Avoid nutrition nasties at breakfast

GOOD START: Gluten-free muesli can give you lasting energy.
GOOD START: Gluten-free muesli can give you lasting energy.

Breakfast, it's often said, is the most important meal of the day. It's also the one we tend to give the least thought.

Most of us eat the same thing for breakfast most days, myself included. But it's worth giving breakfast a bit of thought, and making sure what you're eating at the start of the day isn't hiding nutritional nasties.

Breakfast literally "breaks the fast" from the nine or more hours since your last meal, providing your body with an energy boost and much needed nutrients to start the day. Research shows that people who eat breakfast have higher intakes of fibre, vitamins and minerals, while those who skip it are less likely to meet their daily dietary requirements. Eating breakfast has also been shown to help with weight maintenance - those who eat it regularly have healthier body weights. Eating breakfast also improves alertness, mood, mental performance, concentration and memory.

Cereal is a popular and easy choice for many of us, and it can be a nutritious option. With milk, cereal can provide carbohydrate, protein, fibre, calcium and some vitamins. But the choice in the cereal aisle can be overwhelming, and cereals can vary from healthy options to dessert-in-disguise.

Some cereals can pack an unnecessary wallop of sugar. Good old Weet-Bix has just 2.8 per cent sugar, which equates to about teaspoon of sugar per two-biscuit serve. But some cereals - especially, sadly, ones aimed at kids - can have 30 per cent or 40 per cent sugar. Kellogg's Frosties, for example, has 41.3 per cent sugar - or just over three teaspoons of sugar in a ¼ cup serve. Considering many growing kids would eat a lot more than ¼ cup, that's not an ideal way to start the day.

You may not think of cereal as salty, but salt is commonly used in food manufacturing for taste, texture and preservation. Cornflakes and rice bubble-type cereals can contain around 200mg sodium per serve, or a 10th of the salt we should have in a whole day.

Sugar and salt are not the whole picture. It's important to look for high fibre and whole grains. Muesli can be a good choice, especially if it contains wholegrain oats, as these are minimally processed, full of nutrients and have their useful fibre intact. Oats are also moderate-GI and contain cholesterol-lowering beta-glucan.

So how to choose? If you're buying cereal, check and compare the "per 100g" column. Look for 400mg or less sodium per 100g; 3g or less saturated fat per 100g; 15g or less sugar per 100g (25g or less for cereals with dried fruit) and 5g or more fibre per 100g.

A great option to avoid all the label detective work is to make your own muesli. I do this so I can avoid added sugar and salt and get a combination of healthy grains, nuts and seeds that I like. With some plain yoghurt and berries or banana, I have a low-sugar, high-fibre brekkie that keeps me going all morning.

Recipes: Sarah Swain

Niki Bezzant is a healthy cooking expert and the editor of Healthy Food Guide magazine, latest issue on sale now.

Email Niki at editor@healthyfood.co.nz with SST in the subject line.

Sunday Star Times