Q: Several of my friends, including one who works in the health field, have sworn off bread as if it were the root of all evil. Even whole-grain bread, which I thought was a great choice, is off limits, according to them. I love bread. Is it really that bad for me?
Answer provided by Terese Scollard, M.B.A., R.D., L.D., regional clinical nutrition manager for Providence Nutrition Services
I'm with you - I love bread. I love the process of combining ancient grains, natural yeasts and water to make bread; I love the meditative rhythm of kneading dough; I love the welcoming aroma of bread baking in the oven; and I love the ritual of breaking bread with friends and family. No one will convince me that a beautiful, homemade, whole-grain loaf, eaten in moderation, is a bad thing.
The root of all evil? Hardly. On the contrary, bread is practically the seed of all civilization. Often referred to as "the staff of life," it was bread - and the grains used to make it - that helped early nomadic peoples make the shift from a hunter-gatherer subsistence to more stable, civilized, farm-based societies. With the discovery of wheat and barley, our early ancestors no longer had to stay on the move to find food. By planting grains in the ground, they could settle in one place with a reliable and sustainable food source. And by grinding grains into a paste and roasting the mixture over a fire, they found a way to make grains more palatable and easier on the teeth. Whether in the form of loaves, tortillas, naan, pita, lavash or chapati, bread eventually came to play a central role in cultures all over the world.
So how did something so ingrained in so many cultures for thousands of years suddenly get such a bad rap? We can lay some of the blame on the upper crust who, in the early 20th century United States, preferred their bread refined and white. Soon everyone wanted it that way, so industrial bakers developed efficient processes for stripping grains of their hulls and bran to make bread whiter. Unfortunately, as we learned later, this refining process also stripped out most of the nutrition. As a result, hard-working folks who depended on bread as an inexpensive and filling source of fuel began to suffer from a rash of nutritional deficiencies. In time, new laws cropped up requiring commercially produced white breads to be fortified to replace some of the lost nutrients; the fiber, however, was still sacrificed.
Fast forward to the 21st century, and whole grains began to make a comeback as more people came to understand their nutritional value. But then the Atkins diet came along, and Americans tossed out the whole wheat with the white in a mass carb-phobic panic.
Today, I'm glad to see that the carbohydrate phobia is finally settling down somewhat, and that more people like you are questioning the premise that all bread is bad. Because of course, it isn't. What Atkins got wrong was that it's not the bread that's bad, but the fact that we eat too much of it. Those pioneering farmers who came before us toiled at physically strenuous labor all day long. All that work required fuel, and bread was a prime source of carbohydrates, the body's go-to source for energy. These days, we're just not that active. We don't need as many calories as our predecessors did.
The key to getting the best of bread is to make healthful choices, and to enjoy it in moderation. Depending on how well you choose your bread, it can be an excellent source of whole grains, which are rich in fiber, B vitamins and other essential nutrients. For people with diabetes, eating complex carbohydrates, such as whole-grain bread, can help regulate blood sugar. According to the USDA Nutrition Evidence Library, eating whole grains is associated with reduced incidence of type 2 diabetes, as well as lower body weight and protection against cardiovascular disease.
Choose mainly breads made from high-fiber whole grains. Read the ingredients label to make sure the word "whole" - as in "whole-wheat" or "whole-grain" - is listed first, and look for breads with at least 3 grams of fiber per serving. Minimize breads made from refined grains - they're the ones that usually have less than 2 grams of fiber per serving.
If you're getting plenty of whole grains and fiber from other sources, the occasional slice of crusty French bread won't hurt you, but don't make it an everyday thing. If you do choose refined breads occasionally, try to make sure they're made with enriched flour.
How much bread is OK to eat? According to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, half of your plate at mealtime should be filled with fruits and vegetables, and a quarter with protein. That leaves only a quarter of your plate for whole grains - and bread is just one source of grains. If you load your plate with pasta and add a slab of garlic bread, you'll eat way more grains than your body needs, and that's a lot of unnecessary calories that your body will store as fat. In addition, if you're eating refined white bread and pasta rather than whole-grain versions, you'll get very little nutritional bang for all those calorie bucks. Choose whole-grain breads and pastas instead, and keep the portions small enough to fit a big salad on your plate.
As a baker myself, I encourage you to try baking your own bread. It's a great way to make sure that your bread contains only high-quality, healthful ingredients. Well beyond the health aspects, there's just something supremely satisfying about working with yeast and dough. It's an ancient art that connects with your deeply ingrained, primal emotions, and gives rise to profoundly delicious results. And that is absolutely a good thing.
One final note
Can't tolerate grains?
Certain medical conditions can render the body intolerant to wheat and other grains. If you have celiac disease or another form of gluten intolerance, you must avoid wheat, rye, barley and certain other grains. Rice, corn and oats, however, still may be options for getting whole grains into your diet. Several gluten-free choices are now available in the bread aisle. Be aware, though, that gluten-free breads generally are not enriched, so you may need to supplement with multivitamins and minerals to make sure you are not missing any nutrients.
Whole grains also may be difficult to tolerate in certain phases of Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, diverticulitis, and cancer treatment. In these cases, refined breads may be the only choice, so choosing fortified breads and supplementing with vitamins is definitely recommended.