Is Granola Healthy? What You Need to Know

Only the healthiest granola recipes confer certain medical benefits, when eaten in moderation; many store-bought ones do not.

Here’s the short answer to the question, “Is granola healthy?”: Healthy granola, eaten in moderation, is healthy. However, unhealthy granola — which fills the grocery store shelves, often appearing healthy because of words like “organic” or “all-natural” — is just plain unhealthy, especially when consumed excessively. When granola is made with whole grains (typically rolled oats) and nuts, and with a minimal amount of added sugars and only a modest amount of healthy fats, a portion-controlled amount of granola can help you manage your weight, keep your blood sugar and blood pressure in better balance, help mitigate your bad cholesterol (LDL) level and aid your digestion. But when you eat granola that has too much added sugar or saturated fats, or you eat more than a serving size of this calorie-dense food, you’re probably not doing your health any favors.

What type of food is granola?

Before we discuss the pros and cons of various formulations of granola, understand first that while they contain protein and fat as well, granolas are predominantly “high-carbohydrate” foods. So, for some individuals who are following a low-carbohydrate diet, you probably don’t want to rush out and stock up on granola of any type. On the other hand, as we explained in our Confused About Carbohydrates? report, complex carbs that are much higher in fiber and lower on the Glycemic Index (GI) — like many whole fruits, vegetables, nuts, lentils, beans and whole grains (the main ingredient in better granolas)  — can benefit a dietary regimen that also includes lean proteins and healthy fats. How? “High-quality” carbohydrates, according to many studies (including this 2020 meta-analysis), decrease intermediate cardiometabolic risk factors in randomized trials and are associated with weight loss and decreased incidence of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cardiovascular mortality in prospective cohort studies — especially when substituted for refined starches and sugars (low-quality carbohydrate food sources). 

What’s in granola?

The problem (or challenge) is that there are countless formulations of granola. At its healthiest, granola is made with whole grains (oats, typically), nuts and a minimal amount of sweetener and a healthy fat to help toast it in the oven. Homemade varieties with just these ingredients are by far the healthiest. The problem comes when bakers and manufacturers add all sorts of other ingredients: some may be natural (e.g., coconut oil or dried fruits), but that doesn’t mean those ingredients are good for you. Some are just downright unhealthy, particularly when lots of added sugars and/or saturated fats go into the recipe.

Warning: Granola is calorie-dense

Before we examine individual ingredients, as most reports have done, we’d like to raise a fairly obvious but often overlooked point: even compared with other cereals, granola is very calorie-dense. What this means is that a tablespoon of granola has a higher amount of calories than many other foods, and even more than many other breakfast cereals. When it comes to maintaining your health, let’s face it: weight management is a major driver of most health parameters, whether they be metabolic, cardiovascular or otherwise. Nearly 90% of adults with diabetes are overweight or obese, with a body mass index (BMI) over 25, according to a CDC report. And obesity and high BMI are both associated directly with increased risk of cardiovascular disease, as well. 

Cereals are an area where overconsumption is common, and in the case of granola, it’s exceedingly common. Consumer Reports did a food test with 124 consumers, who were asked to pour out their typical amounts of a low-density cereal (Cheerios), a medium-density one (Quaker Oatmeal Squares), and high-density granola (Quaker Simply Oats, Honey, Raisins & Almonds). Ninety-two percent of participants poured more than the recommended serving size of all the cereal types.The denser the cereal, the more they exceeded the serving size. For granola, the average “overpour” was 282 percent. A serving that big means consuming two to four times the calories, fat, and sugars listed on the Nutrition Facts label.

The suggested serving size on granola packages is typically ¼ to ¾ cup. Most typical: ⅓ cup, which is a very small bowl! And that ⅓ cup typically contains over 150 calories, if not more. So if you are overweight or need to restrict your overall caloric consumption to maintain your weight at its present level, eating too much of even the healthiest granolas could pose a problem for you.

The health benefits of granola (in moderation)

Assuming you are consuming a true “serving size” of less than ½ cup of granola each day, and it isn’t loaded with added sugars and fats (see next section), granola can be a part of a healthy diet. Here are some principal benefits, most of which relate to the high fiber content of healthy granolas:

  1. Healthy granola can aid in blood glucose management.

If your granola is made with whole grains, and does not include high levels of added sugars, consumption in moderation may confer benefit in terms of glycemic control, helpful if you have diabetes or are at risk for diabetes. Studies have demonstrated that whole-grain breakfast foods tend to have low GI values that result in day-long lower glycemia than high-GI breakfast foods. Scientists believe that this positive effect on glucose modulation relates directly to the fiber quality and quantity in unrefined whole grains. So check the fiber level of your favorite granola brands: higher (at least 2 grams per ⅓ cup) is better. Learn more about how high-fiber foods benefit your blood glucose management

  1.  Healthy granola can assist in blood pressure management.

Numerous studies have demonstrated that consumption of unrefined whole grains, because they represent a good source of viscous, soluble fiber, can result in an overall lowering effect on systolic blood pressure (SBP) and diastolic blood pressure (DBP), as explained in this 2015 meta-analysis. When your blood pressure is low, you’re at far less risk of many cardiovascular diseases.

