Defending the Donut

donutby Sara Mead

A few foods  have come to represent indulgent, bad for you, “this is why Americans are fat,” eating. Many of these foods–pizza; corndogs; casseroles composed of tater tots, ground beef, and velveeta–thoroughly deserve their reputations. But if there’s one food that’s come to serve as a shorthand for artery clogging indulgence, it might well be the donut–which doesn’t actually deserve it.

Let’s take a look at the numbers, using nutritional information from the two chains Matt mentions below. Your classic Krispy Kreme donut weighs in at 200 calories–less than your typical candy bar, and probably comparable to the caloric content of a bowl of breakfast cereal with milk (come on–do you really put only 3/4 a cup of cereal in your bowl)? Even a Krispy Kreme with chocolate icing and sprinkles–my idea of donut perfection–will set you back only 270 calories (both have 12 grams of fat). The highest calorie items on Krispy Kreme’s menu are not their donuts, but their “chiller” beverages. If you think you’re being virtuous by opting for a Lotta Latte chiller over a “bad” donut, you’re actually consuming almost 300 calories more (and that’s with the small sized chiller) than if you’d gotten the highest calorie donut on the Krispy Kreme menu.

How about Dunkin’ Donuts, which serves a larger range of donuts than Krispy Kreme, including cake donuts, which I never understand why anyone eats, given that they’re both more fattening and less delicious than regular donuts (except in fall at apple cider mills–then, and only then, are cake donuts acceptable). Dunkin’ Donuts’ menu does have some gut busters on offer–like the 470 calorie Blueberry Crumb Donut. But the typical Dunkin’ Donut clocks in closer to 300 calories. A chocolate or maple frosted donut will set you back only 230 calories; a a classic jelly donut 260, and a blueberry cake donut–one of my favorites–330. Schmancier items such as eclairs and chocolate covered bismarcks come in in the mid- to high-300 calories range.

Again, the calorie counts for these items compare favorably to those of other Dunkin’ Donuts products. Say you’re playing it “healthy” by ordering a bagel–the lowest calorie bagel, plain, will set you back 330 calories. The “DDSmart” recommended Multigrain bagel has 400 calories. And are you really going to eat that bagel plain? Regular cream cheese adds 150 calories, reduced fat 100, and both push the fat content of your bagel comparable to that of a donut.

Now, obviously healthful eating is about a lot more than calories. Donuts do have a very high percentage of calories from fat, and they don’t have a lot of redeeming nutritional value, in the form of protein, or fiber, or vitamins.

But healthy eating is not about steering totally clear of high-fat products, or demanding that every morsel you put in your mouth provide the perfect mix of protein, fat, and calories. It’s about balancing what you eat over the course of the day and week so that you satisfy both your palette and you nutritional needs–for protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals, and overall caloric intake–without overdoing it. There’s nothing wrong with foods that get a lot of their calories from sugar or fat, and have little redeeming nutritional value beyond that, provided you keep them in balance–what the updated Cookie Monster would call “sometimes foods.”

And compared to other “sometimes foods,” pastries, cookies, and other sweet desserts, the caloric and fat content of donuts is actually relatively low. A typical donut has comparable or lower fat and calories than a typical candy bar. Donuts also compare (very) favorably to bakery cookies and cake. In other words, if you know you want to fit sweet pastry goods into your life, donuts are actually one of the better options–in large part because they seem to have been less affected by giant portion creep than have bakery cookies, brownies, and other treats. So by all means, if you like donuts, enjoy one today in honor of National Donut Day. Just think of it as what it is–a sweet dessert–rather than as breakfast.

8 responses to “Defending the Donut

  1. Donuts also compare favorably with the giant muffins they sell everywhere nowadays (479 calories in a Starbucks blueberry muffin), which one can easily convince oneself are a nice light breakfast on the go.

  2. Nicholas Warino

    I generally agree. As part of my diet, I have two scrambled eggs every morning (no oil or butter), which sets me back 180 calories. It’s odd to think that a delicious Krispy Kreme donut only sets me back 20 more calories. The problem with just doing a calorie-to-calorie comparison is that it doesn’t account for how filling those calories are going to be. I find a donut to be much less filling than a bagel or even a muffin. It seems rather easy to pack down 5 donuts with a big glass of fat free milk, which is now pushing 1100 calories. A muffin or a bagel seems a lot more contained. I think I would max out at 2 bagels. The worst, of course, are those crazy drinks at Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts that are 500+ in calories and don’t fill you up at all.

    The worst part about bagels, muffins, or donuts for breakfast is that they are mostly carbs and your body will burn through that almost instantaneously, leaving you hungry again in a half hour.

  3. I find a donut to be much less filling than a bagel or even a muffin.

    Agreed. I usually eat 2 or 3 donuts a sitting, and can easily put down 4 or 5 if I don’t check myself.

    P.S. What’s the usage guideline on doughnut vs. donut? Aren’t we trampling Dunkin’ Donuts trademark here?

  4. I’m with Nicholas. The problem is that those calories in donuts are all empty. Donuts, especially Krispy Kreme, don’t make me feel full at all, as compared to other breakfast foods such as bagels, eggs, or cereal. And they have no nutritional value. I do think, though, that you are right to note that donuts are probably no worse for you than other desserts. And muffins should be considered a dessert, not a meal.

  5. i have never eaten less than two KK doughnuts in a sitting and typically way more. As david kessler notes in his new book, it is the lovely combination of fat and sugar that works so powerfully on our appetite, that it is really, really hard to stop eating at an appropriate level.

    But, your point is still valid in a sense, unlike McDonald’s that effectively makes a claim that what they are selling is a meal to be incorporated as part of your diet, no one really makes that claim about a donut. it is a treat to be had in the morning, not a meal. Treated as such, it’s fine.

  6. i like the fragrance of a doughnut, better than its taste.
    there is always a ubiquitous, pink box of stale doughnuts on ubiquitous fake wood tables at ubiquitous meetings….and the boxes are always covered with grease stains….and the frosting becomes stale, and the sprinkles get stuck to the wax paper.
    on the rare occasion of eating a doughnut, i feel like i will wither of thirst without a glass of cold milk…..and i feel like even my nose is greasy after eating them.
    and i have to lick the powdered sugar off of my greasy fingers, while doing other things, like writing.
    the whole thing is uncomfortable.
    but i do love the fragrance in doughnut stores.

    maybe i am just getting old:-(

  7. Mmmm, doughnut.

  8. Did you just use the word pizza and corndog in the same sentence to explain why americans are fat? A thin crust slice with fresh moz and a salad is staple for me – very tasty, very healthy and pretty balanced considering the way I eat the rest of the day. Maybe the rest of America eats crap, but don’t insult pizza like that. What NYC has is PIZZA. What the rest of you have is white bread, baked and smothered in crap

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