Growing up involved in organized sports, I had no choice but to assume that bagels were a fundamentally healthy food source. They were available at the concession stand at every swim meet, and offered to us alongside boxes of Hi-C Ecto Cooler after every soccer game. So imagine my surprise when I took a look at the nutritional breakdown of the bagels offered at Einstein Bros. Bagels and made a few eyebrow-raising discoveries.
It isn’t so much that the bagels on the menu average 300 calories before you even start adding spreads and toppings. It has more to do with the sodium content, which averages 500 milligrams for most of the bagels, and can stretch to nearly 1,300 milligrams for things like the pretzel bagel.
To figure out how often we should be eating bagels under any circumstances — as well as to break down their nutrient value — I recently spoke to Duke University Medical Center dietitian Teresa Strzemienski.
How should we think about a bagel from a nutritional perspective?
A bagel is definitely an energy-packed breakfast item, lunch item or snack depending on when you eat it. It’s something where you need to monitor your calories and carbs depending upon the toppings you put on it and how protein is going to be included with it. But it’s something that can definitely be incorporated into your diet.
Is there a particularly healthy way to consume a bagel?
Probably with a little bit of peanut butter as a topping so that you have the addition of a little bit of protein and fat to offset some of the carbs and have a better macronutrient distribution. Or you could top it with some avocado, or even some smoked salmon if you like bagels and lox. That’s going to add a little more onto your calories, but you can offset that with a little exercise, and the protein would be beneficial to you.
What about if I put cream cheese on a bagel?
I wouldn’t categorize a bagel with cream cheese as healthy. There are some allowances you can make in your diet to work it in, but given the macronutrient distribution of a bagel with cream cheese, it wouldn’t be my gold-standard breakfast for a healthy individual who is looking to maintain their calorie goals for the week.
Bagels are all over the place during kids’ athletic events. Do you think bagels are given a presumption of healthiness?
I don’t think so. There are a lot of bagels out there, and it also depends on the size of them. Some bagels are huge, and people are often under the assumption that the whole bagel is one serving when really it’s two. You need to read your labels and follow your hunger cues. If you can get full from half a bagel, stop there. There’s no need to eat the whole thing. From an athletic perspective, though, a bagel can be a good source of fuel and energy after a strenuous and intense workout, and your body does like carbs during its recovery mode.
Is the sodium content of bagels something to be concerned about?
When you see 500 milligrams, that’s a lot of sodium. That’s especially true if you’re looking at that figure before you’re adding any type of topping, whether it’s cream cheese or peanut butter, or other things that add a little additional sodium to it as well. Somebody who is going to be on more of a heart-healthy type of diet is going to be monitoring their sodium, and that’s going to be a quarter to a third of their day’s intake in just that one food item.
When you look at the pretzel bagel, that’s a lot of sodium. Five hundred to 600 milligrams of sodium can be made to work as a meal as long as you’re conscious of your other meals and snacks, but 1,300 milligrams is really high. In some instances, that’s almost 100 percent of your daily intake if you’re following a low-sodium diet for hypertension or cardiac disease.
So is a bagel something you’d ever recommend to someone?
A bagel doesn’t pop up first on my list as the sorts of things I’d advise someone to eat. When you’re working with patients, you need to understand what their dietary restrictions are and also what food means to them. Food is often associated with family and community, and if a bagel is something you have every Sunday with your family, it certainly can be worked into your diet. As an everyday food, there are other options that can lead you toward a more balanced day or week.
That, of course, brings me to my final — and most important — question: How often should we be eating bagels?
Even one bagel per day is problematic. It also depends on what range of calories and fat you’re looking at for your bagel as well. For your basic bagel, I think one a day, unless you’re really varying the toppings on it, is going to be too high in unrefined carbohydrates unless you’re eating a whole-wheat, multi-grain type of bagel. In most situations, most people aren’t balancing it out very well by having only half of the bagel, or having some sort of protein source like eggs or yogurt with it. And so, I’d say the way an average consumer would eat a bagel every day would be too much.