Going with the grain

December 05, 2003

HARRIED PARENTS, take heart. The lowly bowl of cereal could be a real superhero in the fight against child obesity.

Children who regularly consume ready-to-eat cereal (with milk) are less likely to be overweight, according to a study published this week in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. The frequent eaters -- chowing down more than eight bowls in two weeks -- also were found to have lower body mass index readings and better nutrient intake than those who eat cereal less frequently.

That held true for the Cocoa Puffs crowd as well as for those whose parents can convince them to try All-Bran. But if kids do start the day with a bowl of bran cereal or one with nuts and seeds, they feel fuller and eat less for lunch than those who down corn flakes (or white bread), suggests a smaller study in Pediatrics magazine.

Fat-fighting power is just an addition to the known scholastic benefits of any healthful breakfast. Kids who start school with full bellies show increased levels of brain function and concentration and perform better in class; they experience less tardiness, fewer suspensions and better scores on standardized tests. That has held true for children in Maryland's Meals for Achievement program, which offers school-based breakfast for all kids in participating schools and often has cereal on the menu.

Childhood obesity is a serious and escalating health risk. Nearly one in three U.S. children is at risk for being overweight or already is overweight, according to the National Health and Nutrition Survey. Beyond the social burden they must bear from taunting peers, overweight children can suffer from high blood pressure, sleep apnea and joint problems, among other ills, that they carry into adulthood.

Heavy kids usually grow into heavy adults, and while losing weight is possible at any age, preventing the onset of obesity is the wiser choice.

Plus, eating cereal is a habit they wouldn't need to outgrow. University of California, Berkeley researchers find that most adults who eat ready-to-eat cereal or hot cereal for breakfast have lower body mass index readings than those who skip the meal or who eat eggs with ham or bacon.

So stop fretting if all you can get your kids to eat at breakfast is cereal with milk -- you may well be doing them a favor.

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