Bread has been a part of civilization for millennia, a staple food in many different cultures way back before obesity was a public health concern.
Yet many people are confused about the matter of bread, and this is not surprising given the volume of conflicting nutrition messages constantly bombarding us. For example, low-carb diet trends created so much skepticism around carbohydrate-rich foods, while concerns for the environment are leading to popularization of a more plant-predominant dietary approach.
These opposing dietary trends probably explain why dietitians are asked questions such as “is bread healthy?” or “can I eat bread?” and “how much?” on a nearly daily basis. This article will address some of the key points around bread and health.
Is it good to include bread in my diet?
While eating bread is by no means essential for health, there are benefits to including bread in your diet:
- Bread is a source of carbohydrates, which provide energy to fuel our daily activities.
- Bread is convenient, affordable, and satisfying.
- Bread flours are fortified with certain vitamins and minerals, which helps people to meet their dietary requirements.
- Most importantly, brown and especially whole-grain breads are good sources of dietary fiber, which plays important roles in digestion, satiety, heart health, and weight management.
But, all breads are not created equal; refined white bread cannot be put into the same category as whole-grain bread. During the refinement process, the fiber and many of the nutrients in the flour are lost. High intake of refined starches tend to result in rapid blood sugar spikes, which can increase the risk of insulin resistance when consumed regularly.
But doesn’t bread contain gluten, which is bad for health?
Yes, bread does contain gluten. But, there is a lot of misinformation around the topic of gluten and health. Gluten is a protein that occurs naturally in wheat, barley, and rye. A very small subset of the population have a condition called Coeliac’s disease and are highly allergic to gluten. Another small percentage of people experience some intolerance to gluten or wheat. However, most people have no problem digesting gluten, and many avoid it simply because of the popular fad that gluten is bad for health.
Should I cut out bread to lose weight?
No, you can achieve weight loss with a balanced and sustainable diet, which can certainly include bread. A balanced diet will typically consist of a moderate amount of minimally-processed or high-fiber carbohydrates, lean proteins, and healthy fats. Weight loss will occur if you consistently consume less energy than you burn, and this can be achieved by practicing portion control. In other words, the source of carbohydrate (e.g. rice, bread, fruit, or potato) on your plate is less important than the portion size. A dietitian can calculate your energy requirements and assist you with choosing portion sizes that are right for you.
How much bread can I eat?
This will depend on your unique energy and carbohydrate requirements, which are determined by factors such as your age, gender, weight, height, and physical activity levels. However, as a rule of thumb, you can include a fist-sized portion of carbohydrates (e.g. rice, pasta, bread, starchy vegetables) at main meals. If your choice of carbohydrate is bread, this would translate to roughly two slices per meal. If you are very active and tall, this could be more.
So why does bread have such a bad reputation?
Probably due to the popularization of low carbohydrate diets (which have been coming in-and-out of fashion for many years), the gluten fad, and other popular diets. The availability of unregulated information in the field of health and nutrition creates a lot of confusion and fear around food.
But why do many popular diets that exclude bread seem to work?
Although there are many success stories of people losing weight on popular diets, the weight loss occurs due to reduced total energy intake rather than due to any special properties of the diet. But, if the diet is not sustainable, it will result in weight regain in the long run. Sustainable lifestyle changes are the key to achieving and maintaining a healthy weight, whether you choose to cut down on carbohydrates, fats, or overall portion sizes.
If you enjoy bread, there is no reason to give it up. Choose brown or whole-grain bread and be mindful of portion sizes. Practice balance and moderation rather than exclusion and deprivation.
– Marna Oettlé, Registered Dietitian (SA)