Tips for Reducing Sugar at Breakfast

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Did you know that the American Heart Association recommends that we limit added sugars as a part of a heart healthy diet?  Their current guidelines are: 

  • 100 calories or less per day for women = 25 grams (e.g. 6 teaspoons of sugar)
  • 150 calories or less per day for men = 38 grams (e.g. 9 teaspoons of sugar)

The good news is that this daily limit applies to ADDED sugars, not to sugar found naturally in foods such as fruit (the major source), veggies, whole grains, and other unprocessed foods.  Just to be clear, honey, maple syrup, molasses, agave syrup, and brown sugar are all considered added sugars.

So, what does this have to do with heart healthy breakfast ideas?  Plenty!  Many of us unwittingly choose breakfast foods that are high in added sugars.  With a little detective work you can find lower sugar options for nearly any breakfast food.  Here are some tips to help you curb added sugar.

Sweet Taste, Less Sugar

If you have a sweet tooth, then add just a teaspoon or so of your preferred sugar to unsweetened food rather than buying presweetened versions.  You’ll get a sweet taste for fewer sugar grams if you add it yourself.  Sugar, honey, maple syrup, agave syrup, and molasses all contain about 4 grams of sugar per teaspoon.  Artificial sweeteners count as zero.  For variety and extra nutrients, try sweetening food by adding cut up fresh fruit or a small amount of dried fruit.


Traditional rolled oats have no added sugar or salt.  You can easily cook oats in either a microwave or on the stovetop.  If you love sweet oatmeal, then try limiting added sugar to 1 teaspoon.  Add spice such as cinnamon to increase flavor.  Experiment making oatmeal with skim milk or soy milk– it increases the protein content of the meal while providing more flavor.  Some folks also like to add a tablespoon of nut butter to their oatmeal to increase the amount of healthy fats, protein, and calories.  The idea is to have a healthy hearty breakfast that will sustain you for the morning. 

Traditional steel-cut oats also have no added sugar or salt.  Delicious and hearty, the texture of this oatmeal is more pearly than mushy. 

As an added benefit, oats are high in heart healthy soluble fiber.  Soluble fiber can help lower unhealthy cholesterol levels.

Low sugar instant oatmeal:  although I am not a big fan of instant oatmeal, I understand that it is a timesaver.  If you always buy flavored oatmeal, then I would at least choose the low sugar varieties.  Instant oatmeal will still be higher in sodium than traditional oatmeal.


Despite the name, it is not wheat.  A whole grain/grass, it is delicious and low in both sugar and sodium.  It has a nutty flavor and a wonderful texture that is somehow soft and crunchy at the same time.  After cooking, you can add a small amount of low fat whipped butter (lower in both saturated fat and calories) and a teaspoon of maple syrup if you like it sweet.  If you like it very sweet, then consider using sugar free maple syrup.  Buckwheat (groats, Kasha) can also be used in savory dishes.

Hot Oat Bran Cereal

Yet another hot cereal that is minimally processed – low in both sugar and sodium.

Cold Breakfast Cereals

Many adults assume that high fiber cereals are lower in sugar than cereal marketed to children.  Guess what?  Your favorite high fiber cereal might be higher in sugar than your child’s cereal!  Food companies will often try to mask the bitterness of bran and whole wheat with sugar.  So start reading the food labels of your favorite cereals and make the switch to lower sugar options. 

How much sugar is too much?  You decide.  I recommend no more than 5 – 10 grams of added sugar per serving of breakfast cereal.  Here are some of my favorite lower sugar breakfast cereals:

  • Post Shredded Wheat Spoon Size, 1 cup = 0 g sugars
  • Cheerios, regular, 1 cup = 1 g sugars
  • Kellogg’s Bran Flakes, 1 cup = 7 g sugars
  • Kashi Go Lean (regular not crunchy), 1 cup = 6 g sugars

Another option is to mix cereals – one cup of low sugar cereal plus 1 -2 tablespoons of a higher sugar cereal.  My favorite combination is 1 cup shredded wheat (0 g) + 2 tablespoons Nature’s Path Pumpkin Flax granola (2 g) = 2 grams total sugar. 

Dried fruit cereal is typically very high in sugar since it comes from both dried fruit and added sugar.  You’ll save money, have softer fruit, and eat fewer calories and sugar if you add your own cut up fruit to plain cereal.  Buy dried fruit that is not processed with added sugar, cut it up finely, and limit your portion to a tablespoon or so.  If you add fresh fruit, then use one piece or 1 cup of berries.

High Protein/High Healthy Fat Breakfast

If a high carb breakfast is not to your liking, then consider eating fish for breakfast.  It is a fantastic source of protein, provides heart-healthy omega-3 fats, and will stave off hunger all morning long. 

Salmon and Veggie Egg Scramble (or make as an omelet)

Sauté green onions, mushrooms, and preferred veggies in olive oil.  Use as many veggies as you like.  Add 2-3 oz of cooked salmon (leftovers are great to use) and stir to heat. 

Whisk 1 whole egg + 2 egg whites + 2 tbsp of skim milk.  Add to veggies and salmon and stir until egg is cooked. 

Have orange wedges on the side.

I would love to hear your ideas on lower sugar breakfast dishes.  Please post comments!



Katherine Isacks, Registered Dietitian, LLC   

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Nutrient data for this article obtained from MyNetDiary

Online Resources

American Heart Association, “Sugars and Carbohydrates”

American Heart Association, “Sugars 101”

American Heart Association, “Dietary Sugars and Cardiovascular Health:  A Scientific Statement from the American Heart Association.”   Circulation 2009; 120; 1011-1020.

3 Responses

  1. Lillian
    Dear Kathy, Tem and I start out with the following: 1/2 cup of cereal (grapenuts usually) liberal dose of flax seeds small handfull of walnuts 1/2 banana cut up on each bowl maybe some strawberries too 1/2 cup low fat soy milk or rice milk This breakfast keeps us going. Love, Lillian
  2. A healthy diet will always be composed of high fiber frutis and veggies, low sugar, low carb and rich in protein.'"*
  3. breakfast foods should always be high in protein and also in carbohydrates, we need food energy during the early morning *";