While too much challah or ciabatta isn’t good for anyone, experts say there’s no need to nix bread for health or diet reasons. “Carbohydrates are our primary source of energy for the body, especially the brain,” says William Lendway, a registered dietitian and assistant professor of culinary nutrition at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island. What’s more, breads are also sources of important nutrients like fiber, iron and B vitamins, depending on which varieties you choose. “Both whole-grain and enriched breads have a ridiculous amount of wonderful attributes,” says Joan Salge Blake, a registered dietitian and professor of nutrition at Boston University.
Here’s what you need to know when it comes to choosing and enjoying your daily bread.
1. Do make half of your grains whole
The most recent dietary guidelines for Americans suggest that we make at least half of the grains we eat the whole, not refined, kind, in order to boost fiber in our diets. (A whopping 95 percent of Americans aren’t getting enough.) Whole-grain bread is an affordable and easy way to meet this goal.
To know what’s truly in a bread labeled “whole grain,” take a look at the ingredients list. The first ingredient should be “whole-grain flour” or “whole wheat flour,” Salge Blake says. If it simply says “wheat flour,” that means it’s made from the lower-fiber refined grain. (Another tip: Skip brands that list high-fructose corn syrup in the ingredient list.)
2. Don’t (completely) ditch enriched
Whole-grain bread can be a valuable way to add fiber to your diet. But certain white or wheat flour varieties are enriched and fortified with nutrients that some Americans aren’t getting enough of, Salge Blake explains. With extra iron, folate and B vitamins, enriched and fortified wheat flour–based breads can provide important nutrition to your diet. Just be sure to get fiber elsewhere in a meal when you choose white bread, such as by adding a salad of leafy greens like spinach, or an apple.
3. Don’t assume gluten-free is better for you
If you haven’t been diagnosed with celiac disease or don’t have an intolerance to wheat, there’s no need to seek out gluten-free breads. These are no better for you than wheat-based kinds, but they tend to be pricier. Many gluten-free breads can be higher in carbs and and are likely to be lower in protein than standard breads, due to ingredients like white rice flour and tapioca starch. Plus, they won’t hold up as well in a sandwich. “Gluten-free breads tend to not have as strong and firm of a texture,” Lendway says.
If you need a gluten-free bread for health reasons, however, don’t despair. There are healthier options made from whole grains like buckwheat, sorghum and other flours.
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4. Do be open to alternative grains
These days there are many more options than just white or wheat. “We are seeing a variety of other whole grains being incorporated into bread and flour,” Lendway observes. Dave’s Killer Bread 21 Whole Grains and Seeds, for instance, uses spelt, millet and barley, among others; Pepperidge Farm’s Whole Grain 15-Grain adds wheat berries and oats. Check the labels to see how they add up nutrition-wise. Although there are no guarantees, breads that include grains beyond wheat may be an easy way to add some fiber and variety to your diet. As far as taste, alternative whole grains generally add a nutty flavor, similar to whole wheat.
5. Don’t live on bread alone
Along with choosing healthier bread, you can boost the nutrition of every sandwich by adding more fruits and vegetables to the mix, Salge Blake suggests. For breakfast, top toasted whole-grain bread with peanut butter and sliced strawberries. For lunch, pile lettuce, tomato, sliced cucumbers and shredded carrots, along with the usual sliced turkey and mustard, between two thin slices of sourdough.
You can also go with an open-faced sandwich, such as one toasted slice of bread topped with avocado or roasted veggies and melted cheese. Or have half of a sandwich alongside soup or salad, Lendway recommends. Not only will you cut back on carbs, but you’ll also diversify the range of nutrients you’re taking in.
6. Do be mindful of serving sizes
Like so many other foods, serving sizes of breads have increased in recent years. If you’re monitoring your carb intake or looking to lose weight, stick with a brand that offers a smaller serving size — less than 28 grams per slice, Lendway says. A good rule of thumb to find the right size is to look for a bread that is around 70 to 80 calories per slice, Salge Blake says.