Plus, what to look for when shopping for healthy granola.
Earlier this year, the New York Times asked about 700 nutritionists what they consider to be "health food" and compared that info with the responses of 2,000 Americans. Granola was a serious point of contention, with 80 percent of Americans deeming it healthy and only 47 percent of nutritionists agreeing.
So, what is the deal with those tasty clusters? Is granola good for you or not? Read on learn the truth about granola.
The Benefits of Granola
A quick walk down the cereal aisle can make even the savviest shopper believe that granola is healthy. Packages touting whole grains and high fiber content make it seem like a no-brainer addition to your shopping cart. And there are legit benefits. Consider the ingredients that go into your average granola recipe: Whole-grain oats deliver loads of satiating fiber; nuts and seeds offer heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, and dried fruit or coconut offer natural sweetness. When you compare all that goodness to the box of Froot Loops on the shelf nearby, granola looks like the nutrition all-star.
The problem comes when food manufacturers take those good-for-you ingredients and then add tons of sugar—in many cases enough to rival a dessert. "When the companies use a lot of honey or chocolate or yogurt-covered bars, that's when you run the risk of added sugar outweighing the benefits of granola," says registered dietitian Dawn Orsaeo. One variety of peanut butter and dark chocolate granola, for instance, has 15 grams of sugar in a half-cup serving, which is more than the 11 grams of sugar you'll consume in a same-size serving of a popular vanilla ice cream.
Which brings up the next issue with granola: serving size. When you glance at the nutrition label, notice that the suggested serving size is a measly quarter or half cup. More power to you if you can stick to that! But many people eat granola like they would any other cereal, which is a problem because a bowl full of granola is a serious calorie bomb. What starts off as a healthy breakfast could set you back more than 400 calories for just one cup—plus another 50 or so when you add milk. What's more, you may be more likely to overeat foods that are labeled "healthy." A study published in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research determined that people automatically view healthy food as less filling. Feeling or even just thinking that you're less full leads people to go for that second—or third—helping.
Unfortunately for on-the-go snackers, your granola bar could be just as bad. In the New York Times survey, granola bars were the food item that nutritionists and the general public disagreed about the most, with 71 percent of Americans surveyed considering them healthy, while only 28 percent of nutritionists agreed. A study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found caloric sweeteners are packed into more than 95 percent of granola bars, so it's very likely your grab-and-go option is weighing you down. (Yep, foods with added sugar could end up causing weight gain, particularly extra belly fat.)
The Final Word On Granola
Granola has some benefits, but the food quickly veers away from healthy territory when loads of sugars and artificial ingredients are added. So should you stop buying it altogether? Not necessarily, though you should pay close attention to the serving size and the ingredients that go into your granola of choice. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute suggests limiting your granola intake and choosing a low-fat alternative, such as bran flakes, oatmeal, or at least a reduced-fat granola if you can't quit the crunchy breakfast treat. (And just so you know, fat is not bad for you, but all the extra calories can interfere with your weight loss goals.)
Steer clear of granola featuring other sugary ingredients, like chocolate chunks or brown sugar, and look for options with a low sugar count. "Avoid products with sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, or honey in the first five ingredients," says Orsaeo. To keep your portion size in check, use a measuring cup or adjust your approach and think of granola as an add-on to Greek yogurt instead of the entire breakfast bowl itself.
You could also try making a healthy homemade granola recipe at home. Just be sure to monitor how much sweet stuff you're adding—even natural ingredients like maple syrup and honey could significantly inflate the amount of sugar and calories. (This sugar-free granola recipe is a smart option.)