Like Donald Trump and Pokémon Go, granola is one of those things that everyone has an opinion about. No sooner have you poured yourself a pre-workout bowl when your super-fit, super-smug colleague walks by. “Oh, granola before a run?" she might comment. "That’s interesting,”
Last month, the New York Times published a survey showing the disconnect between nutritionists and the laymen when it came to perceived health of certain foods. Granola and granola bars had, by far, the widest disparity of opinions. While much of the general population listed these two as healthy choices, dietitians did not. And athletes—a subset of the population with above average nutritional knowledge—are befuddled by it, too. “Granola can be a confusing food for athletes. On one hand, depending on the ingredients, it can be a super healthy way of consuming quality carbohydrates, protein, and fat,” says Bob Seebohar, a kinesologist, board-certified specialist in sports dietetics, and author of Metabolic Efficiency Training and Nutrition Periodization for Athletes. “On the other hand, it can contain a high amount of sugar with lower protein and fat content."
In fact, granola is the perfect example of the evolution of America’s diet woes. In the '60s when granola was made in the kitchens of hippie communes across the country, the recipe was simple—mix oats with oil and a sweetener, often honey or maple syrup, and add some nuts and raisins. But when the fat-phobic '90s hit, the cereal was deemed too fatty to be healthy. So marketers pulled oils out of boxed granolas and—in many cases—added more sugar, thinking we wouldn’t notice the missing flavor the fats provided. But added sugars are strongly linked to America's increased obesity rates, as well as the growth of several metabolic issues like type 2 diabetes.
But the pendulum is swinging away from fat-as-evil, with carbs and sugars taking their roles as a villain. And now poor granola is on our don't-eat list for its hefty carb counts. Even endurance athletes, who have generally remained fierce in their love of carbs, have started to shy away from the stuff. “I avoid most granola based products for a couple of reasons,” says elite ultra-runner Zack Bitter. “Typically, it doesn't match the macro-nutrient ratios I am looking for in my training due to its high sugar and grain makeup.” Bitter is a fat-adapted athlete and, though he does consume some carbohydrates in training, he adds that granola doesn’t give him “enough bang for his buck” nutritionally to be worth it.
Still, granola has its champions. And honestly, it should. After all, oats are a fantastic source of soluble fiber, which has been shown to lower LDL cholesterol. Plus, almost the entire cannon of endurance sport nutrition research rests on the conclusion that athletes need carbs to perform.
Professional triathlete Ericka Hachmeister is in the pro-granola camp, but she eats it strategically. “I use it on days when I’m doing two workouts. When I’m sitting at my desk at 3 p.m. and I just really need something that’s going to sit in my stomach well for my evening workout, I’ll have a cup of granola with almond milk.” Right now, Hachmeister is hooked on Kind’s Vanilla Blueberry Clusters with Flaxseed granola, which is lower in added sugars than most commercial varieties and has several grams of protein. At least nutritionally speaking, “I feel like it’s pretty baller,” she says.
Yet, nutritionists are still wary of recommending we all join #teamgranola—although confusingly they haven’t reached a consensus as to why we should be avoiding it either. Christine Rosenbloom, a registered dietitian, says it’s too calorie-dense to be eaten by the fistful. “It can have 600 calories in a bowl. Make sure you’re checking the portion size or you could be sabotaging a workout by over-fueling,” she says. And she advocates avoiding granolas with any added fats. She generally makes her own, using maple syrup instead of oil as a binder. But Seebohar, on the other hand, is a proponent of trying to use fat and protein to balance blood sugar and keep yourself from getting crazy insulin spikes. To him, granola is best when it contains some fat and protein (though not right before a workout, since this could cause GI distress).
If this is all sounding like a big, soggy, nutritional quagmire, know this: one single food isn’t going to destroy your overall health or athletic prowess. If you’ve been training with granola for years, and you’re not seeing any adverse effects, keep on keepin’ on with those oats. If you haven’t been using it but want to try it, do so—but use caution since granola is calorie dense. And if possible, make your own batch so you can control exactly what goes into it.
To get you started, here’s a great recipe endorsed by one of the fastest women on the planet.
Recipe: Ginger-Molasses Granola
From Run Fast, Eat Slow
Makes 8 cups (16 servings)
Olympic marathon runner Shalane Flanagan is a granola champion. In her forthcoming cookbook, Run Fast, Eat Slow, Flanagan includes a recipe for her favorite mix, which uses Kopecky blackstrap molasses as a sweetener, making it high in potassium, calcium, iron, and magnesium.
“Shalane is addicted to our granola recipe and has been making it while training at high altitude for the Olympics,” says food writer Elyse Kopecky, who co-authored the book with Flanagan. “I love homemade granola, too, because you can pack so much nourishment into one crunchy cluster—nuts, seeds, whole grains, nourishing fats, and all natural sweetener.”
3 cups old-fashioned rolled oats (gluten-free if sensitive)
1 cup finely shredded unsweetened dried coconut
½ cup shelled pumpkin seeds
½ cup sunflower seeds
½ cup raisins or chopped dried fruit
2 teaspoons ground ginger
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
1/3 cup virgin coconut oil
¼ cup honey
¼ cup blackstrap molasses (darkest variety, which has a stronger flavor and more minerals than regular molasses)
1. Position a rack in the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 275°F and line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.
2. In a large mixing bowl, stir together the oats, coconut, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, raisins or dried fruit, ginger, cinnamon, and salt.
3. In a small microwaveable bowl, stir together the coconut oil, honey, and molasses and microwave on low until slightly melted. Or melt in a small saucepan over low heat. Pour over the dry ingredients and stir until evenly combined.
4. Spread out in a thick layer on the baking sheet. Bake, gently stirring every 15 minutes, until lightly browned, 45 minutes. Granola will still be moist at the end of baking, but will morph into crunchy goodness once it cools completely.
5. Store in a glass jar with a lid at room temperature. Granola will stay fresh for several weeks and likely be devoured long before expiring