In a diet culture dominated by fad diets, bread has been demonized for its high carb (and gluten) content and shunned for its perceived healthiness as a contributor to weight gain. Carbohydrates—namely, bread—have fallen under Public Enemy No. 1 when it comes to healthy eating or achieving goals like gut health, but I think Oprah speaks for all of us when she emphatically expresses her love for it during the current virus. TV commercial (see: “I love bread” Oprah memes). So there’s no question that bread delivers on the sweet side, but is it so bad for your health that you should replace it with low-carb or gluten-free alternatives? Or can bread be good for you?
I asked registered dietitians to weigh in and finally put the long-standing debate to rest. Read on to find out what they have to say. Spoiler: It’s bread. not at all enemy. Time to put those baking skills to the test—your gut health will thank you.
Health benefits of bread
In addition to satisfying cravings, avoiding certain types of bread prevents the main issue of FOMO – namely missing out on key nutrients. “Bread can be beneficial for gut health because of the high fiber, vitamins and minerals found in certain breads,” says registered dietitian Johnna Berdios. “Fiber is especially important for gut health. Think of fiber as a natural cleanser for the gut—it helps soften stool and move it through the digestive system. 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 that bacteria to thrive, Wirtz says.
But the health benefits don’t stop there. “Bread can also be a source of resistant starch, a type of starch that is not broken down by digestive enzymes,” shares Kim Kulp, registered dietitian and owner of Gut Health Connection. “This undigested starch reaches the large intestine where microbes break it down and produce compounds that reduce inflammation, train the immune system, and protect the lining of the gut.” Of course, bread doesn’t have to be your only source of fiber and prebiotics (fruits and vegetables are also important sources of fiber!), but it certainly contains more gut-enriching ingredients than the food culture allows.
Of course, bread is higher in carbohydrates than protein or fat, but foods rich in carbohydrates are an important part of a healthy diet because they are used as energy to support body functions and physical activity. What’s more, certain breads are rich in complex carbohydrates—the aforementioned fiber and starch goodness—that take longer to digest, preventing blood sugar spikes. So you can take your bread and eat it!
What about gluten – not bad for you?
Going gluten-free seems like the best thing since sliced bread, but is gluten—found in some grains, including wheat, barley, and oats—really that unhealthy? “With celiac disease — an autoimmune disease that damages the small intestine when gluten is eaten — there’s been a growing trend for non-celiac individuals to avoid gluten,” explains Mary Wirtz, registered dietitian and Mom’s Best Advisor. . It is important to distinguish between people who are allergic or sensitive to gluten and those who avoid it because they believe it is unhealthy. Of course, gluten doesn’t help if you have celiac disease or other sensitivities, and if your body feels fine without it, work with your doctor or nutritionist to build a gluten-free diet and fill in nutritional gaps, just like any food allergy, like eggs and nuts.
However, for those who dismiss gluten as a “bad” food, you may want to think again. As with any health trend, a low-carb or gluten-free diet should be taken with a grain of salt. Just because a way of eating is trendy doesn’t mean it’s right for you (always listen to your gut – literally and figuratively).
Studies show that 6% of the population is gluten intolerant and 1% has celiac disease. For the rest of us? Products that contain gluten, such as bread, can be part of a balanced diet. In fact, swearing off gluten entirely (unless you have the conditions listed above) can lead to a loss of whole grains, fiber, and micronutrients. Also, gluten-free foods are often low in nutrients and high in sugar (always check the ingredients!). Bottom line: Despite gluten’s bad rap, gluten-free isn’t healthy unless you have an allergy.
What kind of bread should you choose?
All breads are not equal. Like other store-bought foods, some products are minimally processed and contain nutrient-dense ingredients, while other products are highly processed and contain no nutrients. As a general guideline, Bourdeos suggests choosing whole-grain bread (think: 100% whole wheat), which consists of whole grains and is packed with fiber, antioxidants, B vitamins and healthy fats, as opposed to refined grains that strip away many nutrients (i.e. conventional white bread, bakery items, etc.). “When buying bread, look at the ingredients to make sure the first ingredient says whole wheat,” Koop confirmed. If the word “whole” is not present, the fiber has been removed.
Another professional favorite? Good ol’ sour. Wirtz says some research suggests that sourdough bread acts as a prebiotic to feed gut bacteria. Since it undergoes a fermentation process, eating whole wheat bread allows for better digestion, provides a higher nutritional intake of minerals and vitamins, and improves gut health. The main takeaway? Not every type of bread is nutrient-dense, but that doesn’t mean you have to arm yourself with a healthy diet.