How to Choose a Healthy Granola
What are the healthiest granola brands you can buy? And what should you look for when choosing store-bought granola? Because let’s be real: there just isn’t always time to make your own lightened-up granola at home. I’ll walk you through how to choose a healthy granola at the grocery store—starting with tuning into your needs, and what “healthy” means for you.
Is granola healthy or unhealthy?
Granola can absolutely be a nutritious choice, but many seemingly healthy granola brands can be deceiving. Most store-bought granolas broadcast health claims on the package, like “gluten-free,” “whole-grain,” or “high-protein.” And some nutrition labels display a small serving size—usually to disguise the added sugar content! Deciphering those labels and health claims can be confusing, so it helps to know what you’re looking for.
But still, even with that added sugar, this doesn’t make granola “bad” for us. Personally, I love some sugary, processed granolas! And sometimes, buying a packaged granola is just more doable than making our own homemade granola from scratch. Rather than stressing out about what’s healthiest, my hope is to help you understand what you’re eating, so you can make an informed choice about what’s right for you.
Tips for Choosing the Healthiest Granola (for YOU)
Anytime we talk about whether a food is “healthy” or not, I find it helpful to remember: “healthy” is subjective! It varies from person to person, it changes at different times in our lives (or in a week), and health is so much more than counting calories and reading nutrition labels.
Our stress levels, our enjoyment, our individual needs, our thoughts & emotions, our relationship to food—all of these factors interact with our health, too. So, here are my suggestions for how to choose the best granola for your unique needs, considering what “healthy” means for you right now.
(1) What is your intention?
What are you looking for in this granola? The word “healthy” often implies “low-calorie, low-sugar, & low-fat”—but is this what you actually want? If it is what you want, great! Tune in to your reason “why:” maybe you have dietary or digestive restrictions, or maybe you’re counting calories at this stage in your journey.
But if you’re choosing the low-calorie, low-sugar, low-fat granola just because you think it’s what’s “healthy,” or out of fear of eating a “bad” granola, I encourage you to get curious about that belief. That granola may meet one particular intention, but it’s not “good” or “healthier” or “better” than any other granola. The best granola is the one that meets your intention—and that option can be higher in calories, sugar, and fat and still be healthy for you!
Maybe you need a more filling or energizing granola for long days, before workouts, or on a road trip. Or maybe you need a sweeter (or savory) or more indulgent granola for a mid-day work snack, or when you’re having a hard day and need some comfort. Maybe you need a granola that you & your kids can all eat, or an option that’s on sale. Whatever your intention might be, get curious about why you want this granola before you start deciphering the packaging and nutrition labels.
(2) Consider dietary restrictions.
What dietary restrictions must be accommodated in whatever granola you choose? Do you need a vegan, paleo, or low-carb granola? This is where those health claims on the package can actually be helpful in narrowing down your search!
Or do you need an option that’s gluten-free, nut-free, soy-free, corn-free, etc.? Be sure to look on the back of the package under the ingredients list to confirm it’s from any of these allergens. Even some options that say “gluten-free” or “nut-free” on the front of the package might be processed on shared equipment, so there’s a risk of cross-contamination. If needed, check that whatever you choose is certified allergen-free.
(3) Read through the ingredients list.
The ingredients list is where you learn what’s actually in the granola you’re choosing. Like most packaged processed foods, many brands of granola are made with processed additives. You’ll often see preservatives listed in the ingredients, but some also contain sneakier additives like high-fructose corn syrup, food starches, soy protein isolate, whey protein—the lists can go on, literally.
Some of these ingredients may conflict with your personal needs. And some of these ingredients may make the granola taste better, last longer, or cost less. Remember, none of these ingredients means a granola is inherently “bad,” but it’s just another factor to be aware of when making the choice that’s right for you.
(4) Check the serving size.
Particularly in the United States, the serving sizes on food packages can be wildly inconsistent and confusing! Some granola brands have a serving size of ¼ cup or ⅓ cup, others have a serving size of ½ cup or ⅔ cup—and some have a serving size as small as a few tablespoons. Clearly, these serving sizes are arbitrary and can’t actually tell any of us how much we “should” eat. But the serving size dictates what the nutrition facts mean, so just consider that made-up “serving” in the context of how much you actually want and need to eat.
(5) Look at added sugars.
Some granola brands have more added sugars in a ½-cup serving than some notoriously sugary cereals have in 1 cup+ serving! So, if you’re looking for a less sugary breakfast option, definitely read the “Includes ___ Added Sugars” line on the nutrition label. And remember to cross-check with the serving size!
I might find a fairly low-sugar granola—like Bob’s Red Mill Homestyle Maple Sea Salt Granola—with 4g added sugar in a ¼-cup serving. And I might choose it instead of something else—like Bear Naked Banana Nut Granola, with 8g added sugar per ½ cup. But if I do the math to match the serving sizes, both options actually have the same amount of added sugar per ½ cup!
It can get even more confusing… I might choose either of these (seemingly) lower-sugar options over the granola I really want—like Quaker Simply Granola Honey & Raisin, with 9g added sugar per ⅔ cup. But again, if I do the math to compare the same serving sizes at ⅔ cup, those “lower-sugar” granolas actually have 11g of added sugar, compared to the 9g in the Quaker brand!
(6) Follow your taste buds.
What granola will you enjoy? What do you really want to taste and eat? As my relationship with food evolves, this factor moves closer to the top of my list of things to consider. A huge part of having a healthy relationship with food is enjoying what I eat, and giving myself permission to eat the foods that I enjoy.
For so long, I restricted foods I loved because I thought they were “bad,” which only fed a cycle where I felt deprived of what I actually wanted, so I’d eventually binge or overeat, and then I’d start restricting again. Considering the foods and flavors that we enjoy matters. And, by giving ourselves permission to eat the foods we really like—rather than restricting them—we move closer and closer towards food freedom.
Of course, we are all unique, we have individual needs, and we’re at different places in our journeys. And wherever you are right now is exactly where you need to be! Rather than judging or comparing yourself, or trying to force yourself to feel differently, I encourage you to get curious about where you are right now. What does “healthy” mean to you?
Lighten Up on Granola (and Yourself)!
One approach to choosing a healthier granola is to just make your own low-sugar granola from scratch—so you can make it exactly how you need it to be. Or, maybe you lighten up by choosing a less-processed or low-sugar granola from the grocery store.
But “lightening up” can also look like lightening up on ourselves. Maybe you can let go of any judgments about going with store-bought granola instead of making your own. Maybe you lighten up by giving yourself permission to enjoy the sugary, processed granola that you really want.
Whatever you choose, your desire to learn, grow, and take care of yourself is worth appreciating! What kind of lightening up will be most supportive to you, for where you are on your journey right now?