Are Bagels Healthy? Here's What You Need To Know

The healthfulness of a bagel goes beyond its carb content.

Whether you're in the mood for a savory breakfast sandwich or a sweet mid-day treat, bagels can be whatever you want them to be. For many people, they are the highlight of a quick and easy meal. But are they healthy? The answer is not so black and white.

To get to the bottom of the bagel controversy, it helps to clarify what exactly healthy means. For one, it's not just about how many calories or carbohydrates a food item contains. The answer to how healthy something is depends on your lifestyle, personal health goals, and the rest of your diet.

Read on for a deep dive into bagel nutrition, ingredients, and healthy topping ideas for this iconic breakfast staple. We've also included tips to help you separate more nutritious bagels from those with misleading labels.

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Bagel Nutrition

Bagels come in many forms, from thick "everything bagels" with every seasoning under the sun to thin, plain, wheat, and gluten-free bagels. When considering bagel nutrition, keep in mind that bagels might not be a bad choice for your nutritional goals.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), one basic medium plain bagel made from enriched wheat flour contains the following amounts of nutrients (rounded):

  • 277 calories
  • 1 gram of fat
  • 55 grams of carbohydrates
  • 2 grams of fiber
  • 11 grams of protein

Most bagels go through a refining process while they are being prepared. That process strips away many of the vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber naturally found in wheat. The USDA states that refined grains such as wheat lose much, if not most, of their fiber when refined.

If a bagel is "enriched," some nutrients, like vitamin B and iron, have been added back to the bagel flour after refining. However, much of wheat's healthy phytochemicals (plant nutrients) will never make it back into the final refined product.

Bagels and Carbohydrates

A certain stigma surrounds carbohydrates—that they should be avoided at all costs if you are trying to lose weight. But that's not entirely true. Carbs are not inherently bad.

Your body needs them. When you eat carbohydrates, your body converts them into glucose (blood sugar), which is then converted into the energy your cells need. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 recommends making carbs 45% to 65% of your daily food intake.

Certain forms of carbohydrates, mainly whole grain and non-starchy varieties, also give you an array of nutrients, including fiber.

Carb Types

But, the type of carb matters. Some carbs are better for your body than others.

Healthy sources of carbs are unprocessed and unrefined, like fruits and vegetables, beans, and whole grains. Including whole grains in your diet may reduce your risk of stroke, cardiovascular disease, and certain cancers. In addition to giving your body energy, healthy carbs are slowly digested, which keeps you full longer.

Unhealthy carbs, however, are rapidly digested and don't have much extra nutrition. Less healthy sources of carbs come from highly processed and refined stuff like white bread, pastries, sodas, and bread made with white flour. Too many of these types of foods can contribute to diabetes, obesity, overweight, and heart disease. Unfortunately, bagels may sometimes fall into the unhealthy carb category.

If counting carbs is helpful for you, remember that a healthy carb intake is not a one-size-fits-all thing. Your ideal intake depends on your energy needs. For example, if you exercise intensely daily or have a physically demanding job, your body will likely need more carbs than someone less active.

Are Whole Grain Bagels Better?

In short, yes. But what makes a grain whole, anyway? A whole grain is made up of three layers:

  • Bran: the fiber-filled outer layer that contains B vitamins and minerals
  • Endosperm: the starchy middle layer that contains some proteins and vitamins
  • Germ: the nutrient-rich core, packed with B and E vitamins, phytochemicals, and healthy fats

In comparison, when the grain is refined, the bran and the germ are stripped away along with all the nutrients they provide. That leaves nothing but the starchy endosperm.

In a perfect world, finding a whole-grain bagel means finding a product label that reads "whole grain." However, some researchers have found that foods labeled whole grain are not as healthy as they are marketed.

A product may be made of mostly refined flour but have "made with whole grain" on the label, for instance. But for a product to truly be considered whole grain, it must meet the following USDA criteria:

  • "Whole grain" must be listed as the first grain ingredient on the package label.
  • "Added sugars" must not be one of the first three ingredients.
  • The word "whole" must come before any grain ingredient listed.
  • The product must have a carbohydrate-to-fiber ratio of less than 10 to 1.
  • The product's label must have the USDA Whole Grain Stamp.

Next time you hit the market, pick a few bagel options, then inspect their labels closely. You might be surprised that your usual favorites aren't as wholesome as they taste.

Bagel Ingredients

Let's say you decide to make a bagel at home. All you need is flour, yeast, sugar, salt, water, and other spices you choose for flavor. As far as commercial bagels go, there's much more involved than what meets the eye.

Your typical commercial bagel often contains preservatives, gums, oils, and other hard-to-pronounce stuff. To know precisely what you are biting into, you'll need to study the ingredients list closely. This is the easiest way to avoid things you may be sensitive to and seek options made with simple, whole-food ingredients.

On the bright side, you can find a bagel that suits almost any particular diet, including:

  • Sesame-free, nut-free, and other allergen-friendly bagels
  • Gluten-free bagels made with rice flour or buckwheat flour
  • Grain-free bagels made with potato flour, cassava flour, or almond flour

If you're watching your carb intake, keep your eyes open for bagels with added protein, such as wheat gluten, pea protein, or eggs. Bagels with added proteins sometimes have a slightly lower carb content than a standard refined bagel.

What You Put on Your Bagel Matters

Healthy carbohydrates digest slowly, resulting in a gradual rise in blood sugar and insulin and, more even, sustained energy over a longer period. On the other hand, unhealthy carbs digest quickly, causing a spike in blood sugar, followed by a short burst of energy that can just as quickly leave you feeling drained.

The good news is that pairing your bagel with healthier carbs, proteins, and healthy fats can help slow digestion. Here are some healthy topping ideas:

  • Add veggies like cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, spinach, or sprouts for extra nutrients.
  • Try nut or seed butter, olive tapenade, or hummus for healthy fats and antioxidants.
  • Nut-based cheeses, like almond-based cream cheese or spreadable cashew cheese, are also rich in healthy fats.
  • Animal protein, smoked salmon, organic cream cheese, or a sliced, hard-boiled, pasture-raised egg are all lean, nutrient-rich options.

A Quick Review

All in all, bagels aren't the best thing you can eat for breakfast, but they don't have to be the worst. If you eat bagels on the regular, choose those made from whole grain and simple, whole food ingredients.

If you are running out the door and a refined bagel is all you have, there's no need to stress. As long as you are not overdoing it by only eating unhealthy carb sources, a little refined bagel here and there shouldn't hurt—especially if it's topped with some fresh veggies, healthy fats, or lean protein.

As always, the important thing is that you listen to your body. If you feel like no matter how many healthy carbs you eat, you can't seem to meet your health goals, speak with a nutritionist or healthcare provider.

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