Is eating bread good or bad for your health?

Is eating bread good or bad for your health

Bread has been part of the human diet for centuries, ever since mankind started cultivating grains. Bread itself, and the bread-making process has evolved and changed over time, particularly in recent decades, with the development of large scale food processing. Bread forms an important element of the Spanish diet (you will find it served with almost every meal), however here at La Crisalida Retreats we decided not to include bread as part of our plant-based diet. Some guests ask us why we do not serve bread so this month we decided to take a fresh look at bread, and bread products to answer this question. In this article we look at how bread is made, nutrition, habits, cravings, gluten and consider why you might choose to reduce or exclude bread from your diet.

How is bread made?

You only need four ingredients to make a traditional bread loaf: flour (usually wheat flour), yeast, salt and water. A baker would make a dough by combining these ingredients. They would knead the dough, leave it in a bowl to rise (for up to 2 hours), then they would shape the bread, score it and bake it in an oven.

With the advent of industrial food processing the bread making process has changed worldwide over. For example, in the UK, the standard British white loaf, is soft, white and light and lasts in the store cupboard for a week (or sometimes longer), before going mouldy or hard. In the 1960s a new process was developed – the Chorleywood Bread Process and it is this process which created the white, prepacked loaf. Many more ingredients are added to the baking process to create this soft, long lasting bread. These “processing aids” include enzymes, flour treatment agents, reducing agents, emulsifiers and preservatives. If your bread comes with a label, read it and see what is included. (Sometimes, things with labels might be best avoided!).

In recent years supermarkets have built “in-house” bakeries, so when we walk into a supermarket our noses smell “fresh baked bread”. Heaven! However, not all might be as it seems. Some in-house bakeries do not make the bread from scratch on the premises, instead they might use “bake-off” bread. It´s where a part-baked dough is taken out of a packet cooked in the oven on the premises – not too bad, I can hear you say. However, sometimes this part-baked dough has been frozen for up to one year before it is baked. Not exactly “fresh” in my book! Next time you are at the supermarket, ask the baker if they made the bread on the premises i.e. made it from the raw ingredients. You can also test it at home – genuine fresh bread (made that day by the baker) can last for a couple of days and still feel fresh. If your supermarket bought “fresh baked bread” is hard the next day, then you might start to question how fresh it was to start with.

Nutrition and calories in bread

Wheat is a grain. It contains many nutrients (vitamins and minerals) that the body needs to maintain good health, particularly thiamine, niacin, riboflavin, iron, magnesium and selenium. The more “whole” (unprocessed or less refined) a grain is, the higher the concentration of nutrients it will contain. Wholegrains are usually a good source of dietary fibre, and they are generally low in fat and low in cholesterol. Nutrients can be lost during the milling process to make flour. In the UK, by law the key vitamins and minerals in white and brown bread must be restored to the same levels as a wholegrain variety, so vitamins and minerals are added back in.

Remember, you can get the nutrients in bread (or whole wheat) from many other sources, not just bread.

White bread is produced when you use white flour. There are two ways to create white flour: (i) mill (grind) one part of the wholegrain only (the endosperm) or (ii) use white wheat (so you can get wholegrain white flour – this is a relatively new variety of grain). If you purchase white flour in the supermarket, you have a choice between bleached or unbleached. Bleached means it has been chemically treated (so you might choose to avoid this). Wholewheat or wholegrain flour uses the whole grain in the milling process.

Bread is classed as “starchy” – in the food guidelines for countries worldwide over, bread is classed in the same group as pasta, rice, potato and breakfast cereals (amongst other things). Most countries suggest that up to one third of your daily diet should come from this “starchy” group. We suggest that you consider including other items from this starchy group into your diet – for example, rice, millet, buckwheat, potato, couscous, oats, barley. When you do eat bread, pasta or breakfast cereals, select the wholegrain variety and the least processed option you can.

Bread has relatively high glycaemic index (GI) (read more about glycaemic index here). In short, foods with a high GI tend to give us a spike in energy, which is usually followed a couple of hours later by a dip or big slump. More on this later.

If you want to consider calories – 100g of bread (roughly 4 slices) contains around 260 calories. Comparing this to other wholegrains: 100g of cooked brown rice contains roughly 130 calories, 100g cooked oats has around 160 calories, or 100g cooked millet is also around 140 calories. You will feel fuller for longer eating these other cooked wholegrain options than eating bread. All these whole grains have a lower GI than bread. Additionally, these wholegrains will be give more nutrition (vitamins and minerals) for your calories than eating 4 slices of bread (even if it´s wholemeal bread).

One of the four main ingredients in bread is salt. Salt is added to give strength to the dough, it holds the carbon dioxide and slows down the growth of yeast, all of which affects the texture of the bread. Guidelines now exist to regulate the amount of salt that can be added to bread. In the UK they were recently revised downwards, following the increased awareness of the effect of salt on blood pressure and health. If you are making bread at home, use a good quality natural salt (read our earlier article on salt).

Changing the habit of eating bread

Eating bread can become a habit which is difficult to break. Many years ago, my standard diet would start in the morning with toast for breakfast (usually white sliced loaf), a sandwich for lunch, followed by maybe pasta and garlic bread. This was a habit. Eating bread can be a “lazy” form of eating – it does not take that much effort to make a sandwich for lunch, two slices of bread, with some cheese slapped in the middle.

