Plans for a nutritious breakfast often go out the window in the morning rush. For some, breakfast and cereal bars fill this gap as they’re viewed as a natural and easy way of getting a meal on the go. But do they really offer the nutrition you need to kick-start the day properly?
Are breakfast bars healthy?
Breakfast bars have several virtues – they require zero preparation time, they’re mobile, and generally tasty. But what do they offer in terms of nutrition?
As their packaging says, many breakfast bars are a source of iron, calcium, fibre and protein. In addition, they often claim to be low in not just calories but sugar too. For this reason they are often viewed as a healthy alternative to treats such as biscuits, chocolates and pastries. Yet the surface claims often conceal some unwelcome truths.
For instance, while many cereal bars contain fibre and protein owing to their dried fruit and nut content, far too many of them contain an abundance of added sugar, salt and unhealthy fats.
A recent survey of 20 popular breakfast bar varieties found that 16 of those tested contained the equivalent to at least 2 teaspoons of sugar – that’s roughly 8 grams. 8 contained 3 teaspoons or more, and two contained between 4.5 and 5 teaspoons of sugar – a whopping 18 to 19.5 grams!
Recent World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines advise adults to get approximately 25 grams of sugar per day, or 50 at most; guidelines are even lower for kids. When your breakfast bar contains nearly 20 grams on its own, having one on a regular basis risks sending your sugar intake skywards. Too much sugar has been linked to serious health problems, including tooth decay, obesity, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke and even some cancers.
Many weight-loss surgery patients also find they cannot tolerate sugar at high levels and gastric bypass patients in particular can ‘dump’ with the high sugar levels in such breakfast bars. That’s aside from the fact that they can stall weight-loss and contribute to weight regain.
Breakfast bars – what to look for
Cereal bars can be enjoyed occasionally if you need a quick energy burst or want a sweet treat; however, but they should never be used as breakfast substitute, or even as regular breakfast supplement. If you do decide to pick some up, here are 4 key areas to keep an eye on.
Always try to choose a cereal bar that’s low in sugar – especially when buying for kids and the WLS patient. Set a maximum sugar limit of 30%. Thus, if a serving is 45 grams, then the sugar content should be no more than 13.5 grams, and even at that such bars should be consumed only as occasional treats. This still might prove to be too high for those who are sugar sensitive after bariatric surgery. Cereal bars with a higher sugar content than this should be treated as confectionery rather than as convenient health food.
Healthy swap: If you really want a sweet treat to perk you up, just go for a piece of fruit such as banana. Though high in sugar, fruit is a healthier option because the sugar is natural and does contain fibre.
As well as other benefits, fibre helps slow down the digestive process, leaving you feeling fuller for longer. Aim to get at least 3 grams of fibre per serving.
Healthy swap: Again, fruit and vegetables are your best option as snacking on berries, raisins, pears or apples will provide you with plenty of tastiness with far more fibre and overall nutrition.
Like fibre, protein can help reduce any tendencies to snack between meals by leaving you feeling satisfied for longer. Look for cereal bars with at least 3 grams of protein per serving.
Healthy swap: There are numerous healthy alternative sources of protein to choose from such as eggs, cheese, yoghurt or beans. Even a sprinkling of pumpkin seeds over your morning cereal will add 7 or 8 grams of protein – far more than most breakfast bars provide.
Our bodies need fat, but healthy fats rather than the harmful saturated fats that can be found in many refined or sugary foods.
Healthy swap: Nuts such as almonds, cashews and pecans are rich in heart-healthy fats as well as health-promoting antioxidants. As they contain a high level of fats, however, a handful will provide you with a sufficient amount. Make sure you avoid salted and roasted varieties.
Better yet – make your own healthy breakfast bar!
Of course the best way to enjoy cereal or breakfast bars without worrying about unhealthy additives is by making your own, check out our quick-and-easy recipe to get you started here.
Some reportage courtesy of Tesco Health and Wellbeing