Do you have a love/hate relationship with bread? It's a staple of many people's diets, and also a top source of calories.
So which is it: Is bread OK to eat, or is the idea that bread is good for us half-baked? Here's what you should know.
Bread and the Battle of the Bulge
Is bread to blame for your extra pounds? Maybe.
"We go overboard on bread and other highly refined grains," says Heather Bauer, RD, co-author of Bread is the Devil: Win the Weight Loss Battle by Taking Control of Your Diet Demons. "When you're hungry, tired, or stressed, you tend to reach for bread products, not carrot sticks. Problem is, the more you eat bread, the more you want."
Bauer is specifically referring to white bread, crackers, pretzels, and other highly refined grains that have come to symbolize the struggle with weight control.
Eating whole grains, on the other hand, is a sound weight loss strategy.
In one study, people on a lower-calorie diet that included whole grains, such as whole wheat bread, lost more belly fat than those who ate only refined grains, such as white bread and white rice.
Whole grains provide more vitamins, minerals, and fiber than refined. But overdoing whole wheat bread can add pounds, too. So account for it in your daily calorie budget.
“When you're stressed, you reach for bread, not carrots. But the more you eat, the more you want." -- Heather Bauer, RD
Bread and Type 2 Diabetes
Research shows that eating fewer starchy foods like bread, and less red meat, processed food, and sugar-sweetened beverages -- along with an increased intake of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, and poultry -- decreases the risk of getting type 2 diabetes.
Eating any kind of carbohydrate raises blood sugar levels. But carbs aren't all the same. Sugars and refined grains raise blood sugar quicker than complex carbohydrates, found in foods including beans and other vegetables.
"Complex carbohydrates are digested more slowly, and their ability to cause blood glucose level spikes is limited," says Hillary Wright, RD, director of nutrition counseling at the Domar Center for Mind/Body Health.
Cutting back on refined grains, such as white bread, and eating more whole grains in their place are good moves. "Whole-grain bread has more fiber than refined, and fiber helps slow the absorption of carbohydrates consumed at the same meal or snack," Wright says.
Bread and Gluten Intolerance
"Bread has been getting a bad rap for a long time," says Shelley Case, RD, nutrition consultant and author of Gluten-Free Diet: A Comprehensive Resource Guide. "It's worse now because there's so much negative press about gluten, the protein found in wheat, rye, and barley."
Some people cannot tolerate gluten because they have celiac disease. Their immune system mistakes gluten as dangerous, triggering a reaction that attacks the body. For people with celiac disease, avoiding any source of gluten -- found in many products besides bread -- is an absolute must.
Celiac disease is getting diagnosed more often these days. Many other people without celiac disease link their stomach upset and fatigue to gluten. This is called non-celiac gluten sensitivity, which is more common than celiac disease.
To find out if you have celiac disease, see your doctor. If you don't have celiac disease and want to give up gluten to see if it helps your tummy troubles, see a dietitian to help track your symptoms and make sure your gluten-free diet is healthy.
How Much Bread Is Too Much?
People on a 2,000-calorie eating plan need six servings a day (about 6 ounces) from the grain group. That includes all bread, pasta, oatmeal, breakfast cereals, tortillas, and grits. At least half of those should be whole grains
Keep portions in mind. A single bagel can pack 3 to 5 ounces of grain. That takes up much of your grain budget for the day, and if it wasn't a whole-grain bagel, it may be hard for you to meet healthy grain goals.
Go with the whole grain. Choose breads that list "whole" grain as the first ingredient, such as whole wheat, white whole wheat, or whole oats. "Wheat bread" or "multi-grain" is not necessarily a whole-grain product.
Downsize. Trim portions and get more fiber with whole-grain English muffins, bagel thins, or sandwich thins. Also try 2-ounce sandwich and hamburger buns.
Don't shop by color. Many whole-grain breads are darker than white bread, but food manufacturers may add molasses and food coloring to give their refined bread products a darker hue. Always check the ingredient label.
Bulk up. Choose whole-grain bread products with at least 3 grams of fiber per serving.