I don’t have to tell you that there’s a lot of bread baking going on these days. And I’m certainly not an expert baker, so I’m not writing a recipe here.
What I really want to address is nutrition. I hear people talking about eating bread like they’re confessing a sin. Thank you Dr. Davis (Wheat Belly) and other low-carb zealots for that. I’m here to tell you, baking and eating bread is just fine, nutritionally.
(Even if it wasn’t, not everything we eat has to be for health, but I feel the need to come to bread’s defence here.)
Just for fun, I analyzed a fictional diet of nothing but whole-wheat bread all day long. Not that I’m recommending it! I know some people can’t tolerate that much (or any) bread, but the vast majority of people can eat it, at least in moderation. I’m just using it to illustrate the point: Bread is actually pretty nutritious!
This is the vitamin content of 2000 calories (about 22 slices) of commercially-made 100% whole wheat bread:
Not bad right? Missing a few of course, which is why we generally aim for a more balanced diet. But look at all of those B vitamins and vitamin E, which people often come up short on.
And minerals. Surprisingly nutrition-rich again:
Yes, too much sodium, which is one reason that under normal circumstances I suggest a variety of (mostly whole) grains, including ones you boil, like oats, barley, pasta, and rice, which provide similar nutrition with less salt. Plus of course, your usual diet would include more fruit, veggies and other not-so-salty food.
Can you make bread without salt? Nope. Not if you want to enjoy it. But you can use less than commercial bread. And if you’re doing more cooking right now, and eating less restaurant food, you’re likely getting less sodium anyhow.
(For the nutrition geeks, I did this with cronometer.com, a free online tool.)
What about macronutrients?
Tooooooo many carbs, right? Surprisingly, this all-bread-all-day-long illustration is actually lower in carbohydrates than the high end what’s considered to be a healthy range (45-65% of calories or 225-325 grams for 2000 calories).
Plus the thing with carbohydrates is that we can’t really say a certain amount of carbohydrates is healthy or unhealthy, certainly not within that range, but rather it depends on the food and what other nutrients are packaged into it. 300 grams of carbohydrates from pop — not so great. But this carbohydrate-rich food, especially if homemade and whole grain, also delivers lots of fibre, vitamins, and minerals.
And oh by the way, did you notice the protein there? Pretty good for eating nothing but bread all day long.
(Again for the nutrition geeks, I set this up with goals of 20% protein, 50% carbohydrate, and 30% fat.)
Finally, fibre! This is way more fibre than most people get. For 2000 calories, you’d want at least about 28 grams of fibre, and Canadians get only about half of what they need.
Okay, so do you believe me? Whole wheat bread is nutritious. But…
What about sourdough?
Sourdough is all the range now because you can make it without yeast, something that is suddenly hard to buy.
Some people also choose it because it has a lower glycemic index than white or whole wheat bread, which means it won’t raise your blood sugar as fast or as much, although really that depends on how much you eat and with what other foods.
But most often, sourdough is made with white/refined/all-purpose flour, so of course it won’t be as nutritious. Although you’d be surprised: All white bread still has some protein, vitamins, and minerals, in part because refined flour is required by law to be “enriched,” which means certain nutrients are added back to it after processing, like folate and iron.
But any bread made with refined flour will still fall short on fibre, vitamin E, magnesium, and others. It will also be missing phytochemicals – plant compounds that aren’t captured in this kind of analysis but are still thought to have beneficial impacts on health. They’re found in most plant foods, from fruits and veggies to nuts and seeds, tea, red wine, chocolate, and whole-grain bread, but they’re mostly lost when wheat germ and bran are stripped away to make white flour.
But if you take a peek at the numbers, you’ll see it’s not quite “empty” calories.
One way you can boost the nutrition in bread made with white flour is to add seeds and other grains, so you get more of a “multigrain” type bread.
Or, better yet, you can make sourdough with whole wheat flour, which seems to be easier to find these days anyhow, although for that, I’d suggest following a recipe specifically developed for whole wheat sourdough.
(This is recipe for the no-knead whole-wheat bread pictured at the very top of this post. It’s not sourdough, and you do need yeast, but it doesn’t use nearly as much as conventional bread. I’ve made three loaves and it’s lovely and a cinch to make.)
But if white bread is what you have right now, you can always balance with other foods, ala Canada’s Food Guide. Have some cheese, grapes, and carrot sticks with your lovely fresh sourdough, and there you go, easy peasy, you’ve balanced the nutrition nicely. Have oats with breakfast, barley with lunch, and you’ve still managed to have mostly whole grains.
So bread isn’t bad?
So bread offers some nutrition, but seriously, is eating so much of it not a problem for our health?
First of all, at a time like this, when access to food is a even tiny bit limited, it reminds us that eating anything is a critical factor in survival. Most people reading this blog are privileged enough to think in terms of optimizing health, but really, let’s start with making sure people are fed.
Plus, if we’re trying to go longer without trips to the store, bread and other shelf-stable, grain-based foods can really help. And right now, staying home might be one of the best things you can do for your health.
Historically, bread has been foundational to civilizations. Even as recently as 1942, when Canada’s first food guide was published, they specifically recommended people eat bread: “4 to 6 slices of Canada Approved Bread, brown or white.” Of course at that time, poor access to food and malnutrition were still the priority.
But today, pandemic aside, many people have access to more than enough food (although certainly not all). And heart disease and diabetes are bigger concerns for public health than malnutrition, at least in Western countries.
So the fact that bread is relatively calorie-dense may be a concern, in that it might contribute to weight gain — eating more than we need relative to our activity level, especially now that so many of us are glued to screens most of the day. And many of the bread products people eat aren’t made with whole grain flour, which makes them less filling and easier to overeat.
But studies actually show that bread, especially whole-grain bread, isn’t the direct path to weight gain that popular lore has led us to believe. And weight isn’t a reliable health indicator anyhow. So let’s not add this add to your pile of coronavirus-related worries.
(Related: Want to choose a whole grain, lower sodium, lower sugar bread for heart health? I wrote a review of grocery store bread options here.)
Make peace with bread
When we label a food as “bad”, or say it’s off-limits, we want it more than ever. This is one of the key principles of intuitive eating.
Instead of making bread a forbidden fruit, let’s just think of it as another food, and enjoy it as you like. More some days, like when you’ve baked a fresh loaf, and less on others. But can we agree that no food is “bad,” unless perhaps it’s sprouted a fuzzy green layer?
The big picture
I focused on nutrition, because that’s my expertise, but of course food is much more than that. Especially at this time, baking a loaf of bread might feel therapeutic. It can be a fun, educational activity for families at home. And eating delicious, satisfying food is one way of coping with the grief, sadness, and stress we’re all experiencing.
All of that matters too! Take care, and enjoy your bread.