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Why Is Cereal Important in the Diet?

By Sandi Busch

The word "cereal" is often shorthand for ready-to-eat breakfast cereals, but it also has a broader definition, meaning any type of edible grain. Whether you prefer oats, corn, wheat, rice or relative newcomers to mainstream grocery stores such quinoa or millet, consuming cereal grains may lower your risk of heart disease. Whole grains are also important sources of nutrients, fiber and antioxidant phytochemicals.

Provider of Fiber

Getting enough fiber in your diet -- 25 grams daily for women and 38 grams for men -- prevents constipation and supports the health of your digestive tract. Soluble fiber also lowers levels of cholesterol and helps keep blood sugar balanced. Dietary fiber may even help avert some types of cancer. Most Americans get 36 percent of their daily fiber from cereal grains, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The USDA recommends that at least half of the grains you consume be whole grains because they contain more fiber. For example, brown rice has almost three times more fiber than white.

Packed With Nutrients

Whole-grain foods and enriched refined grains are major sources of oxygen-carrying iron in American diets, reports the USDA. Cereals also provide an important source of complex carbohydrates, magnesium, selenium and the B vitamins thiamine, riboflavin and niacin. Magnesium helps build bones, selenium works as an antioxidant and the B vitamins are essential for metabolism and maintaining a healthy nervous system. The grain's bran and germ layers contain a significant amount of minerals and vitamins, so processed and unfortified cereal grains will lack nutrients.

Source of Phytochemicals

You’ll get beneficial phytochemicals from all plant-based foods, but eating cereal is important because cereal grains contain different phytochemical profiles than fruits and vegetables, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research. For example, cereal grains contain phytochemicals called orthophenols that work as antioxidants and may help prevent some types of cancer. Eating a variety of grains is also beneficial since each type has its own phytochemical composition, according to the May 2013 issue of the “Nutrition Journal.” You will benefit from choosing whole grains because up to 75 percent of the grain’s phytochemicals are lost when the bran and germ are removed.

Recommendations and Serving Options

Women should consume 6 ounce equivalents of total grains daily, while men need 7 to 8 ounce equivalents, according to recommendations from the USDA. Examples of an ounce equivalent include one slice of bread, 1 cup of ready-to-eat cereal and 1/2 cup of cooked grains. It’s easy to add cereal to your diet by tossing some into your favorite muffin or pancake batter. You can also blend it into a fruit smoothie or top yogurt with fresh fruit and whole-grain cereal. For a savory twist, mix crumbled whole-grain cereal, sesame seeds and garlic powder and use it to coat homemade chicken tenders.

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