Bread has a long history. We’ve been relying on it for thousands of years and it’s a staple food for many cultures. Yet, these days, bread is also highly controversial. Many people see it as being incredibly unhealthy, partly because it is high in carbs, contains gluten, and is relatively low in nutrients. Yet, we still need to ask, is bread good for you?
The answer to that question isn’t as clear cut as you might expect.
For one thing, there are plenty of types of bread, including white bread, sourdough, whole grain bread, rye bread, and sprouted bread. Each type has its own implications for your health, which is partly why it’s important to talk about bread nutrition, including the carbs and nutrients present, plus what these mean for your health.
Then there’s the fact that the impacts of carbs are highly debatable. Should you be cutting out carbs whenever possible or are people getting upset over nothing? In this post, we’re taking a close look at these areas to see where bread does well and where it might be a problem instead.
Is Bread Good For You?
- Bread Nutrition
- Why Bread Might Be Harmful
- How Bread Can, Sometimes, Offer Benefits
- Types Of Bread And How They Compare
- Healthy Alternatives To Bread
- Final Thoughts
Let’s begin with the basic nutritional profile for white bread and whole wheat bread. This does vary substantially depending on the type of bread you choose, so it’s always important to check out the ingredients label.
For a single slice of whole wheat bread, you’re looking at this profile:
- 82 calories
- Fat: 1.1 grams
- Carbohydrates: 13.8 grams
- Fiber: 1.9 grams
- Sugars: 1.4 grams
- Protein: 4 grams
For white bread, you might see something like this:
- 70 calories
- Fat: 1 gram
- Carbohydrates: 14 grams
- Fiber: 0 grams
- Sugars: 1 gram
- Protein: 2 grams
Remember though, these nutrition profiles focus on a single slice of bread. You’ll often be having more than one slice per serving. These two profiles suggest that whole wheat bread is the better choice. You get much more fiber and protein per serving, with only a little more sugar and calories. However, as we’ll discuss later, it’s not as simple as that.
There are also vitamins and minerals present, which can include iron, calcium, magnesium, vitamin B6, and others. These nutrients mostly come from the wheat used to make the bread, although some companies add extra nutrients, including iron and folic acid.
Why Bread Might Be Harmful
The Carb Content
Carbs have always been a part of our diets, but they’ve never been focused on as heavily as they are these days. There are now countless blogs and health books talking about the dangers of carbs, including how carbs can increase your blood sugar levels, promote inflammation, and increase your risk of some diseases.
We’ve talked about carbs often as well, including posts on low carb cookbooks, the best low carb foods, and whether carbs are actually a problem. While debates still rage about how many carbs we should be eating each day and which types are best, it is clear that decreasing carb intake is often a wise idea.
The worst culprits are simple carbs, as these are digested quickly and have a faster impact on our blood sugar levels. Such carbs are often found in processed foods, but they’re present in some healthy foods as well, including bread (particularly white bread).
Along with being high in carbs, bread is a significant source of gluten. This protein is problematic, as many people cannot digest it well. If you have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, you may see side effects like stomach cramps, fatigue, diarrhea, bloating, and difficulty concentrating whenever you eat bread.
Celiac disease is particularly concerning, as this is an autoimmune disorder that can affect your health in a variety of ways. Gluten sensitivity has similar symptoms, but is typically less severe and you may be able to cut down your gluten intake, rather than avoiding gluten entirely.
Regardless, the symptoms of either condition aren’t fun and may be enough of a reason to avoid gluten-containing grains like wheat entirely.
The Grains Have Been Ground
Part of the problem with bread is that the grains have been ground and sometimes processed as well. Ground grains have a much faster blood sugar impact than whole ones, which makes them less healthy.
We tend to get more benefits when it takes our bodies a while to digest food. This is one reason why whole foods are so much more powerful than processed ones.
Contains A Surprising Amount Of Sugar
Some sugar is needed to create bread, but many companies add extra sugar to create a semi-sweet product. You’ll often be getting a gram or so of sugar in a single slice of bread, sometimes even more than that.
This problem doesn’t just happen with white bread either. Even whole wheat bread, which is promoted as healthier, may have a decent amount of sugar per slice. Sometimes we’re talking about roughly a gram, but other times there might be three or four grams in a single slice.
While a gram or two isn’t an extremely high amount, the sugar still adds up fast. After all, you might be having two pieces of bread at a time or may use bread for more than one meal. The same pattern applies to other bread products too, including rolls and wraps.
Combine this with the hidden sugar elsewhere you in your diet and you might be consuming much more sugar than you realize.
Can Spike Your Blood Sugar levels
Bread, particularly white bread, is a problem for your blood sugar levels. It’s considered a high glycemic index (GI) food, which means that it quickly changes your blood sugar levels, often leading to a spike in blood sugar and then a subsequent drop.
