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Are High-Protein, low-carb Cereals a Healthy Breakfast?

SCENE: You’re six years old. You wake up, get dressed, and sit down at the kitchen table for breakfast. In front of you sits a bowl of sugar-coated, crunchy fruit loops that you quickly scarf down before they get too soggy.

Can you picture that?

If not, I bet you could recall at least one similar food-centric scenario from your childhood that brings a smile to your face.

Frosted Flakes, Cocoa Crispies, Kix, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Fruity Pebbles, Lucky Charms... These are nostalgic! Unfortunately for we adults, diet culture (disguised as social norms) dictates you’re only “allowed” to eat them if you’re under the age 18.

Is it good news for us that companies like Magic Spoon and Cereal School now make laboratory-designed cereals to delight our breakfast nostalgia?

In this blog, I’m specifically referring to cereal brands who’s products strategically and closely imitate childhood favorites, are marketed as “grown up” replacements, or who’s message is along the lines of being a “reinvention, but without the sugar and carbs!”. You know, the diet-culture-y ones…

If you haven’t heard of or tried anything like what I’m referring to, let me back up for a moment and introduce you. Four of the most popular brands on the market right now are Magic Spoon, The Cereal School, Catalina Crunch, and Three Wishes.

Swapping to these products comes with a pretty price tag; one bowl of Catalina Crunch costs $2.45, compared to the average $3.64 family-sized box of traditional cereal. Is spending this much worth the benefits?

For most people, cereal is a tasty breakfast that takes seconds to prepare and requires minimal cooking skills or cleanup. I have several clients who prefer cereal for breakfast, and we strategize how to make it part of a balanced meal. But when they first come to me, one of the most common things I hear from cereal lovers is, “I’m starving by lunch time!”. This is because cereals that are high in total carbohydrates and low in fiber, protein, and fat lead to a rapid spike in blood sugar that gives you a quick burst of energy - not energy that will last for the whole morning. That’s at least one consumer problem that the companies above have solved. From the nutrition facts you can see that these alternatives have protein, fat, and/or fiber to increase satiety and mitigate the spike in your blood sugar.

What’s the catch?

These products are marketed as being more “natural”, but they don’t sprout from the earth. Manufacturers use allulose, monk fruit, pea protein, and synthetic fiber to boost the nutritional content, and for most people, a little of each of these is okay. That said, important for anyone with gastrointestinal sensitivities to be mindful that these additives may trigger flareups and irritation. I recently began working with a client who’s IBS flareups completely subsided when she swapped out more-processed, high-protein bars and shakes for “whole food” alternatives.

These cereals may not be “natural”, but no cereal is! The question most people want answered is: Are they healthier?

The verdict from me is, it depends on what you consider to be “healthy”. It wasn’t until I began digging and researching these products that I realized how different the nutrition facts are:

  • Magic Spoon & Three Wishes are mainly marketed as higher protein, but as you can see above - they're actually the lowest in protein of the four

  • Cereal School, specifically, is marketed to help you "break up with sugar" (did I roll my eyes out loud?) and is very low in carbs

  • Catalina Crunch was developed by someone with Type 1 Diabetes and Epilepsy (side note: the ketogenic diet was originally used for epileptic individuals, as it reduces the incidence of seizures) but it's interesting because the keto diets limit carbs to 20-50g per day, so depending on the serving size, this product may be too high in carbs to actually keep you in ketosis…

My approach to nutrition is one in which all foods fit. I believe a nutritious diet is one in which you have a positive relationship with food, and feel confident in your ability to eat all foods in moderation. I am an advocate of ridding your diet from food rules that restrict what you eat in any way. As I teach my clients, there is a way you can have the real thing (whether it be cereal, ice cream, or pizza) as part of a balanced meal that will increase satiety and mitigate a blood sugar spike in the same way these products are formulated to.

I've tried some of these cereals, and I like them! I even recommend them to my clients. When I do, though, I always preface my recommendation by letting them know that prioritizing satisfaction is the number one key. If sugary cereal is what you what; low-carb cheerios are not gonna cut it. Please, do not feel badly if you currently have a cabinet full of low-carb products. I completely understand why you feel that eating low-carb, low-calorie, high-protein alternatives is the way to go - these companies have everything to gain from making you think that way.

Sometimes, what may prevent you from bingeing later is a bowl of cereal that you feel is more nutritious. Other times, what may keep you on track in the long run is giving yourself full permission to enjoy a bowl of good ‘ole Cocoa Puffs in its entirety. You are allowed to do both! You’re allowed to love your childhood favorites just as much as the alternative. Cereal is never going to be the most nutritious food you’re eating, which is why the idea behind swapping traditional cereal for a product like these doesn’t click with me. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think Frosted Flakes should be a staple in anyones morning routine, but consuming 6 extra grams of protein and 1 teaspoon less added sugar when you switch to Magic Spoon will not be your key to a healthier lifestyle.

If you religiously purchase an alternative, “healthier” version of a product, my question to you is: why do you love it? If it’s for the flavor, or because it sets you up to feel great and eat balanced for the rest of the day, I'd say go for it! If neither of those are the case, I’d ask you why you don’t simply choose the original. If your answer is something like, “it’s not healthy”, “it has too many carbs”, or “I’ll eat the whole box”, I'd encourage you to work on your relationship with food and find a way to enjoy the real thing in moderation.

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