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Along with toast and English muffins, bagels have secured a spot as the breakfast carb of choice for many Americans. They’re hearty, cheap, and fast. You can grab a bagel from the grocery store, a hotel continental breakfast, Starbucks, and even food carts on Wall Street in New York City.
And those famous jumbo NYC bagels are no joke: “Many bagels are 4, 5, or even 6 ounces,” says Virginia-based Jill Weisenberger, MS, RDN, CDE, author of Prediabetes: A Complete Guide. “That’s equivalent to 4, 5, or 6 slices of bread.” (Yikes.)
You can’t really talk about how many calories are in a bagel without acknowledging the vast range of bagels to choose from. Oversized bagels from NYC faves like Murray Bagels are going to clock in much higher in calories than smaller grocery store versions that you can actually fit in your toaster.
Plus, you also need to consider the carb content. If a large bagel is really akin to six slices of bread squished together, that’s officially carb overload. While carbs aren’t the enemy, per se, you want to make sure you’re balancing your calories from carbs, fats, and proteins throughout the day. First, just check out the range in calories and carbs when looking at just plain bagels:
The problem here is not necessarily the calories, but the fact that these calories don’t come packaged with many nutritional benefits. Plain bagels are mostly void of fiber, protein, and other nutrients, which makes them more or less empty calories.
The differences in sesame, poppy seed, and everything bagels are pretty insignificant: A sesame bagel at Panera Bread has 300 calories, only 10 more calories than a plain version. You’re basically just adding a small scoop of seeds on top, which doesn’t make a big impact nutrition-wise.
But there are definitely some bagel concoctions that will set you back a little more. Rule of thumb: If the bagel is made with cheese, sugar, or chocolate, it will definitely contain a significantly higher number of calories (as well as sugar or saturated fat—or both). Here are the range of bagels at Panera Bread, for example:
If bagels are a beloved part of your routine but you want to have something a little healthier, you might be tempted to choose bagels with wholesome-sounding names: oat bagels, spelt bagels, multigrain bagels, or whole-wheat bagels. Are these healthier than plain kinds of bagels?
Once again, it depends. (Sigh.)
“It’s tough to make a truly whole-grain bagel with a soft texture and true bagel consistency,” says nutritionist Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN. “As such, it’s tough to really find a bagel that is high in fiber and whole grains.” (Find out how well you actually know whole grains here.)
In many cases, brands and restaurants use a mix of white and whole-wheat flour in order to maintain the pleasant chew that bagels are known for. Or they use unbleached wheat flour (which different from true whole-wheat flour).
“Be suspicious of bagels that say ‘multigrain,’” says Weisenberger. “All that means is that there is more than one grain. It may be that neither one is a whole grain.” Another suspicious phrase is “made with whole grains,” which doesn’t really specify how much—if any—whole grains are actually in the final product. If you can get your hands on an actual whole-wheat bagel, you may reap some health benefits. The best strategy is to find one that says “100% whole-wheat” on the label. Compare the 100% whole-wheat bagel by the Thomas’ brand with its plain bagel:
Choosing a whole-wheat bagel won’t necessarily save you calories; it may even have *more* calories than the plain variety. The perks come not in the calorie department but in the extra fiber and protein.
The other issue with bagels is what you slather on them. Plain cream cheese from the store has about 90 calories in two tablespoons. (And don’t forget the 9 grams of mostly saturated fat.) The thick cream cheese layer many bagel shops pile on can contain two to three times more than that.
Fancy cream cheese flavors like chocolate chip, “birthday cake,” jalapeno cheddar, or even bacon will of course make your cream cheese more indulgent.
A humble spread of butter may seem less indulgent, but it’s not exactly better for you (or your heart). One tablespoon of butter contains 102 calories and 11.5 grams of fat. Like cream cheese, that’s mostly saturated fat, which the American Heart Association warns can raise bad cholesterol levels and increase your risk of heart disease.
Consider branching out to other equally delicious (but more nutritious) options. “Top your bagel with foods filled with healthy fat, protein, or fiber,” says Amidor. Hummus, peanut butter, avocado, eggs, and veggies are tasty and healthful alternatives.
“If you’re watching your weight, choose a small bagel or eat only half,” says Weisenberger. You could find a bagel buddy to share yours with. If you’re on your own, you could hack your way to a smaller bagel. “[Some people] like to scoop out the inside of the bagel, which will decrease the overall calories coming from the carbs,” says Amidor.
Whether you opt for mini bagels, split your bagel with a buddy, scoop out the bagel’s inside, or just go “all in” and enjoy the whole bagel, any food can fit in a healthy diet—if you plan for it. Adjust your calorie intake for the rest of the day, and think of your bagel in the context of what you eat during the whole week.
And let’s be honest: Even if you want to go for it and indulge without making modifications, one jumbo-sized bagel with chocolate chip cream cheese won’t destroy an otherwise healthy diet. These tips may help clean up your everyday breakfast routine: