Bagels Are Our Favorite Breakfast Carb, but Are They Healthy?
Bagels are often treated like calorie and carb bombs in the nutrition world. Touch them, and you might balloon up instantly (especially if they're slathered in cream cheese). But, do they really deserve that reputation?
Pictured recipe: Two-Ingredient-Dough Bagels
Traditionally, bagels are made with wheat flour, salt, water and yeast. What's so bad about that, right? Sometimes sweeteners (like honey or malt syrup) and oil are added. After kneading the dough and shaping it into a circle with a hole in the middle, bagels are boiled and then baked. Sweet or savory seasonings can be added, along with fruit. Here's what you need to know about bagel nutrition, if bagels are really as bad as some people say and how to include them in a healthy diet.
For one medium plain bagel (105 grams or about 3.7 ounces)
Total Fat: 1.5 g
Cholesterol: 0 mg
Sodium: 443 mg
Potassium: 112 mg
Carbohydrates: 55 g
Total sugar: 9 g
Fiber: 1.5 g
Protein: 11 g
A medium bagel has about 275 calories, but most of those calories come from carbs, hence why many people have a love-hate relationship with bagels. One large bagel has 69 grams of carbohydrates. Contrast that with about 40 grams of carbs in two slices of bread. (Learn more about what a healthy serving of carbohydrate looks like.)
For perspective, if you eat 1,700 calories per day, your recommended carb intake would be about 190 to 255 grams of carbs per day, which is around 65 grams per meal. If you have diabetes or are following a lower-calorie diet, it's recommended to eat even fewer carbs—about 45 to 60 grams per meal. One bagel can easily push you over your carb limit. And that's not including spreads or toppings.
But it's not just the number of carbs; carb quality matters too. Bagels are usually made with refined or enriched flour, which lacks the beneficial fiber you'll find in whole grains and complex carbs. This means after you eat a bagel, your blood sugar spikes fairly quickly. That signals the hormone insulin to be released from your pancreas; insulin takes the sugar to your cells for energy.
The good news is you can slow that spike (and avoid fat storage) by choosing a smaller bagel and/or a whole-wheat bagel and pairing it with fat and protein. Speaking of protein, one medium bagel has 11 grams of protein (about what you find in 2 eggs, who knew?).
The healthiest bagels
Multigrain, sesame, everything, cinnamon sugar, Asiago— there are so many bagel flavors to love. But some are healthier than others. If you're picking up bagels at the grocery store, look for whole-wheat or whole-grain flours in the ingredients list and at least 3 to 5 grams of fiber. (You can always make your own healthy homemade bagels.)
Ordering out? Here are some tips for choosing the healthiest bagel:
- Ask for whole-wheat or whole-grain. Compared to 1.5 grams of fiber in a plain bagel, a whole-wheat bagel has 4.5 grams of fiber. Multigrain is a tricky term that usually just means the food has "multiple types of grains," which are not necessarily whole. But according to the USDA Nutrient Database, a multigrain bagel also has 4.5 grams of fiber. It will likely depend on where your bagel is from, so check labels if you can. If you're ordering a bagel from a chain restaurant, you can view the nutrition facts online beforehand.
- Opt for savory instead of sweet. Skip cinnamon-sugar bagels and choose something savory like an everything bagel, which is covered with spices and seeds. Fun fact: Many seeds contain fiber, protein and healthy fats. Sugary bagels add more carbohydrates to the meal, which can spike blood sugar even more.
- Choose a smaller bagel or bagel thin. Smaller bagels won't have any more fiber or protein, but they will have fewer refined carbohydrates and calories. This might not be an option at brunch but you can usually find them at the grocery store. You could also consider eating half a bagel, if the bakery only has giant bagels and you're watching your carbohydrate intake.
- Pair your bagel with protein. Order your bagel with an egg on it. Protein helps slow down the absorption of carbohydrate in your body, because protein takes longer to digest. Another healthy topping option? Nut butters, like peanut butter and almond butter.
Are bagels OK to eat when I'm trying to lose weight?
"Bagels can absolutely fit your weight-loss goals!," says Lauren Smith, M.S., RD, LDN, owner of the Sorority Nutritionist. "If you love bagels and want to lose weight, you're in luck because how many calories you eat matters more than where you get those calories from, when you are first beginning to lose weight. While bagels pack a lot of carbs and are more 'refined,' they can fit a balanced plate when paired with protein and fat."
Related: Best Foods for Weight Loss
A 1,700-calorie diet breaks down to 400 to 500 calories per meal (if you also eat a snack or two). One medium bagel has just 275 calories, so it can definitely fit within that range. To make a balanced meal with bagels for weight loss and blood sugar control, Smith recommends using avocado or peanut butter on top for fat to help slow digestion, keep you full and stabilize blood sugar. Or, she says, "Add smoked salmon for protein to keep you full for longer or use tzatziki for a lower-calorie topping and put cucumbers and tomatoes on top for added veggies."
Smith also recommends these small bagel swaps to save calories:
- Have 1/2 bagel instead of one full bagel, and pair it with extra protein and vegetables to keep your meal more balanced.
- Go for a bagel thin when at the grocery store (instead of a regular bagel).
Healthy bagel toppings
Think beyond cream cheese and butter and try topping your bagel with one of these healthy options.
Avocado - healthy fat
Peanut or almond butter - healthy fat and protein
Smoked salmon - healthy fat and protein
Hummus - protein
Eggs - protein
Veggies - fiber, vitamins, minerals
Tzatziki or plain Greek yogurt - protein
No one food is going to make or break your diet, so go ahead and enjoy a bagel or two every now and again. If you eat bagels regularly, choose whole-grain and pair with veggies, protein and healthy fat to stay full for hours and keep blood sugar stable. We love eggs, avocado and spinach on a toasted everything bagel. If you don't eat bagels often, go ahead and order your favorite kind, slather with cream cheese and enjoy every bite!