Are Bagels Good or Bad?

A hot and chewy bagel with a schmear of cream cheese makes any breakfast or brunch complete. But why stop there? You have countless options to dress a bagel for lunch or dinner, too. Just be sure to choose healthy bagel toppings and whole-grain bagels to keep your meal in the "good zone."

Bagels made with refined flour are bad for you, but bagels made with whole grains are healthy.
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Bagels made with refined flour could be bad for you if you eat them in overabundance, but bagels made with whole grains are healthy.

Good Versus Bad Bagels

A bagel is only as healthy as the ingredients it contains. The typical bagel recipe contains water, yeast, flour, sugar and salt. Nothing shocking there, but potentially a few red flags.

The first one is the flour, which is, essentially, most of the bagel. The majority of bagels you find in delis or supermarkets are made with white, refined flour. During processing, whole wheat is milled, which removes its outer hull, or bran, and the germ, leaving behind only the starchy endosperm.

This process makes the flour finer and more shelf-stable, but it also removes much of the nutrients of the whole grain, including fiber, vitamins and minerals. While white flour can be "enriched" with synthetic vitamins and minerals, the fiber cannot be added back in. Whole wheat flour has more than three times as much fiber as white flour, according to USDA data.

Fiber slows the digestion of sugars and starches, which helps regulate blood sugar levels. Fluctuating blood sugar can lead to hunger soon after eating, which can make it hard to control your weight. Regular consumption of refined grains has been linked with obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease, according to a research review published in the BMJ in June 2018.

Fiber plays other important roles in human health, including normalizing bowel function, preventing some digestive diseases, lowering cholesterol and aiding weight maintenance. In general, foods that are higher in fiber are more satiating, according to a study in the Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism in January 2019, which means you can eat less of them while still feeling satisfied. This helps you control your calorie intake.

Read more: The Right Serving Size for Nuts and Seeds

Make or Break Your Bagel

Smaller but still significant contributions come from the salt and sugar in a bagel. A plain white or whole wheat bagel has around 450 milligrams of sodium. Sodium is an essential mineral that you need in small amounts; however, too much sodium in the diet can cause high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke.

For this reason, the American Heart Association recommends a maximum daily intake of 2,300 milligrams. However, it suggests that an ideal limit is 1,500 for most adults. One bagel would constitute 20 percent of the maximum limit and one-third of the ideal limit. However, depending on what you top your bagel with, that number could increase to close to or past those recommendations.

Added sugars are another concern because, like refined grains, eating too many can lead to obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that adults limit their intake of added sugars to 10 percent of daily calories. One white bagel has almost 9 grams of added sugar, which equals 36 calories. If you eat 1,800 calories per day, one bagel provides 20 percent of your daily limit.

Keep in mind that these numbers are for plain bagels. Choose a cheese bagel, a cinnamon-raisin bagel or another flavor, and you could increase your salt or added sugar intake exponentially.

Read more: List of Easily Digestible Low-Fiber Foods

Healthy Bagel Toppings

Almost no one eats just a plain bagel. The most popular toppings include plain or flavored cream cheeses, which are high in fat, calories and sodium, and are sometimes sweetened with added sugars. Salmon lox is another common topping and very high in sodium with 570 milligrams per ounce.

If you're going to eat healthy bagels, a recipe that includes whole-grain whenever possible is a better choice. Also, look for healthy bagel brands lower in added sugar and sodium. Next, it's important to choose healthy bagel toppings. Keep your bagel with cream cheese calories in check by watching your serving size. One serving of cream cheese is 2 tablespoons — that's 1 tablespoon for each half.

You can also substitute low-fat plain Greek yogurt for cream cheese, which has about one-quarter the calories per tablespoon of cream cheese. Skip the sweetened cream cheese and instead top your bagel with thinly sliced fresh fruit, such as strawberries.

Other healthy bagel toppings include low-sodium, low-fat tuna salad with chopped carrots and celery, thinly sliced avocado with a poached egg, thin slices of grilled chicken breast with lettuce, tomato and a balsamic vinaigrette, and pesto, tomato and turkey.

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