If this sounds like you, maybe this month you might choose to break the habit of eating bread, and create a new healthy habit. You can read more about changing habits in our earlier articles: Seven steps to creating new habits, part 1 and part 2. We also share tips on how to change your eating habits here. Changing habits can take time and practice, so set your mind to it, get organised and give it a go.

Cut out the cravings

Bread is a refined carbohydrate which, as mentioned above, has a relatively high GI. The effect on your body when you eat bread is a spike in blood sugars (a boost of energy), as the carbohydrates are broken down into glucose. Glucose can then trigger the production of serotonin (the “feel good” or happy hormone), so we create an association between eating bread and feeling “good”. After the spike in our energy levels, there is a fall or crash (a few hours later). This rollercoaster effect can lead to cravings and we can get addicted to the feelings that accompany eating bread. Take a moment to reflect – do you crave buttered toast on a morning or night? How about bread and cheese? Do you crave bread with soup? (There may also be a habit element with all these). When you choose wholegrain products that are as close to their natural form as possible (with the least processing), your body has a more stable source of energy, so you are less likely to experience the highs and lows, and less likely to experience cravings.

Gluten and gluten free breads

Gluten is formed when flour has water added to it and this mixture is then moved (stirred, kneaded, beaten). Gluten is what makes the dough “stretchy”. Gluten is a family of proteins and acts like a glue that holds foods together. Some people are intolerant or allergic to gluten, in particular those with coeliac disease. This means that if they eat wheat or other products that contain gluten, they experience pain and other symptoms, like bloating, chronic diarrhoea or constipation, fatigue, vomiting and more.

If you regularly experience pain and other symptoms after eating bread or products containing wheat (or gluten) then you can test – exclude all products for a period of time (4 weeks) and notice if your symptoms improve or change. Read more about an exclusion diet to help relieve pain here.

To go “gluten free” you would need to exclude all products which contain wheat, rye or barley. Wheat can be found in many processed food items, so do check the labels. Many supermarkets now offer “gluten free bread” or other “gluten free” options. Often, many more preservatives or processing aids have been added to be able to produce this product. Check the ingredients and see what has been added in. We prefer to replace with wholegrains or more veggies, rather than using processed food products, to avoid adding preservatives and other chemicals into our diet.

During our research, we found some authors who suggested that the intolerance to bread and gluten that an increasing number of people now have, is actually a response to the faster industrial production of bread. In the old days bread was left to rise (ferment) for a few hours (and up to 24 hours for sourdough), which gave time for the yeast and proteins to be broken down. This meant that bread was more easily digested. With a faster production of bread (it might only now take one hour from start to finish), there is less time for things to break down, meaning it might be harder to digest.

“Healthy” options

When you want to enjoy some bread, and go to the shop to buy some we suggest that you check the ingredients used to make that bread. Remember, most breads only need four main ingredients. Some “special” breads might include more ingredients, for example, seeds, nuts, other grains, or maybe some cheese, olives or herbs. What you need to look out for is that the first ingredient is “whole” – 100% wholewheat flour, or whole rye. That means you will be eating wholegrains, and your body will get the most vitamins and minerals.

Eat fresh. There are many fabulous local bakers still getting up at 2am in the morning to make fresh bread (from scratch) for their customers. Go find your local baker.

You can also make bread at home. Search the internet and find instructions, get yourself a bread maker. Bread making can be a meditative practice if you do it mindfully!

Alternatively step away from bread or bread products altogether. Enjoy wholegrains in salads, combined with fresh fruit and veggies. It might take more planning and organisation when you first start, but soon you will feel the benefits inside.

So, why do we not serve bread at the retreat?

It´s a combination of all the above reasons:

  1. Changing habits. By serving all our meals bread-free, our guests can experience a bread-free week. They realise that they can choose to do this at home, it is possible!
  2. Cravings. We want to allow everyone´s bodies to rest so we choose to serve wholegrains which provide a smoother, more sustainable source of energy, avoiding the spikes and crash.
  3. Gluten and wheat intolerances and allergies. Many guests tell us they often experience bloating and flatulence at home. By excluding bread and the majority of wheat products we give people chance to see how their digestive system feels. Some people are quite surprised!
  4. We dislike using processed products (due to the preservatives and other chemicals which might be present), so choose not to offer manufactured “gluten free” options and use natural alternatives instead.
  5. We enjoy eating other sources of carbohydrates, from other grains and seeds that offer more variety in our diet, bringing more nutrition (more vitamins and minerals) than consuming bread offers.
  6. We prefer to use products with no added salt, so that we allow our bodies time to rest from excess table salt.

If you choose to eat bread, make a conscious decision about the type of bread you want to eat and how often you choose to eat it. Go fresh, choose wholegrains and quality ingredients. Be mindful and enjoy eating it.

Find out more about the food that we serve at La Crisalida Retreats on our food page here. We share lots of recipes on our blog page.

About the author

Lisa is one of the founders of La Crisalida Retreats. She is an Epidemiologist, therapeutic hatha and yin yoga teacher and also teaches mindfulness meditation. Lisa has studied NLP and hypnosis, as well as nutrition (she designs the menus).