In a diet culture where fad diets reign supreme, bread has become demonized for its high carbohydrate (and gluten) content and been avoided by the wellness-obsessed for supposedly contributing to weight gain. While carbohydrate-heavy foods–namely bread–have been ingrained as public enemy #1 when it comes to healthy eating or achieving goals like gut health, I think Oprah speaks for us all when she emphatically expressed her love for it in a now-viral TV commercial (see: “I love bread” Oprah memes). So there’s no question that bread delivers on the deliciousness factor, but is it really that bad for your health that you should substitute it for low-carb or gluten-free alternatives? Or could bread actually be…good for you?
I asked registered dietitians to weigh in and finally put the long-running debate to rest. Read on to find out what they had to say. Spoiler: Bread is not the enemy. It’s time to brush up on those bread-making skills—your gut health may thank you.
Health benefits of bread
It turns out that other than just satisfying a craving, noshing on certain types of bread can prevent a major case of FOMO—that is, missing out on key nutrients. “Bread can be beneficial to gut health because of the array of fibers, vitamins, and minerals that are found in certain breads,” explained Johna Burdeos, a registered dietitian. “Fiber in particular is essential for optimal gut health. Think of fiber as nature’s broom for the gut—it helps soften stool and get it moving along the digestive tract.” Mary Wirtz, a registered dietitian and consultant for Mom Loves Best, pointed out that bread made with whole grains is rich in dietary fiber and prebiotics, AKA compounds that feed the good bacteria in your gut and promote a better environment for the bacteria to thrive on.
But the health benefits don’t stop there. “Bread can also be a source of resistant starch, which is a kind of starch that can’t be broken down by digestive enzymes,” conveyed Kim Kulp, a registered dietitian nutritionist and owner of the Gut Health Connection. “This undigested starch then ends up in the large intestine where the microbes break it down and produce compounds that decrease inflammation, train our immune system, and protect the lining of the gut.” Of course, bread shouldn’t be the only source of fiber and prebiotics you consume (fruits and veggies are also essential sources of fiber!), but rest-assured, bread packs in more gut-boosting nutrients than diet culture lets on.
Sure, bread is higher in carbohydrates than protein or fat, but foods high in carbohydrates are an important part of a healthy diet as carbohydrates fuel the body with energy used to support bodily functions and physical activity. What’s more, certain breads are made up of complex carbohydrates—the aforementioned fiber and starchy goodness—that take longer to digest, preventing blood sugar spikes. So you can have your bread and eat it too!
What about gluten–isn’t it bad for you?
Going gluten-free seems to be considered the best thing since sliced bread, but is gluten—a protein found in some grains, including wheat, barley, and rye—really that unhealthy? “With Celiac disease—an autoimmune disease that causes damage to the small intestine when gluten is consumed—steadily increasing, also came a large trend in non-Celiac individuals avoiding gluten,” Wirtz explained. It’s important to differentiate between people who are allergic or sensitive to gluten and those who steer clear of it because they believe it’s unhealthy. Of course, gluten is not beneficial if you have Celiac or another sensitivity, and if your body feels better without it, work with your doctor or nutritionist to build a diet sans gluten and fill in nutritional gaps, just like you would any food allergy of an otherwise nutritious food, such as eggs and nuts.
However, for those who ditch gluten because they categorize it as a “bad” food, they may want to think twice. As with any health trend, a low-carb or gluten-free diet should be taken with a grain (pun intended) of salt. Just because a way of eating is trendy, it doesn’t mean it’s right for you (always listen to your gut—literally and figuratively).
Research suggests only 6% of the population is gluten intolerant and about 1% has Celiac. For the rest of us? Gluten-containing products like bread can be a part of a nutritious diet. In fact, swearing off gluten altogether (if you don’t have any of the aforementioned conditions) can lead to missing out on nutritious whole grains, fiber, and micronutrients. Also, gluten-free processed foods are often lower in nutrients and higher in sugar (always check the ingredients!). Bottom line: Despite gluten’s bad rap, gluten-free doesn’t equal healthier, unless you have an allergy or intolerance to it.
What type of bread should you opt for?
Not all breads are created equal. Just like all other store-bought foods, some products contain minimally-processed and nutrient-rich ingredients while other products are highly-processed and void of nutrients. As a general rule of thumb, Burdeos suggested opting for whole grain breads (think: 100% whole wheat), which consist of the entire grain, including the parts most concentrated with fiber, antioxidants, B vitamins, and healthy fats, as opposed to refined grains (i.e. conventional white bread, processed bakery items, etc.) that strip a lot of the nutrients away. “When buying bread, look at the ingredients to make sure the first ingredient says whole wheat,” Kulp affirmed. “If the word “whole” isn’t there, then the fiber has been removed.”
Another expert favorite? Good ol’ sourdough. Wirtz explained that some research suggests that sourdough bread acts as a prebiotic to feed the gut bacteria. Because it undergoes a fermentation process, eating sourdough bread allows better digestion, promotes higher nutritional uptake of minerals and vitamins, and improves gut health. The main takeaway? Not every type of bread will be high in nutrients, but that doesn’t mean you have to keep it at arm’s length in order to have a healthy diet.