Bagels are a breakfast mainstay for many people. It’s hard to resist a chewy bagel (plain or toasted), maybe slathered with a spread of cream cheese. But bagels are also a guilty pleasure, too. They’re not exactly low in calories, for one, and if you reach for the chocolate chip, cinnamon raisin, or sesame versions (in addition to cream cheese, butter, or peanut butter), the calorie count can be off the charts. People with diabetes may be told to avoid bagels altogether because along with the calories come the carbs. Are bagels as bad as they’re made out to be? And do you really need to avoid them if you have diabetes?
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History of bagels
Many people grew up eating bagels. Legend has it that this food dates back to 1610. And before that, a precursor to the bagel — a Polish bread called obwarzanek — dates back to 1394, according to the Smithsonian magazine.
The website History.com tells us that, “Americans have enjoyed bagels for about 100 years,” thanks to Polish Jews introducing them to New York’s Lower East Side in the early 20th century. But, as with many foods, bagels differ based on region. New York bagels “back then” were small by today’s standards (about 2 to 3 ounces), were boiled in water with added lye or malt to give them that perfect crust, and were then baked in an oven. In Montreal, bagels are smaller with a larger hole, and the dough contains egg and honey. These bagels are baked in a wood-fired oven to add texture and flavor.
The Lenders family introduced bagels commercially back in the 1970s, marketing their frozen bagels that were bought by Kraft Foods in 1984 (a perfect pairing with their Philadelphia cream cheese!). Since then, bagels have taken off nationwide.
How bagels are made
If you’re a fan, you can spot a bagel a mile away. It’s round with a hole in the middle — in fact, the word “bagel” means “bracelet” in German. Bagel dough contains yeast, flour, sugar, salt, and water (commercial bagels can contain preservatives and other ingredients). Other ingredients may be added, such as raisins and cinnamon, fruit, seeds, chocolate chips, and more. Toppings like nuts and seeds can be added, too. The dough is kneaded and shaped into that famous circle; from there, the bagel is boiled and then baked.
Bagels are chewy and dense, a far cry from their lighter counterparts, such as bread and English muffins. Their denseness plus their size equates with high calories and carbs that, in turn can spell issues with diabetes management.
One medium plain bagel, which is 3.5 inches in diameter and weighs about 4 ounces, contains:
- 288 calories
- 1.7 grams of fat
- 0.2 grams of saturated fat
- 56 grams of carbohydrate
- 2 grams of fiber
- 11 grams of protein
- 561 milligrams of sodium
Those 56 grams (almost 60 grams) may be your total carb gram goal for your meal (maybe even more). For some perspective, consuming those 56 grams is like eating four one-ounce slices of bread. Keep in mind, too, that some of the oversized bagels that you see (and eat) can weigh 5 or 6 ounces, coming in at 400 or 500 calories and 70 or 90 grams of carb, respectively. That’s without any toppings, by the way.
But the fun doesn’t stop here: Bagels can be pretty high in sodium. A medium bagel can use up a sizeable chunk of your daily sodium allotment of 2,300 milligrams.
Bagels aren’t typically too high in fat, but again, spreading on that cream cheese or butter can jack up the saturated fat content.
Finally, many bagels are made with refined flour, which is lacking in fiber and has a higher glycemic effect (meaning, it may bring up blood sugars faster) than whole-grain flour. So, the overall effect of that delicious bagel may be to send your blood sugars soaring.
Making bagels work for you
Your favorite bagel may not meet the requirements for a low-carb or keto eating plan, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy a bagel now and then. Here are some tips for choosing a bagel and toppings that A) won’t wreak havoc with your blood sugars and B) won’t tip the scale:
- Choose a healthier bagel made with whole-wheat or whole-grain flour. A whole-wheat or whole-grain bagel will have closer to 5 grams of fiber versus the 2 grams of fiber in a plain bagel.
- Skip the sweet flavors. Raisins, fruit, or chocolate chips add extra calories and carbs that you don’t need. You’re better off with a plain whole-grain bagel or at least one with spices, seeds, or nuts.
- Watch the size. If you can find it, go for a smaller bagel. You might even find mini bagels. Otherwise, split the bagel in half and just eat one half (be generous and share the other half with a friend!).
- Use toppings and spreads with caution. Two tablespoons of cream cheese add another 100 calories; one tablespoon of butter adds the same. Plus, these toppings contain saturated fat. Healthier options are nut butter, hummus, avocado, smoked salmon, or an egg. Of course, you can use less of the cream cheese or butter, or use light cream cheese or butter, too.
- Monitor your glucose levels after eating a bagel to learn the effects on your blood sugars.
- Go for a walk after eating your bagel. Or do another type of physical activity. Doing so can help offset or at least lessen the rise in your blood sugars.
Want to learn more about eating well? Read “Strategies for Healthy Eating,” “Improving Your Recipes: One Step at a Time,” and “Easy Ways to Eat Better.”