  1. Healthy granola can assist your weight management efforts by keeping you full longer while providing protein, healthy fats and certain micronutrients.

Because of its fiber content, together with a modest level of protein and healthy fats (largely from added nuts), you may feel full longer after consuming healthy types of granola as compared with other foods like bagels or breakfast pastries. Furthermore, while the micronutrients in granola may not appear astoundingly rich in quantity, the fiber in whole-grain granola may help you better absorb the iron, magnesium, zinc, copper, selenium, B vitamins, and vitamin E that the granola usually contains.

  1.  Healthy granola may help lower your “bad cholesterol.”

A 2016 study demonstrated that oat β-glucan — found in healthier whole-grain granolas — has a lowering effect on LDL-cholesterol, known medically as one of the “bad cholesterols.” Therefore, study authors concluded that “inclusion of oat-containing foods may be a strategy for achieving targets in cardiovascular disease (CVD)  reduction.” A more recent 2021 review suggests that the phytochemicals in these plant-based whole foods may play a role in the reduced LDL levels. (See our report, What Are Polyphenols?, for further information on the potential antioxidant benefits of foods such as whole grains.) 

  1. Healthy granola may improve your gut health.

Whether it’s the fiber or the polyphenols or both in combination, studies point to increased levels of healthy gut bacteria after consumption of whole-grain cereals compared to cereals made with refined grains. Study authors hypothesize that “prebiotic modulation of the human gut microbiota may thus constitute a previously unrecognized mechanism contributing to the hypocholesterolaemic effects of whole grain oat Granola.” 

When granola turns unhealthy

Too much sugar

Many brands of packaged granola contain added sugars. Even if it’s a “natural” sweetener,” like honey, too much is too much. And sugar can masquerade under names including anhydrous dextrose, corn syrup solids, dextrose, fructose, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), lactose, malt syrup, maltose, maple syrup, molasses, nectars, sucrose and more. Even “organic” brands of granola may list an item like “organic coconut sugar” — which is natural, but it’s just sugar. Others may add dried fruits: sounds OK, right? But although they contain some potentially healthy antioxidants, dried fruits rank high on the GI Index, meaning they can cause a blood sugar spike. So look for granolas with less than 3 grams from added sugars and no more than 8 grams in total sugars. (Since 2020, most food labels now break out “Added Sugars” from “Total Sugars.”)

Learn more about how added sugars can reak havoc on your metabolic health:
Blood Sugar, Diabetes and Inflammation
Confused About Carbohydrates?
The Truth About Processed Foods

Too much unhealthy fat

Some granolas appear healthy because they seem low in added sugars, but they might contain a high level of added fats. Nut-rich granolas may have more than 10 grams of fat, which is a healthy, unsaturated, low-cholesterol type of fat. But if the product lists a high level of “saturated fat,” that’s no doubt from an ingredient other than nuts. Often the culprit is added oils; and, once again, even certain natural oils like coconut oil are saturated and therefore not healthy. (Oils that are monounsaturated or polyunsaturated are healthier.) So look for granolas with less than 3 grams of saturated fat per ⅓ cup.

Too low in fiber

While the fiber content should be decent if the granola says it’s made from “whole grains,” watch out for granolas that have less than 2 grams of fiber per ⅓ cup. They probably aren’t all whole-grain, so may contain refined wheat or other fillers.

What are granola alternatives?

If you’re struggling to find a healthy granola that you actually enjoy eating, or cannot find one that you can eat in moderation, consider other “cereal types” that are minimally processed, such as shredded wheat (which has no added sugar, no sodium, and 6g of fiber) or even puffed cereals, such as puffed wheat, which have little to no added sugar. Or, consider oatmeal (such as quick-cook or steel-cut oats) or whole-grain oat muesli. Or, consider skipping cereals altogether, and instead opt for an egg and a slice of whole-wheat toast spread with a bit of almond butter.

Key takeaways

Healthy granola contains whole grains such as oats and barley, nuts, and very little added sugar and fat. Eaten in moderation, this calorie-dense food can help fill you up, provide energy, and have a positive impact on several important metabolic health indicators (blood glucose, blood pressure, cholesterol, weight). Unfortunately, many of us eat unhealthy granola brands, and we eat them excessively. Paying close attention to food ingredient labels (looking for whole grains, low added sugars, low saturated fats) and watching out for portion sizes can ensure that granola consumption represents a healthy part of a balanced diet. 

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