It was the recommendation heard ‘round the world: It’s better to eat pizza for breakfast.
“You may be surprised to find out that an average slice of pizza and a bowl of cereal with whole milk contain nearly the same amount of calories,” Chelsey Amer, MS, RDN, CDN, told The Daily Meal. “However, pizza packs a much larger protein punch, which will keep you full and boost satiety throughout the morning.”
The pizza proclamation was greeted with much applause from the cereal skeptics — and many articles from nutrition experts decrying the statement’s broad claim.
“If you’re eating a freshly-made, thin-sliced pizza with fresh tomatoes and a sprinkle of cheese, it can be a somewhat nutritious meal with carbs and protein,” Natalie Rizzo, MS, RD of Nutrition à la Natalie, told Healthline. “But if you’re eating two giant New York slices that are covered in cheese and oil, it’s likely over 600 calories and pretty high in saturated fat.”
Amer came to her decision by comparing the average pizza slice to the country’s iconic breakfast of a bowl of sugary flakes doused in nonfat milk.
“A slice of pizza contains more fat and much less sugar than most cold cereals, so you will not experience a quick sugar crash,” Amer said
Indeed, a 2014 analysis from the Environmental Working Group concluded that most cereal options in the grocery store are filled with so much sugar they aren’t healthy enough to consume on a daily basis.
The analysis said some cereals have so much sugar that “someone eating an average serving of a typical children’s cereal would consume more than 10 pounds of sugar a year from that source alone.”
Likewise, the analysis said 34 percent of calories in children’s cereals comes from sugar alone. Of the 1,556 cereals the group studied, single servings of 40 of the cereals exceeded 60 percent of the daily amount of sugar suggested by leading health organizations.
That, Amer says, is enough reason to look elsewhere for your morning meal.
Any trace of hyperbole about declaring pizza healthier than cereal aside, her statement hints at an important question: Is there anything healthy about cereal?
Cereal vs. pizza
As word about the importance of protein and fiber has seeped into the American health-conscious psyche, Lucky the Leprechaun and Toucan Sam have fallen out of favor with the average consumer.
Indeed, cereal manufacturers have been feeling the pinch of declining sales in recent years.
One glance at the nutrition panel and it’s not hard to see why.
A one-cup serving of Kellogg’s Froot Loops cereal contains 110 calories, 1g fat, 0.5g saturated fat, 150mg sodium, 25g carbohydrates, 3g dietary fiber, and 10g sugar.
Pour on a half cup of skim milk, and your bowl tops out at 155 calories with 1g fat, 32g carbs, 3g fiber, and 17g sugar.
Most people don’t stop with just one serving, however.
In fact, a Consumer Reports study found that 92 percent of cereal eaters in their study ate more than the recommended serving size. In a 12-ounce bowl, pour sizes ranged from 24 to 92 percent more than the recommended amount. In a larger 18-ounce bowl, pours were 43 to 114 percent more than the recommended amount.
If you’re pouring out Froot Loops in that amount, that’s almost 300 calories and 33g sugar, or 132 percent of a woman’s daily sugar goal and 88 percent of a man’s.
Meanwhile, a slice from a medium, thin-crust, cheese pizza from Pizza Hut has 180 calories, 22g carbs, 8g protein, 2g fiber, and 3g sugar. If you doctor your pizza up with a whole-wheat crust topped with fresh veggies, the nutritional profile gets better.
With numbers like that, Amer’s recommendation may make a bit more sense.
“Pizza does provide a source of vegetables — tomato sauce — and protein,” said Lauren Harris-Pincus, MS, RDN, author of The Protein-Packed Breakfast Club. “However, it is generally made with refined white flour and tends to be high in saturated fat and sodium… Also, the ratio of carbs and fat to protein is higher than I would like.”
But cereal does have many redeeming qualities, points out Harris-Pincus.
“Since most cereals are fortified, they can serve as an important source of nutrients of concern you may not otherwise consume in adequate amounts in your diet, especially for kids,” she told Healthline.
These include calcium, potassium, vitamin D, B vitamins, fiber, and whole grains.
One study found that people who regularly ate ready-to-eat cereals had a lower risk of death and diseases, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer, compared to people who did not eat cereal. The benefit, the study suggests, is from regular whole-grain consumption.
If you’re not ready to give up your morning bowl, you don’t have to. Just make sure you’ve selected a healthier option, one that hits nutrition high notes and sugar low notes.
“Look for one made of whole grains, such as whole wheat or whole oats, with at least three grams of fiber per serving and a maximum of six grams of sugar,” Harris-Pincus said.
“Some [cereals] are loaded with sugary ingredients, like marshmallows and chocolate chips, and they are not more nutritious than a standard packaged dessert,” Rizzo said. “But, some other varieties are actually somewhat low in sugar and have a good amount of protein and fiber. Eaten with milk, which has protein and nine essential vitamins and minerals, they can be a relatively balanced breakfast.”
Breaking down breakfast choices
Cereal was always the ultimate in convenience for breakfast — no cooking, little cleaning —but today’s demanding consumer has pushed manufacturers and restaurants to deliver easier, healthier, and tastier options than ever before.
Here’s how a slice of pizza, a cup of healthy cereal, and other go-to quick breakfast options compare.