Bread has been a major staple of the human diet for thousands of years. Today it continues to be the most regularly consumed food in the world. In recent decades, it has also received a lot of bad press because of perceived negative effects on health and, in particular, weight gain.
Is bread a nutritional saboteur that you need to eliminate immediately, or does it have a place in a healthy eating regimen?
Refined Grains Vs. Whole Grains
By now, white bread has a well-earned reputation for its nonexistent and even negative nutritional value. Its refined grains have been stripped of their natural fiber, vitamins and minerals. Because of this, white bread increases your blood sugar and insulin and can lead to weight gain, higher cholesterol, type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
As recently as 15 years ago, 80 percent of bread sold in the United States was white bread. It is still everywhere, especially at restaurants. But things are beginning to change. The Chicago Tribune reported in 2010 that whole-grain bread sales had surpassed those of white bread for the first time. Thanks to education, availability and improved labeling, whole grains have become a top priority with consumers.
So if you are the average consumer, you know to pass on the white bread, but is that all you need to know?
The first step to a healthier diet of bread is to read the labels. When buying bread, look for the first ingredient to be listed as “100 percent whole wheat” or “100 percent whole grain.” This indicates that the bread includes all three parts of the whole grain or kernel—the bran (the outer layer), the germ (the part that germinates) and the endosperm (the inside of the grain, which is mainly starch).
Whole wheat flour is always whole-grain flour in the U.S. Canada has different regulations: There, “whole wheat flour” contains at least 95 percent of the original kernel, whereas “whole-grain whole wheat flour” contains 100 percent.
There is a growing international consensus that something labeled “whole grain” must contain the same relative proportions of starchy endosperm, germ and bran as found in the intact kernel (HealthGrain.org).
According to a study in Cancer Prevention Research, those who eat a healthy diet (with whole grains, fruits, vegetables, fish and healthy oils) have a 36 percent lower risk of death from all disease causes. The average American, however, eats less than one daily serving of whole grains; some studies show that over 40 percent of Americans never eat whole grains. Instead they reach for multigrain, wheat bread, organic flour, bran, wheat germ, unbleached white flour or 100 percent wheat. These breads may be packaged attractively, but they do not guarantee a whole-grain product—or any nutritional value.
Skip the claims on the front label and go straight to the ingredient list to find out the truth. Without this knowledge, you’re eating a product not dissimilar to more obvious sources of refined sugars such as candy and cakes, a product that easily fits the adage: “The whiter the bread, the sooner you’re dead.”
Look Beyond the Grain
Since commercial bread manufacturers have more interest in profit than nutrition, it’s no surprise that, with few exceptions, all commercial breads contain some additives you would not use at home. The ingredient label for a loaf of commercial bread pretending to be “healthy” may include emulsifiers, starch softeners, dough straighteners, relaxers and conditioners, GMO emulsifiers, preservatives, mold inhibitors, artificial food for yeast, and high-fructose corn syrup.
It’s a murderer’s row of chemicals leading to higher risk of heart disease and diabetes, and promoting the inflammatory bowel diseases of ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease as well as a group of obesity-related conditions.
Look for bread with a short list of ingredients that are recognizable, pronounceable and healthy.
What Are My Options?
Now let’s answer the original question: Is bread (even whole-grain bread) so bad that I need to eliminate it altogether? The short answer is no. Most people can still safely eat bread.
Shop in bakeries that specialize in soaked, sprouted or sourdough breads properly prepared. Commercially, you can also buy sprouted breads such as Food for Life 7 Sprouted Grains, Food for Life Ezekiel 4:9, Trader Joe’s Sprouted Whole Wheat Fiber Bread, Shiloh Farms Sprouted 5 Grain Bread (Organic) and Manna Organic Sprouted Multigrain Bread.
Ancient grain breads (spelt, quinoa, amaranth, millet, sorghum) are also packed with nutrients. These might contain some added natural forms of sugar, but won’t be full of anti-nutrients that the body has difficulty absorbing.
Are You Moving?
One more thing to consider is that bread is an energy food. If you are like many people who do not exercise daily, eating lots of bread (even whole-grain bread) means taking in energy but never using it. In nutritional terms, this means that carbohydrates enter your bloodstream and are stored as cellular energy. But since they are never properly used, you store these excess carbohydrates as body fat.
In short, if you’re the sedentary type, it’s important to watch your portion sizes when incorporating grains into a healthy diet. Don’t have a bagel for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch and pasta for dinner, or insulin will not be able to keep up, and any excess sugar will be stored elsewhere in your body as fat.
It’s important to monitor total diet and lifestyle together. Make sure you incorporate some type of exercise into your week and eat moderate amounts of soaked, sprouted or sourdough breads in a diet rich with vegetables, fruits, legumes, fish, olive oil and other healthy foods. Maintaining your health depends on your making proper choices.