“I love bread,” Oprah proclaimed in a recent Weight Watchers commercial — and meme lovers and GIF makers feasted on her passion. But Oprah is hardly alone in her love for the chewy, crusty, wondrous wonder that is bread. It’s a ubiquitous part of most diets: the basis of many morning meals, the foundation of any lunchtime sandwich, and the opening act to dinner at just about every restaurant you can think of.
Too much can wreak havoc on your health — mainly in the form of unwanted calories. But choosing the right bread can be a real health boon. One ounce of whole-wheat bread provides significant fiber and protein, as well as B vitamins, calcium, iron, magnesium, and zinc, points out Keri Gans, a registered dietitian and author of “The Small Change Diet.” Optimal health doesn’t have to be a matter of swearing off the bread basket entirely, but instead getting picky about which type you choose.
And when it comes to picking a loaf, well, “it can be totally overwhelming,” agrees Gans. But these few rules of thumb can help you savor each slice — while actually benefiting your health.
Go Whole or Go Home
All grains start as an intact seed made up of bran, germ, and endosperm, but as they’re refined the two outermost parts are stripped away — removing much of the grain’s protein and more than a dozen key nutrients, says Gans. But breads made with whole grains have the protein and important vitamins and minerals that their more refined counterparts lack. The trick to bagging the best bread is to really look at the label — not just the front of the packaging.
“If something says ‘whole grain’ that doesn’t mean it’s made with 100 percent whole grains,” says Gans. In fact, if you scrutinize the ingredient list and see “whole wheat” listed as the second item, the product may contain far more refined flour than whole grains. Look for the claim “100 percent whole wheat” or “100 percent whole grain” and check that a whole grain is actually listed as the first ingredient on the list. The fiber boost that comes from whole grain bread means each slice will be more satisfying (and keep you full longer), and whole grains as part of a balanced diet are associated with a host of health benefits, including lower cholesterol and a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.
Think Short and Non-Sweet
Sleuthing for whole grains isn’t the only reason to look at the ingredient list. “You also want to look for a maximum of four ingredients, if a bread is made from a single grain,” says David Katz, MD, and the director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center. “You can make bread with a whole-grain flour, water, and yeast — trace amounts of salt and sugar may be acceptable, but if oils and texturizers come into play, be careful.”
Many mass-manufactured varieties do contain all manner of emulsifiers, bleaching agents, preservatives, and added sugars. It’s not hard to find a loaf with more than 20 ingredients in the grocery store. And when bread is made with refined flour and then contains added sugar, “it can drive up blood sugar and blood insulin, which contributes to a whole host of health issues, including diabetes,” says Katz. Added oils can up the calorie count unnecessarily.
“Those multigrain breads with a lengthy ingredient list and a fancy package, trying to look like health food?” says Katz. “They’re imposters.”
Of course, our growing obsession with all things artisanal means you may be ditching the grocery aisle for your local bakery, where choosing a healthful bread can get even more complicated. For clarity, speak up. “You can’t choose based on what a bread looks like, so ask the baker,” Gans urges. “Never be afraid to ask questions: What ingredients are in this? Is it 100 percent whole grains? Are there added sugars? What about oil?” A bakery might not be able to tell you how many calories per slice a bread contains, but the baker should be able to answer your questions about ingredients.
And before they hand you that big, beautiful hand-made loaf, ask them to slice it for you. “Sliced bread is portion control,” says Gans. “And most people cutting bread at home will make their slices bigger than intended — meaning they’re accidentally consuming extra calories that they don’t even want.”
Savor Every Bite
To keep the bread basket from throwing your diet out of whack, take stock of how much you’re eating most days. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends eating 6 ounces of fiber-rich grain foods daily, based on a 2,000-calorie diet. That’s about six slices…if the only grain you’re eating is bread.
If you find you’re overdoing it, start by cutting out any ho-hum bread items that you don’t truly enjoy — say, that bland dinner roll alongside your soup, or that morning toast you mostly eat out of habit. Then double down on quality and be picky about the bread you do choose to eat. You may find that one slice of whole-grain, high-fiber bread is more filling than the two slices of fully stuff you typically use for a sandwich, points out Gans. Finally, let yourself enjoy — and savor — the bread you do eat. “You don’t need bread to have an optimal diet, but you can have an optimal diet and eat bread,” says Katz. Bon appétit, indeed!
Slow the Aftereffects
The reason it may feel as if you’re in a food coma after eating a big slice of bread is that most bread is loaded with quickly digested carbohydrates, says Gans. That can cause your blood glucose to spike and then plummet, leaving you feeling sluggish and sleepy. You can slow digestion (and avoid the high glycemic roller coaster) by pairing bread with healthy fats, such as nut butter or avocado. And slower digestion means you’ll feel fuller longer, says Gans.
You can also consider the glycemic power of sour: With sourdough, the grain (usually wheat) is metabolized by bacteria during a fermentation process. That means the resulting loaf has less starch and simple sugar content, and so it’s digested more slowly and won’t cause the same blood sugar spikes, says Gans. In one small study, participants who ate sourdough had lower post-meal glucose levels than those who ate white, wheat or multigrain bread — and the difference lasted even after a second meal, several hours later.
Toasting bread may also reduce the glycemic load. Maybe you should splurge for avocado toast.