This effect can mean that your energy bounces all over the place and may also increase your risk of type 2 diabetes and weight gain. Swapping to whole grain bread should be healthier, but it’s still important to pay attention to your serving size and the nutritional profile of the bread.
You’ll see the most benefits by focusing on breads that are high in fiber and low in sugar. You can reduce the blood sugar impact further by carefully choosing what you serve with your bread. For example, fresh veggies provide you with extra fiber, while protein-packed ingredients like chicken breast can be helpful as well.
It’s Often Highly Processed
If you buy bread at the grocery store, then you’re looking at a highly processed product. Some of the chemicals used help to condition the dough, to whiten flour, or to help the bread rise. A few of them are even considered unsafe in various countries, but are still allowed in American bread.
Such patterns aren’t at all encouraging. Even if such additives don’t do harm, which is highly debatable, they certainly don’t provide health benefits. They’re not going to help you live longer or protect you from diseases. Instead, they’re used to help manufacturers save money or create the best tasting product possible.
It’s much better to focus avoid additives whenever you can and consume a diet that’s rich in whole foods. If you are eating something processed, like bread made with refined flour, be sure to check the ingredients label carefully and make sure you’re comfortable with everything they include.
It’s Easy To Eat Too Much
Bread is delicious, relatively light, and not that filling on its own. It’s very easy to overdo it and eat much more in a serving than we mean to.
This pattern happens all the time at restaurants, when a bread basket is brought out before the meal – or when we’re served a hamburger on a large bun and still eat the entire thing. To see the most benefits and fewest problems from bread, we need to keep an eye on our portions and stick with reasonable amounts of bread.
How Bread Can, Sometimes, Offer Benefits
It Can Increase Your Healthy Food Consumption
Bread and bread products are often used as the base for sandwiches, appetizers, wraps, and burgers. Such meals can often be very good for you.
Take sandwiches as an example. The bread acts as a way to bring together all types of healthy fillings, like lettuce, lean lunch meat, tomatoes, egg, radishes, hummus, and more. The flavor and the texture of the bread contrast the other ingredients nicely, while also helping to hold them all together.
Even people who aren’t fond of vegetables will often eat a sandwich that’s packed with veggies. The same is true for wraps and even burgers.
Other Ingredients Decrease The Blood Sugar Effect
We talked earlier about how bread can spike your blood sugar levels. While this does happen, the effect isn’t always relevant, as you’re often not eating bread on its own.
This is why a full sandwich, with plenty of vegetables, some meat, and perhaps some butter will have a much lower blood sugar effect than bread on its own.
Contains Some Fiber And Protein
Fiber and protein are both important macronutrients. Fiber is particularly relevant for digestion, while protein helps with muscle development. They both help to keep you satisfied too, which can reduce the amount that you snack.
The fiber and protein content often isn’t amazing (especially if you focus on white bread), but every little bit counts for these macronutrients. Indeed, many of us aren’t getting enough fiber each day currently and bread is an easy way to boost your fiber intake.
The amount of fiber and protein can vary dramatically from one brand to the next, so it’s always worth checking the ingredients label before purchasing a loaf. Breads with some grains still intact or with added seeds are especially good for fiber.
There Are Vitamins And Minerals Too
Bread isn’t always low in nutrients. Sometimes it can contain a decent amount of vitamins and minerals. Some of these come naturally from the grains and other ingredients, while other nutrients are added artificially.
Getting vitamins and minerals naturally through food, rather than through fortification is always ideal. Still, the most important thing is simply getting enough nutrients. If fortified bread helps you to do this, then it could be a useful part of your diet.
A Source Of Whole Grains
If you choose the right type, bread is a useful source of whole grains. Swapping from refined grains to whole grains is thought to be very important for your heart, helping to decrease your levels of total cholesterol and lowering your risk of heart disease.
Whole grains have been linked to other benefits too, such as the ability to decreased inflammation, improve digestion, and decrease the risk of type 2 diabetes.
This isn’t just a claim from people who love bread either. Many different studies have looked at the effects of whole grains. Plus, whole grains regularly feature in healthy eating approaches, including the Mediterranean diet.
However, much of the research on this topic has focused on whole grains in general, rather than whole grain bread. Because bread is processed and often relies on ground grains, it mightn’t offer all the same benefits as other types of whole grains.
It Provides Energy
Despite the controversy, carbs aren’t all bad. They’re our body’s preferred source of energy, which is why they give us such a boost.
Getting carbs when you need them can be important, helping to give you plenty of energy for getting through your day. Consuming plenty of healthy ingredients at the same time helps to slow down the energy effect of the carbs, giving you more sustained energy.
Can Improve Your Mood
You’ve probably noticed this effect yourself – carbs are a mood booster. They help you feel better almost instantly, by increasing your levels of serotonin.
In fact, having carbs regularly is an important way to stabilize your moods and improve your mental health. You might even find that they help to lower your risk of depression and anxiety.
