It's often said that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but people usually don't make it the nutrient and protein-packed dining experience that it probably should be. In fact, three of the most popular breakfast options in America – bagels, muffins and doughnuts – are hardly what you'd call healthy or waistline-friendly. Still, sometimes they're the easiest options when a person is on the go or forced to make do with the breakroom offerings at work.
So, if you're wondering how they rank in terms of nutritional value, we talked to some experts to find out which to select and which to skip. For the purpose of consistency, we compared three treats from the same place. Obviously, nutritional profiles vary depending on the particular recipe.
(Note: The USDA recommends you should consume less than 20 grams of saturated fat, 225 to 325 grams of carbohydrates, less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium, and less than 50 grams [12 teaspoons] of added sugar, assuming a 2,000 calorie-a-day diet. All these totals should be less if you're trying to lose weight.)
The Best: Bagel
Sample: Dunkin' Donuts Plain Bagel
300 calories, 0 grams saturated fat, 620 mg sodium, 64 grams carbs, 7 grams sugar
One bagel is the equivalent of a whopping four slices of bread, according to Joelle Malinowski, registered dietician with the New York State Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Still, it boasts one important distinction over its muffin and doughnut counterparts: "Bagels rarely have much added sugar, whereas muffins and doughnuts are sweetened with refined sugars that are detrimental to our health if we consume large amounts consistently," says Diana Gariglio-Clelland, registered dietician with Balance One Supplements in an email.
It's also easier to re-route a bagel into somewhat good territory by adding the right toppings. "Bagels are high in carbohydrates but usually lacking protein and fat," says Gariglio-Clelland "By adding peanut butter (protein) or cream cheese (fat), the body will break down the carbohydrates more slowly, which can lead to feeling fuller longer and minimizing blood sugar and energy spikes and crashes."
Dunkin's menu doesn't currently list whole wheat bagels as an option, but if you're in a place that stocks them, definitely make that selection. "When you choose whole wheat, you get heart healthy fats, some protein and fiber too, which you usually don't find in a doughnut or muffin," explains nutrition coach and R.D. Emily Tills in an email. Don't be fooled by misleading verbiage, however. "Skip the multigrain bagel, because it is typically just a plain bagel with seeds and grains mixed in."
The Middle: Doughnut
280 calories, 7 grams saturated fat, 340 mg sodium, 31 grams carbs, 13 grams sugar
Although a doughnut often has less calories than a bagel, it is usually smaller and less dense, so most people eat more than one, significantly wrecking their day, nutritionally speaking. And even that disclaimer about doughnuts having less calories depends a lot on which one you choose. For example, one Dunkin' plain glazed doughnut is 260 calories, whereas a Bismark (filled with pastry cream) will run you 490 calories.
Some experts have a tough time finding any redeeming qualities in doughnuts. "No matter the type of flour used, whole wheat versus white, or if they're baked over fried, it is just difficult to create a healthy doughnut," says nutritionist Lisa Richards. Still if you stick to the ones with less calories (and eat just one), you might partially mitigate the health damage.
The Worst: Muffin
Sample: Dunkin' Donuts Blueberry Muffin
460 calories, 3 grams saturated fat, 390 mg sodium, 77 grams carbs, 44 grams sugar
Although somewhat lower in saturated fat than a comparable doughnut, the blueberry muffin comes totally undone thanks to a huge sugar content. Gariglio-Clelland points out that just one of these bad boys will swiftly wreck a person's sugar intake for an entire day, as the USDA's 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines recommend limiting added sugar intake to 200 calories daily, which is about 50 grams worth. "However, I actually suggest people opt for a lower amount recommended by the American Heart Association, which is 25 grams or less per day for women and 38 grams or less per day for men," she adds. So, the muffin would let you consume a lot more added sugar than the doughnut. Malinowski adds that a muffin may be equal to eating three slices of bread.
But a muffin could be redeemed if made at home. "Muffins can easily be made with flax or chia seeds, walnuts, and raisins in addition to many more additions that bulk up the nutrient quality of this quick breakfast item," says Richards.