Cereal portion control matters

You could be taking in a lot more calories than you think

Published: December 11, 2014 06:00 AM

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Think eating a cereal is the secret to losing weight—and keeping it off? Not so much, if you pour too much into your cereal bowl, as many people do. In fact, in a recent Consumer Reports' test, many cereal eaters were surprised by how small the serving size listed on the box really is. What's more, the serving sizes for cereal differ from product to product.

This makes it not only confusing to compare one cereal's nutrition numbers against another's but also tough to know what a serving of cereal is supposed to be. The major complicating factor is that the standard serving sizes for cereals are based on density—not sheer amount. So a serving of a low-density cereal, such as Cheerios, might be 1 cup (1 ounce), while a serving of a dense cereal, such as granola, might be only ½ cup (2 ounces).

To learn how much—or how little—the average person understands about cereal serving sizes, we asked 124 consumers at a shopping center in Yonkers, N.Y., to pour themselves the amount of cereal they'd normally eat for breakfast into one of three different-sized bowls—12-ounce capacity, 18-ounce capacity, and 28-ounce capacity. The participants chose Cheerios Original (low density), Quaker Oatmeal Squares (medium density), or Quaker Simply Granola Oats, Honey, Raisins & Almonds (high density). Each serving was emptied into a plastic bag, weighed twice, and averaged. Here are the results:

Check out our eight tips for a healthy breakfast, plus four things to watch out for on a cereal box. And find out which cereals, yogurts, and breakfast sandwiches came out tops in our tests.

  • Almost every participant—92 percent—exceeded the recommended serving size. They helped themselves to 24 percent to 92 percent more when using a 12-ounce bowl and 43 percent to 114 percent more when using an 18-ounce bowl. But those who used the largest bowl really went overboard. With Cheerios, the average "overpour" was 132 percent; with granola, it was 282 percent.
  • The denser the cereal, the bigger the serving. This pattern was especially true for granola. If participants had actually eaten the amount of cereal they had in their bowl, they would have consumed two to four times the number of calories listed on the label—400 to 800 calories vs. 200. In addition, they would have taken in at least double the amount of fat (10 to 19 grams vs. 5) and at least twice the sodium (58 to 115 milligrams vs. 30) in a suggested serving.
  • The caloric damage wasn't as great with the other two cereals, but it was still significant. Those who chose Cheerios would have consumed 132 to 232 calories vs. the 100, and 3 to 5 grams of fat vs. 2 grams in the listed 1-cup serving. On the sodium front, participants would have taken in 185 to 325 milligrams vs. 140 milligrams.

Bottom line. You don't have to stick to the portion sizes listed on cereal boxes, but you do need to know how much you typically serve yourself. Grab your favorite cereal bowl, pour out the amount you normally eat, and measure it. Then do the math so you know how many calories and how much sugars, sodium, and fat you're really getting at breakfast.

Deborah Pike Olsen

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