In many countries bread, in one form or another is on the table at every meal. Mornings begin with toast or regular slices of bread with tea; lunch is often a sandwich and dinner has bread on the side.
Is this a bad thing?
Well, it depends. Let's define what exactly is in bread that makes it questionable first. Bread is in the broad category of a food group known as carbohydrates. These are important sources of energy and therefore, they are an essential part of a healthy diet. Bread has been eaten for centuries and it was not always a problem.
The issue is not the bread per se. It is what's in it. The ingredients, so to speak. If the bread is made of whole grains as the first and main ingredient, it is not bad to eat in moderation. It is when the bread is made of refined flour that makes it questionable and potential a bad food choice. Unfortunately, most bread sold at regular food stores have some of the most important nutrients found in the germ and the bran removed and perhaps sold and used in other products.
When the bread we buy lacks these nutrients, and when the bulk of the ingredients in the bread is refined flour, we might as well eat sugar because such bread acts as sugar in the body, which means that it raises blood sugar fast, but it also will drop quickly, which in turn increases hunger and can lead us to overeat. The added ingredients to the refined flour are also questionable or just bad. There is nothing healthy in high fructose corn syrup, a cheap sweetener used in many baked goods. High fructose corn syrup is often made from genetically modified corn, it is sweeter than table sugar, it produces better browning during baking and it keeps bread moist for longer. This is why bread manufacturers prefer it to regular table sugar. Studies show that excess fructose can lead to decreased insulin sensitivity.
Potassium bromate, an oxidizing agent used in large-scale bread production, is another questionable ingredient. It is meant to improve rising and add volume to the dough, but it is not a safe agent for human health. This abstracts summarizes some of the risks associated with consumption of bread with bromate in it. Even the World Health Organization considers it dangerous. Studies done in Japan in mice have linked it to cancer of the thyroid and kidneys. Many countries have banned its use as a way to protect the health of the people. It is no longer legal to use it in Canada, South Korea, or Brazil, for example. In the United States, even though the state of California's Proposition 65, includes it on its list of chemicals known to cause cancer, the Food and Drug Administration approves the additive for use.
Partially hydrogenated oil is another ingredient that is known to be harmful. Mayo Clinic considers it as "double-trouble for heart health". It is made through processing of unsaturated fats and used in many food products, including bread, to make them more resistant to oxidation and spoilage. Trans fats are known to damage arteries as they increase the bad cholesterol, commonly referred to as LDL cholesterol. They are also known to increase systemic inflammation. In fact, there is no amount of trans fat that is safe. So, beware. When the list of ingredients include "partially hydrogenated oil", that is the same as trans fat, and must be avoided at all costs.
There are many other ingredients that manufacturers add to bread and that serve as emulsifiers, soy lecithin, for example, and its role is to keep water and oil from separating as these two normally do not mix. It is also used to prevent rancidity.
The question therefore is not whether bread is good or bad for you? It is or should be: What's in the bread that is bad for you? The next question is: How much bread do we have each meal or each day? Do we limit ourselves to one serving or do we consume several servings at a time each time? With all the added ingredients that are detrimental to health, the more servings of bread we have the greater the risk to our health. Also, the more servings of bread made with refined flour, the greater the number of empty calories we consume and this can lead to weight gain, belly fat and all the other risks associated with visceral fat and excess weight.
For safer choices, we must get in the habit of reading the list of ingredients carefully and making sure we avoid those listed above starting with refined flour, high fructose corn syrup, potassium bromate, and hydrogenated oil. In fact, the longer the list, the higher the chances of ending up with a loaf of bread that we would rather avoid if we truly knew what was in it. The basic ingredients for bread are: flour (preferably whole grain), yeast, water, and salt. If homemade and organic is not a choice, bakery-fresh bread is a safer option. These are less likely to contain preservatives and other food chemicals used to add flavor or texture, and to prevent rancidity.
My favorite bread is made with sprouted grains. Ezekiel 4:9 is the one I recommend if your store supplies it. Sprouting grains improves nutrient access to consumers.
Compare a typical American lunch of a bagel with 2 tablespoons of cream cheese. The calorie count is around 400 calories with a carb total of 70 grams and a glycemic index of 72 for only 50 grams of carbs. This makes it a high glycemic index food, which means that it raises blood sugar fast. The glycemic index ranks foods based on a scale that goes from 0 to around 100. Those with a glycemic index between 71-100 are high, 51-70 are moderate and 50 and below are low. The online resource found at SELFNutritionData on the nutritiondata.self.com website helps to identify the glycemic index of plant foods. Another useful resource to identify the GI of common foods is a Harvard Health Publications online article which includes a, "[g]lycemic index of 60+ foods".
What is a safer replacement for a bagel and cream cheese?
You can swap the bagel with an egg tortilla wrap an egg tortilla wrap with a 10 inch tortilla (about 185 calories, 50 grams of carbs), 1/2 hard boiled egg (78 calories) 1/2 tablespoon of almond butter (49 calories) or coconut butter (around 58 calories), smoked salmon (about 59 calories) and some lettuce (10 calories) you are eating around 379 calories, which is the same amount of carbs (50 grams) but because it is higher in protein, its impact on blood sugar is much lower as the glycemic index score is around 30. This is much more filling and a safer choice than a bagel and cream cheese.
If you want to keep bread in your diet, try and change from white refined bread to wholegrain, rye bread or corn tortilla made from maize flour. Also, when you’re eating a meal with bread make sure your plate is full of high fiber foods with a low glycemic index which will slow down your digestion and keep your blood sugar levels in check.
You can use sweet potatoes to make flatbreads and because I always prefer all natural, less ingredients in my cooking, this is one easy-to-follow recipe that I have adapted to make this 2 ingredients to make, cooked sweet potatoes and oat flour (I substitute with cassava flour) flatbread. You can also make omelette wrap or lettuce wraps. Because I do not digest dairy, I replace cream cheese with hummus, and butter with slices of avocados. At breakfast time, rather than toast, try porridge, poached egg and avocado or a high fibre, low-sugar cereal made with a mix of quinoa, gluten-free oatmeal and chia seeds or make it creamier with either a tablespoon of almond butter or coconut butter to each serving and will melt well if served hot. Add a little almond milk if you like it soupy.
If you’re not at home during lunchtime, then take something in a Tupperware. Try homemade Bolognese sauce replacing zucchini spirals instead of spaghetti, lentils with squash and carrots or cauliflower rice and curry. Pack some baby carrots, celery and hummus or an apple and some seed crackers as healthy snacks.
I know that the thought of giving up a staple like bread may seem overwhelming at first, but there are plenty of alternatives which you’ll find just as filling and even healthier. Keep an open mind, you'll be surprised at how much you can learn and improve your health when you become more intuitive and pay attention to what your food choices, in this case bread does to your weight, your belly fat, your blood sugar, your heart and all other bodily systems and organs in your body.
Choose food wisely! Bread can be a part of a healthy diet, but do not get carried away by the taste and flavors in many commercial choices. The added ingredients will do more harm than good.
Ready to learn more about how smart carbs can help you shrink belly fat? Check out this book in which I take you along on my journey to uncovering what it takes to shrink belly fat as a woman in midlife and the results I achieved when I followed the same guidelines! It includes tons of useful tips that you can apply right away and a chapter on how to make carbohydrates, including bread, work better for your waistline!
Rose Kadende-Kaiser, Ph.D.
Integrative Nutrition Health Coach