Granola, a favorite among adventurers and nature enthusiasts, has gained a reputation for being a healthy snack. With words like “pure” and “natural” emblazoned on its packaging, it’s no wonder that people gravitate towards it in health food stores and organic supermarkets. But is granola really as healthy as it seems? Let’s dive deep into what the experts have to say about this beloved nutty snack.
What Exactly is Granola Made of?
According to registered dietitian Cynthia Sass, granola doesn’t have a standard formula. Its healthiness depends largely on the ingredients and the way it’s made. Typically, granola is made from whole oats, nuts or seeds, and dried fruit.
Oats are rich in fiber, which can help lower cholesterol levels. Nancy Clark, a sports nutrition counselor, notes that nuts provide healthy fats, while dried fruits contain potassium, an essential electrolyte for bodily functions. However, the amount of nuts and dried fruit in most granola products may not be sufficient to offer significant benefits.
Furthermore, granola is a carb-heavy treat. Clark explains that for active individuals, granola is a great source of carbohydrates that fuel the muscles and provide energy throughout the day. Grains, in general, are excellent for athletes looking to power their muscles.
It’s worth noting that granola often contains sticky sweeteners to bind the ingredients together. This can increase the sugar content of granola, a factor to consider if you’re mindful of your sugar intake. Additionally, be mindful of the calorie content, as a bowl of granola can be quite calorie-dense, sometimes containing as much as 240 calories per half a cup.
What Should You Look for in Granola?
The first step in choosing a healthy granola is examining the ingredient list. As Sass advises, the higher up on the list a sweetener appears, the more sugar it probably contains. Watch out for added sugars, which can masquerade under various names such as high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), honey, maple syrup, and more.
Sass suggests avoiding anything artificial or ingredients that are unfamiliar. Ideally, the ingredient list of a granola package should resemble a recipe you could have made yourself in your own kitchen.
Consider your dietary restrictions as well. If you follow a grain-free or Paleo diet, there are grain-free granolas available made with nuts and seeds. However, keep in mind that grain-free options lack the carb load that regular granola provides for optimal performance.
When selecting granola, aim for options that are trans fat-free and low in saturated fat. Excessive saturated fat consumption, often found in granola containing coconut or certain oils, has been linked to increased levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol and heart disease, according to the American Heart Association.
What Constitutes a Serving Size of Granola?
The serving size of granola can vary by brand, but typically, a portion of granola is around 1/3 cup, which is about the size of one-third of a tennis ball, as stated by Sass. This means that indulging in a large bowl of granola for breakfast is excessive.
The appropriate serving size depends on your energy needs, which can vary depending on factors such as your gender, activity levels, and age. It’s best to listen to your body and consume an amount that leaves you satisfied but not overly full. If you’d like a rough estimate of what a portion should look like, measuring out a serving can be helpful.
The Healthiest Way to Enjoy Granola
Once you’ve selected a brand and portion size that you’re comfortable with, there are ways to enhance the nutritional value of your granola. Sports nutrition counselor Nancy Clark suggests eating granola with milk or yogurt and adding berries, bananas, and an extra handful of nuts or pumpkin seeds.
For a healthy snack, Sass recommends pairing 1/3 cup or less of granola with almond milk, or enjoying it with fresh berries alongside a protein source like grass-fed organic Greek yogurt or eggs.
For athletes who burn a substantial number of calories throughout the day, a bowl of granola can provide a much-needed energy boost. Sass suggests opting for a higher-carb granola made with oats, a sweetener like honey or maple syrup, and fruit, which would be an ideal fuel source for extended physical activities such as hikes or bike rides. For those with less active lifestyles, a small portion of grain-free granola made with nuts and seeds and containing less sweetener could serve as a satisfying snack during less demanding hours, such as an afternoon of office or computer work.
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