Bread Gets a Bad Reputation, but We Asked Dietitians For the Facts

Fad diets have made us fear bread, but is that because it's actually unhealthy or have we been misguided? With so many different types of bread to choose from, it can be hard to know what you're actually putting into your body. But let's face it, no nose can ignore the aroma of a freshly baked loaf. And from tomato and mozzarella to classic grilled chicken, sandwiches serve as a vehicle for nearly all food groups. We asked dietitians for the facts behind bread's intimidating influence. Here's what they said.

What types of bread are unhealthy?

"When you eat white bread, it's kind of like you're eating sugar," said Paige Whitmire, RD, LDN, a dietitian at One on One Fitness Consultants. "It doesn't have any protein or fiber, so it's digested and absorbed really quickly, and it spikes and crashes our blood sugar, which can lead to diabetes and weight gain."

In the process of making white bread, the grain is stripped of its most nutrient-rich layers, one of which is its outer shell called bran, explained Monica Auslander, MS, RD, LDN, the founder of Essence Nutrition. "What happens is we strip away that outer bran, that beautiful shell that has all of the vitamins and fiber, and we add them synthetically back in to create what's called enriched flour." Removing portions of the grain increases its shelf life, Auslander explained.

What types of bread should I be eating?

"You always want to choose whole-grain and whole-wheat bread because they have more fiber, protein, and vitamins and minerals than white breads do," Whitmire said. Whole grains have the nutrient-dense layers that refined grains are stripped of, providing the protein and fiber the body needs to stabilize the blood sugar, she explained. "Every time you choose white bread, you're spiking your blood sugar much more than wheat bread would." Whitmire emphasized rapid spikes and crashes in blood sugar can lead to a number of health problems; diabetes and weight gain are just the beginning.

What should I look for in the supermarket?

Bread labels can trick you, Auslander explained, because if a loaf says whole grain on the front, that could mean a very small portion of the grains are whole but the majority are actually refined.

"If you see multigrain, health nut, healthy grain, or any of that kind of stuff on the front label, that doesn't mean it falls under a whole-wheat or a whole-grain bread category," Whitmire said. "You want to flip it over and always read the ingredient list to make sure the first ingredient is whole-wheat flour or whole-grain flour. If you see white flour or enriched, even if it says enriched whole-wheat flour, it's not a whole-grain or a whole-wheat product. It's essentially a white product."

After you've found the first ingredient is whole-wheat or grain flour, the next thing to look for is the fiber content. Whitmire recommends using three grams of fiber per slice or serving as a baseline. Anything that meets or exceeds that minimum will help slow digestion and keep you feeling full.

Why does my body need bread?

"Carbs are your body's number one fuel source and the only fuel source for your brain," Whitmire said. "That's why when people go on low-carb diets, they feel like crap, they feel tired, and they can't focus." Whitmire explained that without carbohydrates, the body will begin to break down muscle and fat stores for energy, but that leads to a lot of fatigue. "Carbs are way more efficient. It's what your body wants."

Just remember, bread isn't your only option for carbohydrates, said Katie Kissane, MS, RD, owner of NoCo Sports Nutrition and Fitness. Strive for variety by eating oatmeal, quinoa, fruits, and starchy vegetables. "Bread can definitely be a good carbohydrate choice, but I wouldn't necessarily want someone to eat bread as their only carbohydrate source all day."

How much bread is too much?

"People always ask how many slices they can eat in a day," Whitmire said. "It's not 10 slices or two slices. It's just not that straightforward." How much bread or how many carbohydrates you should be consuming is completely dependent on your own health profile, she explained.

"You want to avoid eating too many carbs in one sitting," Whitmire said. "It's about getting the proper portions of carbohydrates spread throughout the day at each meal and each snack but not too much at any one time. So with little bouts of fuel, you use it, get a little bit more, use it, and at no point does it spike your blood sugar or lead to weight gain."

The daily value for carbohydrates as set by the US Food and Drug Administration is 300 grams per day. This is based on a 2,000-calorie diet, meaning your actual requirements will vary based on your calorie needs. The United States Department of Agriculture's MyPlate guidelines say grains should make up about 30 percent of your plate at any given meal, with half of those grains being whole. The guidelines also say half of your plate should be fruits and vegetables, which are other sources of carbohydrates.