In a perfect world, you might start every day with a green smoothie, a bowl of oatmeal with fresh fruit, or a protein-rich veggie scramble. But this is the real world, and things are a little different. Whether your sweet tooth just won’t quit and you can’t stop thinking about that gooey cinnamon bun, or you’re hungover AF, and there’s no way you can stomach oats… sugary breakfasts happen. And that's OK. But if you're trying to watch your sugar intake, some options are better than others.
Weigh Your Options
Here’s something you already know: Feasting on sugary stuff isn’t the ideal way to start your day. Super-sweet breakfasts tend to be high in refined carbs and low in protein, fiber, and healthy fat. That kind of combo can leave you feeling sluggish and craving even more sugar, says registered dietitian Isabel Smith.
So how can you weigh your options? And are you really doing yourself a favor by picking the blueberry muffin over that stack of pancakes? Smith helped us rank the usual suspects from highest to lowest in terms of sugar content. We presented the findings in grams as well as teaspoons, since everyone knows what a teaspoon looks like. We’ve also added in the entire nutrient profile in case you’re trying to get protein in when ordering pancakes… or should it be yogurt? The answer might surprise you.
1. Yogurt Parfaits: 49g (12 1/4 teaspoons)
For a 12-ounce parfait: 380 calories, 10g protein, 5g fat, 76 g carbs, 1g fiber, and 49g sugar
Yogurt parfaits?! OK, plain yogurt and fruit aren't necessarily bad for you. But most layered yogurt cups found at cafes or fast-casual restaurants tend to be teeming with added sugar, thanks to added-sugar fruit compotes and granola. (And if the yogurt itself is flavored, it’ll pack even more of the sweet stuff.)
Here's the catch. While it's really high in sugar, the yogurt is a good source of protein and calcium, and you'll get a little bit of fiber from the granola and fruit, Smith says. Dairy products, yogurts, and bone health. Rizzoli R. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 2014, Apr.;99(5 Suppl):1938-3207. So if you're not concerned with the high-sugar content, this breakfast option ain't too bad.
2. Cinnamon Roll: 41g (10 1/4 teaspoons)
For a 6-ounce cinnamon roll: 620 calories, 9g protein, 29g fat, 80g carbs, 3g fiber, and 41g sugar
This one doesn't come as a huge surprise. Just take one whiff at Cinnabon and you practically inhale sugar. Oh, man, we love that smell. When you can't resist the calling, it might be a good idea to hold off on the dessert after dinner that night, because these puppies pack in the sugar.
3. Muffins: 38g (9 1/2 teaspoons)
For a 5-ounce blueberry muffin: 546 calories, 7g protein, 27g fat, 69g carbs, 2g fiber, and 38g sugar
Store-bought muffins are kind of like bagels—just pumped up with more sugar and sometimes trans-fat. And since they tend to be really big (and hard to stop eating), they make it easy to take in more sugar than you need at breakfast. Still can't resist that fluffy mound of breakfast heaven? Choose a muffin with nuts in it. They offer a little bit more protein to keep you fuller for longer, says Smith.
4. Scones: 29g (7 1/4 teaspoons)
For a 4.5-ounce scone with icing: 510 calories, 6g protein, 23g fat, 71g carbs, 2g fiber, and 29g sugar
Holy sugar! These baked goods have way more sweet stuff than waffles (scroll down)! It doesn't help that they also tend to be ridiculously large and are so addicting that you're probably not just going to eat half. Plus, many commercial and store-bought versions get their rich, tender taste from hydrogenated oils, Smith says. The negative effects of hydrogenated trans fats and what to do about them. Kummerow FA. Atherosclerosis, 2009, Mar.;205(2):1879-1484.
5. Doughnuts: 24g (6 teaspoons)
For a 4-ounce sugar doughnut: 487 calories, 8g protein, 23g fat, 62g carbs, 3g fiber, and 24g sugar
"I'll take the plain doughnut to go, please!" said no person ever. If a doughnut is on the brain, you're going to go for the massive one made fresh at your local bakery, covered in icing or cinnamon and sugar, or stuffed to the brim with jelly or cream. Those are the kind of doughnuts we're talking about. If a plain doughnut excites you, you'll be halving the amount of sugar.
6. Sugary Cereal With Milk: 18g (4 1/2 teaspoons)
For 3/4 cup cereal and 1/2 cup low-fat milk: 160 calories, 5g protein, 2g fat, 33g carbs, 1g fiber, and 18g sugar
How good were Froot Loops as a kid? Oops, we digress. Most breakfast cereals are relatively low in calories, protein, and fiber, but high in added sugar. The protein and fat in milk might help you feel fuller longer—but it still won’t turn your cereal into a low-sugar option, Smith says. Don't be too sad. There are better cereal options with more fiber than sugar, so just be sure to read your labels.
7. Bagels: 6g (1 1/2 teaspoons)
For a 4 1/2-inch bagel: 283 calories, 11 g protein, 2g fat, 56g carbs, 2g fiber, and 6g sugar
Bagels are chewy and delicious, so we were thrilled to see they only had 6g of sugar. Even more reasons to celebrate? They also deliver some protein. Plus, it’s easy to give them a good-for-you upgrade. “You can make a better choice by picking a whole-grain bagel and topping it with something protein-rich like eggs or salmon,” Smith says. Bagel Fridays are back!
8. Pancakes, Waffles, and French Toast: 2g (1/2 teaspoon)
For a stack of 3 pancakes and 1 tablespoon butter: 549 calories, 12g protein, 17g fat, 84g carbs, 3g fiber, and 2g sugar
For a stack of 2 waffles and 1 tablespoon butter: 537 calories, 12g protein, 33g fat, 50g carbs, 0g fiber, and 2g sugar
For 3 pieces of French toast and 1 tablespoon butters 547calories, 15g protein, 32g fat, 49g carbs, 3g fiber, and 2g sugar
You might have a favorite among these classic breakfast treats, so we have some good news: They all have the same sugar content, and TBH, it's not as high as we thought. This count doesn't include adding a pour of maple syrup, which would up this to about 24g for two tablespoons, but sometimes butter is really all you need. If you're counting calories or carbs, these are definitely on the higher side, but it's not like we're eating them every day.
The Bottom Line
When a super-sweet breakfast is your only option, you can take steps to make it better for you. Have half, and pair it with a source of protein like eggs, Greek yogurt, or nuts, recommends Smith. That’ll slow down your digestion and keep your blood sugar more stable, so you stay satisfied for longer. An increase in dietary protein improves the blood glucose response in persons with type 2 diabetes. Gannon MC, Nuttall FQ, Saeed A. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 2003, Oct.;78(4):0002-9165.