“They’re pretty much white flour and some salt,” says Dana Hunnes, dietitian at UCLA Medical Center and author of Recipe for Survival: What You Can Do to Live a Healthier and More Environmentally Friendly Life. If sugary snacks are unhealthy, pretzels are null, nothing more than empty calories. (Though, if you eat too many, all that salt can be bad for your heart.)
But there’s more to the story.
For one, there are many kinds of pretzels, and which you snack on matters if you’re concerned about your health. Among the healthier options, pretzels filled with sugar-free peanut butter — which have both protein and healthy fats — are a balanced option. Then there are whole-grain pretzels that lend some fiber, which is good for your gut. On the more harmful end of the spectrum, chocolate-covered pretzels and soft pretzels deliver large loads of sugar.
Of course, the number of pretzels you drown your sorrows in is important, too. About 16 hard pretzels is around 380 calories — a respectable amount for a decent snack — and a single soft pretzel should land you near there as well. More than that won’t kill you, but the calories will continue to add up, and keep in mind that some brands have nearly a day’s supply of sodium. So if you’re eating a bag a day, that’s when you begin risking your heart’s long-term health.
But beyond the realm of protein, sugar, calories and fats, pretzels pose a unique challenge as a snack that has the potential to increase their healthiness: Snacking on a pretzel is “like eating art,” says Renee, a 75-year-old “lifelong pretzel enthusiast” in Seattle. Unless you’re dealing with a one-bite pretzel, you’re required to work your way through it, slowly pulling the pieces apart. This is potentially helpful for your health, because the slower you eat, the less likely you are to fill up on excess calories.
Renee also mentions that, because of their high salt content, pretzels may be a decent post-workout snack, and she’s not wrong: Salt helps your body hold on to essential fluids and electrolytes, and not having enough could result in dehydration or muscle cramps. “A good pretzel just keeps that moisture inside you,” she says. “It’s just lovely.”
So, knowing what we know now, are pretzels a healthy snack? They’re not broccoli, but they’re also not Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. All in all, if you’re a pretzel lover like Renee, you’re more than likely doing just fine.