You have probably heard that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Eating a healthy breakfast provides energy to start the day and is important for weight control.

In children, a healthy breakfast is essential for proper growth and development and is linked to improved attention and learning in school.

Unfortunately, the foods that many children eat for breakfast are far from healthy. In fact, the nutritional value of many common breakfast foods are more similar to candy and soda than a healthy meal to start the day.

One of my students, Brittney Austin, compared the nutrition information of several popular children’s breakfast foods and beverages to healthier options as well as items widely recognized as candy and soda.

She presented this at Research Day at USC Aiken last week, but I thought it was worth sharing here. Parents – pay attention!

The purpose of Brittney’s project was to compare the nutritional value of some of the popular children’s breakfast foods and beverages to that of candy and soda.

The total calories and sugar content for popular children’s breakfast foods and beverages were determined from nutrition information available on packaging or from manufacturer websites.

These were compared to the nutritional values for several candy bars and soda. Additionally, the nutritional values for healthier breakfast options were also compared.

The nutrition information suggests that many popular children’s breakfast foods and beverages are more similar to candy and soda than healthier breakfast options.

On average, popular breakfast foods had 180 calories per serving, which is closer to more than 200 calories for a candy bar than it is to about 100 calories for a healthier cereal (Cheerios), yogurt, or fruit.

Similarly, popular fruit-flavored drinks were more nutritionally similar to Coca-Cola than healthier breakfast beverages like orange juice or skim milk.

Some popular breakfast foods targeted at children include sugar-sweetened cereals and frosted pastries and bars, many of which look like candy or dessert. Some cereals contain marshmallows or are shaped like cookies!

No surprise that these foods are as high in calories and sugar as some candy bars. Many “fruit” drinks contain less than 5 percent juice, so they are essentially soda without bubbles.

For example, the orange drink Sunny D is a popular substitute for orange juice, but it is far from a nutritional equivalent.

Aside from the poor nutritional quality of some of these breakfast choices, consuming food and beverages that are flavored like fruit but are actually much sweeter may make real fruit less palatable.

Children may develop an expectation that oranges or orange juice should taste as sweet as Sunny D and prefer the sugar-sweetened version over the real fruit.

The good news is that breakfast can be a healthy meal without too much effort. Look for cereals that are low in added sugars and high in fiber. Include real fruit, fruit juice and milk (or soy milk) whenever possible.

Yogurt is good, but watch out for added sugars in flavored yogurt.

Whole grain toast or a bagel with peanut butter or jelly makes a good alternative to Pop Tarts. As a general rule, steer clear of frosting and marshmallows at breakfast!

Finally, keep in mind that this isn’t unique to children’s breakfast foods. Adults commonly eat donuts, pastries, and muffins and have coffee drinks or smoothies that are the nutritional equivalent of cupcakes and milkshakes!

You can make breakfast a more healthy meal for the whole family simply by avoiding foods that look like dessert.

Brian Parr, Ph.D., is a an associate professor in the Department of Exercise and Sports Science at USC Aiken where he teaches courses in exercise physiology, nutrition and health behavior.