Back in the ‘90s, the food pyramid told us to eat six to 11 servings of bread, cereal, rice, and pasta per day. But then the anti-carb revolution hit, leading many people to all but shun those foods completely. For some, a life without avocado toast and warm, pre-dinner rolls is no life at all. And what about our burgers? Are we really supposed to opt for the lettuce bun every time?
Here, experts answer the question: Is bread bad for you, period?
The History Of Bread
“Humans have been eating bread for millennia without a problem,” says Jason Way, N.D., a naturopathic doctor in Novato, California. In fact, in Ikaria, Greece, which is considered a ‘Blue Zone’ (a hotbed of people who have lived to age 100 or beyond), the population routinely eats sourdough bread.
How could people possibly be so healthy and eat bread? “Traditional bread contained only flour, water, and yeast,” explains Sharon Zarabi, R.D., C.D.N., C.P.T., Bariatric Program Director at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. People hand-milled whole grains like brown rice, quinoa, buckwheat, and corn into flour. So, the resulting bread contained all of the grain’s original fiber and nutrients, like B vitamins, iron, selenium, potassium, and magnesium.
The Modern-Day Bread Aisle
Meanwhile, most of the breads you find in the grocery store today are highly processed. “Wheat is now machine-ground and separated to a level never before seen, removing more fiber and any need for actual digestion,” says Way.
Not to mention, today’s flours may contain residue from pesticides used to protect crops from pests, weeds, and disease. Though fungicides and other pesticides have been used in farming across the country for the past 50 years, many experts still question their impact on health.
“Many of these substances are toxic—and some appear to be carcinogenic,” explains nutritionist Brian Bender, Ph.D., PN1, co-founder of diet tracking website Intake. “Most crops grown with pesticides retain residues of these substances as they make their way to market and onto your dinner plate. And while most of this residue falls within the threshold of what’s legally ‘safe,’ the health consequences of long-term exposure and effects of consuming multiple substances are not fully understood.”
Plus, current use of genetically-modified organisms—which is common in grains like wheat and corn—creates and alters proteins that may have a health impact, argues Way.
Those aren’t modern bread’s only issues: In addition to being stripped of nutrients and tainted by modern farming, it also contains a number of undesirable added ingredients. “Pick up a package of bread nowadays and you can’t even pronounce half the ingredients,” says Zarabi. “First, it’s fortified with vitamins and minerals removed during processing.” Then you’ve got sugar, salt, and fat added to enhance flavor, conditioners to improve texture, and preservatives to prolong shelf life—none of which provide nutrition.
But What About Whole-Grain Bread?
“Whole grains have been associated with several health benefits, including lowering the risk of heart disease and lowering bad cholesterol,” says Meghan Sedivy, R.D., L.D.N., dietitian with Fresh Thyme Farmers Market.
Thing is, whole grains and whole-grain bread aren’t the same thing. Though bread may be ‘whole-grain,’ it’s certainly not whole in itself, says Way. Whole foods are those that make it into our kitchens in their original, Earth-given form—and that’s just not the case with bread.
That said, if you are going to eat wheat bread, 100-percent whole-grain bread is your healthiest option, says Bender. “Despite its well-identified health benefits, like supporting weight loss, improving cardiovascular health, and attenuating insulin spikes, most people consume far less fiber than they should.” So, when toast or occasional pasta nights are non-negotiable, you might as well go whole-grain and get some fiber out of them.
Way recommends choosing a brand that uses sustainable ingredients, but no pesticides or fungicides. Look for the USDA organic seal.
How Much Bread Is Too Much?
How much bread—even whole-grain—you can handle, depends on your overall lifestyle, goals, and health concerns.
“The average healthy person should feel completely free to eat whole-grain breads regularly,” says Bender. The USDA Dietary Guidelines currently recommend up to six to eight ounces of grains (ideally whole grains) per day. A slice of whole-grain bread is about one ounce.
“So, you can technically eat bread every day if you’d like,” says Bender. “But it is important to keep your entire diet in mind and not let bread become too large of a component.” Plus, though whole-grain bread can fit into a healthy diet, it’s certainly not a requirement.
Who Should Limit Their Bread Consumption?
If you struggle with blood sugar control, have insulin resistance or diabetes, or suffer from PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome), Way recommends limiting bread—and carbs overall. These groups should prioritize blood sugar control and consider bread an occasional treat: “No more than once a week—and never too much at once,” he says. “Even better, save it for rare occasions—less than once a month.”
Whole-grain bread is also a no-go for anyone with gluten issues. People with the autoimmune condition celiac disease truly cannot process the protein, but others with non-celiac gluten sensitivities may also experience abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, brain fog, rashes, or headaches, after eating bread. According to Bender, only about one percent of the population has celiac disease, but anywhere between two and 10 percent may have non-celiac gluten sensitivities.
Whether gluten is innately problematic for all people is still hotly debated—but for now, the majority of healthy people can have that slice of bread without worrying too much, says Bender.
If you’re on good terms with wheat but want the most nutrition per slice possible, try sprouted grain bread (like Ezekiel or Alvarado Bakery). These loaves are made with organic, sprouted whole grains and legumes like wheat, millet, barley, spelt, soybeans, and lentils. Because the grains and legumes are allowed to sprout before they’re processed, their nutrient content—which includes soluble fiber, protein, folate, vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta-carotene—increases. Plus, their carb content decreases! Not to mention, sprouted grains are also easier to digest, says Zaradi.
While completely grain-free options are still hard to find in your average grocery store, your local health food store may offer some creative alternatives. Look for wraps and other bready products made with coconut flour and/or almond flour, which are low in carbs and high in fiber. If you’re feeling creative, Pinterest also houses plenty of recipes, like this Keto Connect bread and this five-ingredient Paleo bread.