This mood stabilizing effect may be relevant for eating well and losing weight too. After all, we tend to make better choices about food when we feel good emotionally compared to when we don’t.
Types Of Bread And How They Compare
Minimally processed bread is always your best choice, particularly versions that avoid additives entirely. However, there’s more to it than just that. The type of bread you choose is also relevant to your health.
White bread is often considered the worst option, as it is highly processed and the most nutritious parts of the grain have been stripped away. Plus, many commercial products rely on additives and contain a surprising amount of sugar – features that don’t do your health any favors at all.
If you are going to focus on white bread, then it’s best to make it yourself or buy it from a trusted local bakery. This way you can be certain that additives are kept to a minimum. Plus, if you make the bread yourself, you know exactly what goes into it.
Whole Wheat Bread
As the name suggests, whole wheat bread is made using all of the wheat grain, rather than just the endosperm. This should make whole wheat bread a more nutritious choice, one that is also higher in fiber.
Yet, whole wheat bread isn’t as amazing as it first seems.
One problem is that the grains are still ground, so our body digests them differently than if they were whole. The grinding increases the speed at which the carbs in the bread hit our bloodstream and there isn’t enough fiber to dramatically slow down the effect.
There’s also debate about the fiber and nutrients. Studies in humans suggest that we’re not too good at breaking down bran, so we don’t get all the extra fiber and nutrients that we expect. As a result, whole wheat bread and white bread may have similar health effects.
Bread With Whole Grains
Some products use whole grains rather than relying exclusively on flour. Doing so should decrease the blood sugar impact of the bread and provide you with more health benefits.
The bread could be even better still if it relies on sprouted grains. The sprouting process can decrease some of the antinutrients found in grains and make the bread easier to digest.
Products that rely on whole grains, particularly sprouted ones, are often less heavily processed than white bread and wheat bread, and less likely to rely on additives. You’ll still need to check the ingredients label, of course, but this type of bread is certainly promising.
Sourdough is unusual, as it uses wild yeasts and Lactobacillus bacteria to help it rise, rather than commercial yeast. The bread has a distinct tangy flavor and tends to be somewhat chewy. It’s also a fantastic one to make at home, as it doesn’t require kneading.
Sourdough may also be healthier than other types of bread, as the fermentation process breaks down some of the gluten. As a result, sourdough ends up being more digestible than most other options.
You can even make sourdough using whole wheat flour and mix in some seeds to create an even more nutritious loaf. Or, for arguably the healthiest possible option, why not make sprouted sourdough bread?
Healthy Alternatives To Bread
There are also options for people trying to avoid regular wheat bread entirely.
Low Carb, Gluten-Free Breads
Many people have worked to create bread alternatives that are naturally low in carbs and are often entirely gluten free. Such products are perfect for keto dieters, but also work well for anyone who wants to be healthier.
Recipes rely on other types of flour and extra ingredients to make something similar to conventional bread. Doing so can be difficult, as the gluten in wheat strongly influences the flavor and texture of bread. Indeed, you’ll notice that some recipes (like keto cloud bread) are often lighter or eggier than you might want.
You can also find bread that avoids wheat, but isn’t necessarily low in carbs. Some of these can even be found in local stores, like Udi’s Gluten-Free White Sandwich Bread. Such products can be helpful, as they allow you to still enjoy bread, without any issues from gluten.
Still, remember that being gluten free isn’t enough to make a product healthy. Some products will still be highly processed and may use concerning ingredients. This is why it’s important to check ingredients labels closely and look for minimally processed foods whenever possible.
Using Veggies Instead Of Bread
Rather than finding a specialized recipe, why not skip the bread entirely and use something else? Lettuce wraps instead of wheat wraps are a common example of this pattern.
Substituting bread for other ingredients like this can work well. However, it’s important to think about the changes in nutrients. For example, if you’re cutting the carbs in your meal right down, you’re likely to see a slower energy boost than you’d get using bread. This mightn’t be the effect you want.
It’s easy to be polarized about food, to think that some ingredients are incredibly healthy and we should rely on them, while others are bad for us and should be avoided almost entirely. Yet, nutrition doesn’t really work like that. Most foods can be incredibly helpful in some situations and harmful if consumed too heavily.
Bread is no exception to that pattern. Despite the high carb content, the way it can spike blood sugar levels, and the gluten, high-quality bread can still be a good source of energy and whole grains. The trick is to choose your bread carefully, looking for products that are minimally processed and don’t rely on additives.
Think about your serving sizes as well, along with your personal needs. If sensitive to gluten, for example, or don’t do well on a high carb diet, you might need to cut out wheat bread entirely and find other types. But, if this isn’t the case, having bread every so often is probably helpful and could even bring health benefits.
Besides, bread is a very practical ingredient. That counts for something, right? You only need bread and a few fillings to have a delicious meal that requires no cooking at all.