Are Bagels Healthy? Here's What You Need to Know, According to a Nutritionist
I grew up on bagels in upstate New York. I ate them for breakfast, used them in place of sandwich bread, and nibbled on them as a snack, usually slathered with peanut butter. In today's carb phobic climate, most of my clients think of bagels as either a forbidden food or an occasional treat. The truth is the healthfulness of a bagel goes beyond its carb content. Here's the lowdown on bagel nutrition, better-for-you options, and balanced ways to eat the breakfast favorite.
Bagels come in many sizes. According the US Department of Agriculture, one medium plain bagel (3.5 – 4 inches in diameter) made from enriched wheat flour contains 277 calories, 1.39 grams of fat, 55 grams of carbohydrate with 1.68 grams as fiber, and 11.1 grams of protein. Enriched flour means that certain nutrients are added back after wheat flour is refined. As such, an enriched bagel can provide a decent percentage of the daily target for B vitamins, as well as iron.
There's no one way to make a bagel, and the ingredients can vary significantly. Fresh bagels can be prepared simply from flour, yeast, sugar, salt, and water. But commercial bagels can also contain preservatives, gums, and oils. Bagels can be made with alternative flours—from whole wheat to gluten-free grains, such as rice and buckwheat flour—as well as with grain-free options, like potato, cassava, and almond flours. Bagel add-ins can also vary widely, from cinnamon and raisins to veggies, seeds, and more. The protein content of a bagel can also be bolstered by ingredients like wheat gluten, pea protein, or eggs, which can also reduce carb content.
As for the healthfulness of a bagel, the best way to gauge it, in my opinion, is to read the ingredient list. It's the easiest way to compare bagels to each other, avoid things you may be sensitive to, and seek out options made with simple, whole food ingredients. These days you can find bagels that meet nearly any special diet, including vegan and allergen-friendly choices.
Bagels and carbs
The denseness of a bagel sets it apart from airy bread and English muffins. But that density also means that a bagel generally packs more carbs than its doughy counterparts. The 55 grams of carb in a standard medium bagel are equivalent to nearly four standard sizes slices of bread. That's a lot in one meal for most women, unless your energy needs are higher due to being younger, taller, more muscular, having a physically demanding job, or being more active. If your fuel needs aren't so high, enjoy half a bagel, or go with a smaller or thinner bagel to avoid carb overload.
What you put on your bagel matters
Pair a bagel with either protein or fat to slow the digestion of its carbs. This results in a slower, lower rise in blood sugar and insulin and more even, sustained energy over a longer period of time. For example, an open-faced bagel can be used in place of bread to make avocado toast. For extra nutrients, top it with veggies like sliced cucumber, tomato, onion, and spinach. Other spreads for healthful fat, nutrients, and antioxidants include nut or seed butter, olive tapenade, and nut-based cheeses like almond-based cream cheese, almond-based ricotta, or spreadable cashew cheese. Hummus also makes a nutritious bagel spread. If you eat animal protein, then smoked salmon; a sliced, hard-boiled, pasture-raised egg; or organic cottage cheese are all lean, nutrient-rich options you can top your bagel with.
The healthfulness of any food really depends on its ingredients, how you balance it, and how often you eat it. If tucking into a whole bagel loaded with cream cheese is one of your can't-live-without favorites, enjoy it as an occasional splurge. If you eat bagels on the regular, go for ones made with simple, whole food ingredients like whole wheat flour over refined wheat, gluten-free whole grains, or grain-free flours that provide nutrient-rich carbs. Balance it with healthful protein and/or fat and, when possible, veggies—the same strategies you'd apply to any other carb-rich food, like rice or pasta.
I rarely eat bagels these days, but when I do, my go-to is half of a toasted gluten-free vegan onion bagel from a local bakery, topped with avocado, sprouted pumpkin seeds and fresh veggies. Healthy eating isn't a zero sum game—balance is the win-win.
Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health's contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a private practice performance nutritionist who has consulted for five professional sports teams.
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