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Will My Day Be a Nutritional Train Wreck If I Start It with a Bagel and Cream Cheese?

I know it’s not great for me. But are we talking Sausage McMuffin-level bad, or more like, not quite as good as oatmeal?

The bagel with cream cheese is the hallmark of the mid-swim-meet, post-swim-practice meal for most child swimmers, and probably for a lot of other pre-teen athletes as well. At some point in time, the bagel ascended to its role as the obligatory snack item that’s served either as an acceptable source of athletic fuel prior to serious energy exertion, or as a refueling mechanism afterward.

Of course, you can also just have it for breakfast.

Either way, when you ask about how many calories are in a bagel with cream cheese, what you’re really asking is how nourishing that combination is for your body.

Isn’t a bagel just bread?

Yes — it’s a very compact piece of bread with a hole in the center. The thing is, it’s not just about what the bagel is composed of or whether the bagel is objectively healthy or unhealthy on its own; it’s about what potential food items the bagel is replacing — i.e., what you would have eaten otherwise.

If you’re stopping by Einstein Bros. Bagels on the way to work each morning instead of pouring yourself a bowl of cereal or oatmeal, then you’re using it to replace a hearty, grainy breakfast food product. So let’s take a quick look at a nutrient comparison between those two things while assuming that your plain bagel with cream cheese is replacing a bowl of Total cereal with skim milk.

Even if you’ve poured yourself a massive helping of Total cereal and doubled all of the ingredient totals contained therein, the bagel and cream cheese would be giving you far more sodium and about 50 percent more calories, which would primarily be due to the fat in the cream cheese. However, that would only be telling part of the story, because there is also vitamin and mineral content at stake here.

Fortunately, Total divulges all of its micronutrient information, revealing that a double dose of Total Cereal with skim milk would supply your body with well over 200 percent of 12 essential vitamins and minerals, along with placing you within hailing distance of 100 percent of your daily dose of vitamin D. Einstein’s packaging is less forthcoming about its micronutrients, but its grocery store edition suggests that they peak at 20 percent of your daily iron intake, and dole out minuscule amounts of a few other minerals. Undoubtedly, there’s some unlisted B vitamin content lurking within the recipe, but it certainly isn’t the multivitamin smorgasbord provided by a well-intentioned breakfast cereal.

Okay, but what if I’m having the bagel for lunch?

Now, if you’re using that same bagel as a lunch item, the math remains the same, but the comparison becomes a little bit different. If 390 calories worth of compact dough and cream cheese is sufficient to sustain you between breakfast and dinner, that’s a more than reasonable sum of calories to subsist on for eight business hours. In fact, you could eat two bagels and still remain well beneath the caloric total of a regular Whopper and medium fries at Burger King

What if I work some lox into the mix?

Einstein Bros just so happens to have lox and bagels on its menu, which begins with a plain bagel with cream cheese, then drops a bit more protein into the mix in the form of brine-cured salmon, and clocks in at 480 calories a pop. In a vacuum, this isn’t so bad. However, again, context is everything. And this is when you realize that we’re officially operating in McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish territory!

As you can see, not only is this comparison reasonable, but just one lox-and-bagel combo exceeds the combined sodium level of a Filet-O-Fish and a large McDonald’s fries by a mile. An obligatory word of warning: When a single food item puts you safely over 50 percent of your recommended daily sodium intake, you’ll want to pay careful attention to what enters your mouth throughout the remainder of your waking hours.

But what if it’s just a snack?!

Look, if you’re going to ask me whether it’s better to eat a bagel with cream cheese or half a bag of potato chips, I’m going to steer you away from the potato chips. The critical element here is that you should be asking the question “Why?” whenever food of a certain nutrient value passes through your lips. If a single food item or combination approaches 20 percent of the recommended daily caloric intake of a 200-pound man, along with 33 percent of his advisable daily carbohydrates, that’s an ideal moment to ask yourself, “Should I really be doing this?”