April 8th, 2011
08:36 AM ET

How to build a healthy PB&J

Every weekday, a CNNHealth expert doctor answers a viewer question. On Friday, it's Dr. Melina Jampolis, a physician nutrition specialist.

Question asked by Stephanie of Roswell, Georgia

My daughters ask for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for breakfast several times a week, instead of the whole-grain cereal we offer them. This seems awfully sugary to me. Is this nutritionally OK?

Expert answer

This is a great question as I would hate to see parents avoiding peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (made the right way), as they potentially have a great deal to offer from a nutrition standpoint.

I would consider them a good substitute for whole grain cereal if that is what your children prefer. Your concern about your children's sugar intake is valid, as most of us consume far too many added sugars in our diets.

Here are my suggestions for building a healthy peanut butter and jelly sandwich for breakfast or any time of day (they make healthy after-school snacks too).

1. Start with whole grain bread (if your kids will eat it) - make sure that the first ingredient on the ingredient list is "whole grain."Try to avoid breads with added sugar (bread should not really have any) to keep sugar intake down.

If your kids refuse to eat whole wheat bread, try the new variety of whole wheat white bread that is a step up from the white bread that many kids prefer. It is also important to keep trying whole wheat bread with your kids, as foods often require repeat exposure for acceptance.

2. Go natural with nut butter - peanut butter (or any nut butter) is a healthy source of plant-based protein and fiber. Just try to choose natural varieties that don't have trans fats (partially hydrogenated oils).

Even though most regular brands contain only a small amount, you don't need any in your diet, and many of the major brands now have natural varieties that have no hydrogenated oils.

In addition, choose low-sodium varieties when you can and limit added sugar. I picked up a major brand label natural creamy peanut butter today that had only 80 mg of sodium per serving and 3 grams of sugar; and it tastes terrific!

3. Stick with spreads - I recommend choosing spreads or jams over jellies as they generally have less sugar and actually contain real fruit, not just fruit juice. Try to find products with fruit as the first ingredient. I could not find a product without added sugar (except sugar-free options, which I don't recommend for kids), so just compare labels and try to choose the lowest sugar possible.

I found a major brand that had 8 grams of sugar for 1 tablespoon. It is impossible just looking at the label to know how much of this sugar is added sugar, but you can probably assume that at least half is naturally occurring fruit sugar, so you are probably consuming only 4 grams of added sugar.

So the final stats for the sandwich are probably around 7 grams of added sugar (which is less than most major kids', and adults', cereals) and 4-5 grams of naturally occurring fiber (which is more than most kids' cereals and rivals many adult cereals).

In addition, you get 7 grams of plant-based protein (assuming 2 tablespoons) and healthy mono-unsaturated fat from the nuts. Add a glass of low-fat or fat-free milk and you have a very balanced and healthy breakfast option.

If you want to make sure your kids get fruit in the morning, try topping the sandwich with sliced bananas instead of jam or serve with an orange or a small glass of orange juice for an even more complete breakfast.

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.