"There may be no dietary staple more in need of a public relations makeover than bread." If this recent proclamation from the American Heart Association is music to your ears (and stomach), you're not alone.
Like many nutrition-conscious types, you probably avoid bread — or at least keep it to a strict minimum at meals — due to concerns over carbs, gluten, sugar and salt. But as the AHA notes, bread's bad rap isn't entirely deserved. There are plenty of healthy choices if you know what to look for and numerous ways to make this age-old staple part of a healthy diet.
All of which is good news if you're a deprived bread lover yearning for savory grilled cheese sandwiches, crusty baguettes, cinnamon French toast, buttery croissants and fresh-baked breakfast muffins.
The staff of life?
For years health experts have sounded off about the nutritional pitfalls of eating too much bread. If you keep up with dietary guidelines, that means your culinary life is probably short on paninis, dinner rolls, garlic bread and pizza crust.
One of the top problems cited is bread's high carb content. Your body breaks down carbohydrates into glucose, which is released into the bloodstream to give you energy. In an ideal world, you burn all this fuel. But if you eat more carbs than you need, the excess is converted to fat. Not surprisingly, high-carb diets put you at elevated risk for obesity, heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.
The rub with bread is that one slice (of most kinds) averages 13 to 18 grams of carbohydrates. It might not sound like much, but the recommended daily carb limit for a 1,500-calorie diet is 150 grams. It's not hard to see how overindulging in bread can help push you over the mark.
Another oft-cited strike against bread is its high gluten content. While many people have no trouble digesting this protein found in wheat, barley, rye and other grains, up to 13 percent of the population has gluten sensitivity (sometimes without recognizing it), and about 1 percent has full-blown gluten intolerance called celiac disease, an autoimmune condition that damages the intestinal lining. Gluten sensitivity of any kind can cause troublesome symptoms, including bloating, headaches, abdominal pain, fatigue, diarrhea and nutritional deficiencies.
If you have gluten sensitivity, here are some grains to avoid: rolled rye flakes (from left), wheat flour, spelt and barley. (Photo: Pdeitiker [public domain]/Wikimedia Commons)
Another drawback is that bread grains also contain antinutrients, plant compounds that prevent your body from absorbing certain minerals like magnesium, calcium and iron. (Granted, antinutrients aren't usually a major problem if you're eating a balanced, diverse diet, but if you're vegan or vegetarian with a heavy emphasis on legumes and grains, you could end up with some nutritional deficiencies.)
Consider the added salt and sugar in many bread products — as well as the dearth of important nutrients in some types — and it's no wonder bread has become increasingly taboo among health enthusiasts.
Putting bread on the table
If life without bread feels a little less lustrous, there's no need to keep saying no. Not all bread is created equal when it comes to health. Some types are far better for you than others and can be part of a healthy diet (in moderation).
Here's how to make the most nutrition-rich bread choices so you don't have to do without.
1. Buy whole grains. True, all breads are high in carbs, but not all carbs have the same effect on the body. Whole-grain bread is made from flour that contains the entire grain (bran, germ and endosperm).
It's higher in key disease-fighting nutrients than processed, non-whole-grain flour. Plus, it's loaded with more protein and fiber, making it harder for your body to break down carbs into glucose and putting it lower on the glycemic index, which is a measure of how much your blood sugar spikes after eating a particular food. Extensive research shows that eating low-glycemic whole grains is linked to reduced risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes and colorectal cancer.
Refined flours, on the other hand, are not only stripped of healthy nutrients during processing, but their lower protein and fiber content means carbs are converted to glucose faster (i.e., they're higher on the glycemic index). When too many carbs from processed-flour breads flood the bloodstream with more glucose than you can burn, you're more likely to pack on extra pounds that boost your disease risk.
In addition, the faster your blood sugar rises, the hungrier you feel and the more tempted you are to keep overindulging — a vicious cycle that compounds your health risks. White bread, in particular, is a major culprit — akin to eating sugar.
White bread made of refined flour ranks high on the glycemic index compared to whole-grain breads and is best kept to a minimum. (Photo: Marco Verch [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr)
2. Learn to decipher the package. It sounds easy to choose only whole-grain breads, but labeling can make things tricky. Just because bread is brown or the package says "wheat," "multi-grain" or "enriched unbleached flour" doesn't mean it's made from whole grains. These terms are usually healthy-sounding code for bread made with white flour. Instead, look for labels that say "100 percent whole wheat" or "100 percent whole grain."
Also read the ingredient list. The first ingredient for whole-wheat bread should be whole-wheat flour or a whole grain. Don't stop there. The remaining ingredients should be recognizable. Avoid bread with lots of hard-to-pronounce artificial ingredients and synthetic preservatives.
3. Opt for gluten-free bread (but mainly if you really need it). For people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, avoiding gluten is essential for their health. But if gluten isn't a problem, ridding it from your diet may not be necessary or even the healthiest choice. Gluten-free breads are typically made from non-gluten flours, such as white rice and tapioca, which aren't typically as nutrient-rich as whole grains. If you decide to go gluten-free, take a multivitamin to help insure against nutritional deficiencies.
4. Watch sodium content. A typical commercial bread slice contains about 200 milligrams of sodium. According to the AHA, your ideal daily allotment shouldn't exceed 1,500 milligrams — meaning a two-slice sandwich can provide nearly a quarter of what you need in a day. Bottom line: Read the label for a sodium count and don't overindulge, or opt for low-sodium or sodium-free breads.
5. Check for added sugar. A small amount of sugar is needed to activate the yeast when making bread, but watch out for added sugar and sweeteners like high fructose corn syrup. Even whole-grain breads sometimes harbor these fillers to make them taste sweeter. Again, read the ingredient list.
6. Consider breads made from sprouted grains. This option helps you avoid most of the nutritional drawbacks of other breads. One of the most popular sprouted grain breads is Ezekiel bread, made via an ancient method that involves soaking organic whole grains (like wheat, lentils, soy and barley) in water and allowing them to sprout before baking. No flour is used.
The sprouting process confers numerous health benefits. These breads not only contain more fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals than other breads, but they're also lower in sodium and free of sugars, sweeteners, artificial ingredients and preservatives. In addition, they help minimize problems caused by eating antinutrients and gluten because they're naturally lower in both. You can find Ezekiel and other sprouted breads in health food stores or you can make your own.
Try your hand at sprouted wheat bread with this video.
7. Go for high fiber. If you're eating whole-grain or sprouted breads your diet is probably already rich in fiber. Always opt for breads with two or more grams per slice.
8. Enjoy, but don't overdo it. If you love bread, there's no need to give it up altogether. Just look for the healthiest options and eat it in moderation. It's even OK to occasionally indulge in your favorite white breads like sourdough and ciabatta, but go easy, particularly if you're watching your waistline. In addition to bread's high carb content, it's also relatively rich in calories. Even so, with a little discipline and smart shopping there's no reason you can't have your bread and eat it too.