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 made into whatever you want them to be. For many people, they are the highlight of a quick and easy meal. But when it comes to whether or not bagels are 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. And furthermore, the answer to how healthy something is can be quite subjective—it depends on your lifestyle, your personal health goals, and the rest of your diet.

This article takes a deep dive into bagel nutrition, bagel ingredients, and healthy topping ideas for this iconic breakfast staple. It also includes tips to help you separate healthier 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 bagels that are thin and plain, wheat, and gluten-free. So when considering bagel nutrition, you'll have to keep this in mind; Some bagels might be a better choice for you than others.

In terms of your basic bagel, according to the US Department of Agriculture, one medium plain bagel (3.5 to 4 inches in diameter) made from enriched wheat flour contains the following:

  • 277 calories
  • 1.39 grams of fat
  • 55 grams of carbohydrates
  • 1.68 grams of fiber
  • 11.1 grams of protein

Most bagels go through a refining process while they are being prepared. That process strips away many vitamins, minerals, and dietary fibers that are naturally found in wheat. The University of Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health states that more than half of wheat's B vitamins, 90% of vitamin E, and virtually all of its fiber content are lost during the refining process.

If a bagel is "enriched," some of those nutrients, like vitamin B and iron, are added back into the bagel once it's refined. However, the vast majority 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. In the words of the University of Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health, "The amount of carbohydrates in the diet—high or low—is less important than the type of carbohydrate."

Carbs are not inherently bad. In fact, your body needs them. When you eat carbohydrates, your body converts them into glucose (blood sugar), which is then converted into the energy that your cells need to function. But here's where the type of carb matters, because there is a difference between healthy and unhealthy sources of carbs.

In addition to giving your body energy, healthy carbs are slowly digested, allowing them to deliver vital nutrients throughout your body. According to a 2018 review in the journal Science of Politics and Nutrition, including healthy whole grains in your diet may actually reduce your risk of stroke, cardiovascular disease, and certain cancers. Healthy sources of carbs are those that are unprocessed and unrefined, like fruits and vegetables, beans, and whole grains.

This sits in contrast to unhealthy carbs, the University of Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health says, which are too rapidly digested to do your body any good. Instead, they promote heart disease and diabetes and can make it more difficult for you to lose weight. Unhealthy sources of carbs come from stuff that is highly processed and refined, like white bread, pastries, and sodas. Unfortunately, bagels often 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 can depend quite a bit on your energy needs. For example, if you are exercising vigorously each day or have a physically demanding job, your body will likely crave more carbs than someone who is considerably less active.

Are Whole Grain Bagels Better?

In short, yes. But what makes a grain whole, anyway? The University of Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health says that 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 a grain is refined, the bran and the germ are stripped away along with all the nutrients they provide, leaving nothing but the starchy endosperm.

In a perfect world, finding a whole grain bagel would simply meaning finding a product label that reads "whole grain." However, a 2013 study published in the journal Public Health Nutrition found that foods labeled as whole grain are not always as healthy as they are marketed to be.

In order for a product to be considered whole grain, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says it must meet the following criteria:

  • "Whole grain" must be listed as the first 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 to find 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 would really need to pull this off is flour, yeast, sugar, salt, water, and whatever other spices you choose to flavor it with. As far as commercial bagels go, however, there's a lot more involved than what meets the eye.

Your typical commercial bagel often contains preservatives, gums, oils, and a whole bunch of other hard-to-pronounce stuff. If you want to know exactly 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 out options made with simple, whole food ingredients.

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

  • Plant-based bagels, which pair nicely with vegan cream cheese
  • 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

For those of you 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 your standard refined bagel.

What You Put On Your Bagel Matters

According to a 2019 article published in the journal Nutrients, healthy carbohydrates digest slowly, resulting in a gradual rise in blood sugar and insulin, and more even, sustained energy over a longer period of time. 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:

  • For extra nutrients, try adding some veggies like cucumbers, tomatoes, onion, spinach, or sprouts.
  • For healthy fats and antioxidants, try some nut or seed butter, olive tapenade, or hummus.
  • Nut-based cheeses, like almond-based cream cheese or spreadable cashew cheese are also rich with healthy fats.
  • If you eat animal protein, smoked salmon, organic cream cheese, or a sliced, hard-boiled, pasture-raised egg are all lean, nutrient-rich options.

Bottom Line

All in all, bagels aren't the best thing you can eat for breakfast, but they don't have to be the worst thing, either. If you eat bagels on the regular, choosing those made from simple, whole food ingredients is going to be a win-win.

With that being said, 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, and/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 just can't seem to meet your health goals, then speaking with your healthcare provider or a nutritionist can never hurt.

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