes on nutrition labels. They’re often different from the amount you might usually eat. For example, one serving of Honey Nut Cheerios is three-quarters of a cup. But Dawson was eating about two cups of the cereal for breakfast.

Dawson says he has learned a valuable lesson. From now on, he’s going to pay closer attention to the nutrition labels on his breakfast foods.

“That will tell you what’s really in it,” he says. 

Roman Tiraspolsky/Alamy Stock Photo (Yoplait); Beth Benzaquin (Granola Bar); bestv/Shutterstock.com (Skittles); iStockPhoto/Getty Images (All Other Images)

1. Why was Dawson Leach shocked by the amount of sugar in his breakfast? 

2. Explain the difference between natural sugar and added sugar.

3. Why can it be difficult to spot added sugar in ingredients lists?

4. What is the purpose of the sidebar “Breakfast vs. Dessert”?

1. Why was Dawson Leach shocked by the amount of sugar in his breakfast? 

2. Explain the difference between natural sugar and added sugar.

3. Why can it be difficult to spot added sugar in ingredients lists?

4. What is the purpose of the sidebar “Breakfast vs. Dessert”?

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