These So-Called Healthy Breakfast Foods Have More Sugar Than Dessert
WTF: How Many Grams of Sugar?!
When you're sitting down to your strawberry passionfruit açaí bowl, you're probably thinking it's a super-nutritious (and delicious) breakfast. The truth? Some of those fruity, colorful bowls of goodness are packed with TONS of sugar—so much so that the equivalent could be around that of a candy bar. Yikes. That's why you might start to crash an hour or so later. (And probably get hunger pangs too.)
"The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015–2020 recommends no more than 10 percent of calories come from added sugars because they add calories without adding positive nutrients," says Maggie Moon, R.D., author of The MIND Diet. On a standard 2,000-calorie diet, that's 50 grams of added sugar. "Too many added sugars makes it hard to consume all the nutrients your mind and body need for optimal health within your calorie budget," she says.
Think you're cutting it close? The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends even less sugar each day: "The AHA recommends no more than six teaspoons a day of added sugar for women and nine for men, which amounts to 24 grams a day for women and 36 for men," she says.
Don't let these trendy "healthy" breakfasts fool you. Sure, they may look stunning on Instagram, but they're not necessarily doing your body any good.
Açaí Bowl vs. 20-oz. Coke
First off, it is worth distinguishing between natural and added sugar, says Moon. Natural sugar isn't inherently unhealthy and is found in things like yogurt and fruit. But in copious amounts or when prepared with added sugar, it's possible to rack up a sugar count on par with a typical dessert item, she says. (Here's what you need to know about the natural sugar in fruit.)
Added sugars, though, are what's worrisome. "Added sugars are a public health concern and have a very different and potentially harmful role in the context of an overall eating pattern compared to naturally occurring sugars that are intrinsic to healthy foods such as fruit and milk," explains Moon.
"Açaí bowls can have more than 65 grams of sugar and more than 500 calories at some popular juice and smoothie shops," says Moon. "That's as much as a 20-oz. Coke." Don't believe it? A Strawnana Berry Açaí Bowl from Robeks has 69 grams of sugar. "Keep in mind that at least in the açaí bowl, you're also getting fiber, vitamins, and minerals," she adds.
For a definitely healthy açaí bowl, make it yourself so you can manage portions and toppings. "Start with a half-cup of açaí base, skip adding any sugar, and top with a few almonds, blueberries, and hemp seeds," she suggests. Yum.
Smoothie vs. 9 Krispy Kreme Doughnuts
That's right: Your morning smoothie could have as much sugar as nearly a dozen doughnuts. "The average smoothie at your corner smoothie counter can run 400 calories and nearly 90 grams of sugar. That's as much sugar as nine Krispy Kreme doughnuts," says Moon. (Example: The large Strawberries Wild smoothie at Jamba Juice has 97 grams of sugar.)
Even if all that sugar is naturally found in fruit, there's usually very little protein or healthy fat to balance it out, she says. "In a smoothie made from whole fruits and vegetables and 100 percent juice, the issue is not so much the natural sugar, but it's the portions and how it fits into a balanced meal," she explains. You're better off making your own smoothie at home with the right ratios of macronutrients and no added sugar.
To find the right macronutrient balance, try adding healthy protein and fat to your smoothie, recommends Moon. "I like to add in peanut butter powder, cottage cheese, Siggi's Icelandic skyr, or even a spoonful of straight-up olive oil," she says.
Chia Pudding Vs. Traditional Candy Bar
"Many chia pudding recipes call for added sugar to the tune of 20 grams of sugar per serving," says Moon. "That's as much sugar as a candy bar," says Moon. There's no need to down a Kit Kat at 9 a.m. (For example, Pret's chocolate chia pudding has 19 grams of sugar, and a classic Kit Kat bar has 21.)
"I've made my own matcha almond milk chia pudding with a couple teaspoons of ginger syrup per serving for about 7 grams of sugar. While this is still added sugar, I also wouldn't call it breakfast. I call that a dessert, and one that's lower in sugar than most desserts, too," she says.
If it is indeed a breakfast for you, just make sure the sugar count is low. The good news: You're still getting some good nutrients from the chia seeds. "As an added bonus, the omega-3 fatty acids and protein from the chia seeds balance out some of the blood sugar impact of the carbs in this treat," she says. (Try one of these delicious chia pudding recipes to satisfy your sweet tooth.)
Fruit and Yogurt Parfait vs. Cinnamon Roll
A yogurt parfait may seem like a healthy breakfast option, but they often pack a ton of hidden added sugar. Case in point: "Au Bon Pain's Blueberry Yogurt and Wild Blueberry Parfait has a whopping 48 grams of sugar—twice the recommended daily limit for women suggested by the American Heart Association," says Lauren Harris-Pincus, R.D.N., author of The Protein-Packed Breakfast Club.
"To be fair, some of the sugar is naturally occurring from milk and fruit, but the total equals even more sugar than Au Bon Pain's huge Cinnamon Swirl Roll," she says. Not good. Instead, go for a plain yogurt and fresh cut fruit or try an egg-based item.
Cereal vs. Reese's Peanut Butter Cups
There's nothing like a bowl of sweet cereal that reminds you of your childhood—but as an adult, it's time to ditch those sugary grains and eat something that's rich in protein and fiber instead.
"I'm a huge cereal fan, but some are really nutritious while others, not so much," says Harris-Pincus. "Kellogg's Honey Smacks are a sugar bomb: A 3/4 cup serving has 16 grams of sugar—and who eats only 3/4 cup?"
And even if you choose a "healthier" cereal, that sugar count is often still pretty high. One cup of Kellogg's Raisin Bran contains 18 grams of sugar per serving and only some of that is natural sugar from the raisins, says Kelly Jones, R.D.
That's just about the same amount of sugar as two Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. (Get this: There are even breakfast pizza recipes that are healthier than a typical bowl of cereal.)
Serving of Granola vs. Two Pop-Tarts
Granola tends to be packed with sugar, and serving sizes are smaller than most people assume (check those labels!), says Jones. "If you're eating a cup of granola, you're likely getting around 30 grams of sugar—which is about what you'd get from two strawberry Pop-Tarts," she says. (One cup of Quaker's Oats, Honey, Raisins & Almonds Simply Granola has 26g of sugar.)
"Both foods are low in protein, so blood sugar can spike and crash and you won't feel very satisfied. Rather than use granola as a bowl of cereal, I recommend it as an add-in or garnish on yogurt or oatmeal to add some crunch," she says. (Whip up this sugar-free granola recipe for a tasty topping for plain yogurt.)