Here’s How to Make Granola Healthy Again

Whether you sprinkle it on yogurt or enjoy it by the handful, granola is a staple in many kitchens. With a base of whole oats, granola can be a very healthy option…but that’s not always the case. It really depends how the oats are prepared, what’s added to them and how much granola you eat.

Here's How to Make Granola Healthy Again

Variations of granola began in the mid-1800s, when food pioneers such as Dr. John Kellogg (yup, that Kellogg) and Charles Post (Post cereals) experimented with toasting different whole grains. Corn Flakes and Grape Nuts came from those early experiments, but true granola fell out of favor until it was rediscovered in the 1970s.

Enter the hippie movement. Free thinkers loved the concept of a cereal that could be made with a range of different ingredients depending on their mood — and they loved the health benefits of eating granola too. Granola has remained a staple, and continues to be popular today.

Granola can range from a nutritious, crunchy breakfast option to a sugar-and fat-laden junk food. Whether you buy it ready-made or are baking your own, here are some things to consider:

Granola’s Health Benefits and Drawbacks

1. Calories in Granola

Granola is typically a combination of whole grains, oil, sweetener, nuts and dried fruit. Because of these ingredients, it packs a lot of calories into a small serving size. Be cognizant of your portions. The Nutrition Facts panel for most types of granola is for 1/2 cup, which usually has about 200-265 calories (compare that to 1/2 cup of Rice Krispies, which has just 55 calories). Bottom line: It’s a small amount of food with a ton of calories.

Granola is a nutrient-dense food, meaning that with each bite you get some protein, healthy fats, fiber, vitamins or minerals. But you also get sugar and fat, so make sure you stay at an appropriate portion size. Better yet, forget the 1/2 cup advice on the Nutrition Facts panel and cut the portion to just 1/4 cup, then combine with Greek yogurt and granola with fresh fruit for a knock-out nutritious breakfast combo.

2. Grains in Granola

Granola is usually made with whole oats. This is a great start, since oats are high in a type of soluble fiber called beta glucan, which is known to help lower cholesterol levels. Other grains may be added, including wheat or barley flakes, puffed rice, amaranth and quinoa. To ensure your granola is a source of fiber, make or buy one with whole grains, rather than those that contain refined wheat, rice flour or corn starch. Some low-carb granolas contain no grains at all! They’re made with nuts, seeds, coconut and dried fruit (less carb, more fat).

3. Granola Sweetner, Oils and Healthy Fats

In order for oats to clump together, they need some adhesive. That “glue” comes from oils and sweeteners like honey and maple syrup. They’re not the healthiest part of granola, but they are necessary in some small amount. In an effort to create a healthier granola, you may be tempted to reduce both oil and sweeteners. You can, but you’ll end up with a baking sheet filled with toasted rolled oats. Yummy, but not granola. If you love granola, enjoy the real thing in smaller quantities. Of course, low-fat granola is available, but it’s higher in sugar.

It doesn’t matter whether your granola is made with honey, maple syrup, agave, brown sugar or rice syrup. Sugar is sugar, and too much of it is a bad idea. Choose granola with no more than 8-10 grams (about two teaspoons) of sugar per half-cup serving. If you’re making your own at home, experiment with how much sweetener to add. My go-to ratio is 3 cups of oats to 1/3 cup of honey or maple syrup.

For homemade granola, try canola oil, extra virgin olive oil or avocado oil. All contain heart-healthy monounsaturated fats and withstand high baking temperatures. This isn’t the time for oils with a low smoke point, such as flax oil or hemp oil. And while coconut oil holds heat well, it’s not the healthiest fat profile, since it’s high in saturated fat. It’s not bad, but it’s not great.

4. Fun Additions and Healthy Toppings

This is the anything goes part. Nuts, seeds, coconut flakes and dried fruit are all common, but the more you add, the more calories your granola will contain. Draw the line at chocolate though — that takes granola from cereal to treat. If your granola is made with oil and packed with nuts and seeds, don’t be surprised if it has 10 grams of fat per 1/2 cup serving. That adds a bunch of calories, but these are heart-healthy fats in monitored portions, so that’s okay. Just remember: portion control, portion control, portion control.

So…as an addition to trail mix, a salad topper (seriously, try it!), on yogurt or with milk, a small portion of granola is a great way to add whole grains, nuts and seeds to your diet. But draw the line when it becomes chocolate-laden, coconut oil-based oat candy!

Here are four recipes to try because they’re controlled for sugar:

Coconutty Granola from Nourishing Plate

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An easy go-to granola recipe that you can adjust to your taste by changing the nuts, dried fruits and spices.

Healthy Homemade Granola from Liz’s Healthy Table

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This low-sugar granola gets its sweetness from brown sugar and raisins while walnuts provide a boost of omega-3 fatty acids.

Dark Chocolate, Coconut and Almond Granola from Rachel Hartley Nutrition

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This low-sugar granola recipe features antioxidant-rich dark chocolate, and is lightly sweetened with mashed banana and honey.

Healthy Homemade Granola from Zest Nutrition

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The almonds, walnuts and pumpkin seeds in this recipe give this granola its protein and fiber.

About the Writer

Cara Rosenbloom

Cara is a Toronto-based registered dietitian, writer and recipe developer. She’s the co-author of the best-selling cookbook Nourish: Whole Food Recipes featuring Seeds, Nuts and Beans (Whitecap, 2016) and writes a health column for the the Washington Post.

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