I had friends over for a BBQ recently and amongst my buffet of different salads, seafood and meat, I put out a freshly sliced loaf of grainy sourdough from my local bakery. One friend said to me “wow bread – remember we all used to eat that?” My response was “I still do!”
My friend is not alone. A recent survey of Australians found only 37% to consider bread to be a healthy daily staple, 7% avoided it completely and 54% said they try to eat bread in moderation. Those who diet regularly were most likely to be trying to cut down or completely cut out bread. I find that interesting in itself – are the non-dieters those at a healthy weight and happily eating some bread?
That’s certainly what the research shows, particularly if you choose mostly wholegrain varieties. Overall those who consume a diet high in whole grains tend to be leaner, with a smaller waist circumference (indicating less abdominal fat) and a reduced risk of weight gain. They also have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers.
Michael Pollan famously said "don't eat anything your grandmother wouldn't recognise as food". Well I'm willing to bet that most of our grandmothers ate bread everyday and that generation were not fat.
I know what you’re thinking ‘hang on bread is a carb and they’re fattening aren’t they?’ But here’s the thing. While the popular approach is to demonise carbs, just as we once demonised fat, it’s time for us to step back and consider foods in their entirety rather than assessing them on one nutrient alone.
Carbohydrate is what’s called a macronutrient – the others being fat and protein. Macronutrients give us energy measured as kilojoules. Then there are micronutrients – vitamins and minerals – and phytonutrients – other beneficial compounds found in plants. Bread does indeed provide us with carbohydrates, but that’s not all.
Bread contains a significant amount of protein with every slice providing 3-5g depending on the variety. For comparison a large egg has on average 5.5g. So when you team a couple of slices of toast with your boiled eggs for brekkie, the bread is actually providing pretty close to half the protein in the meal. Not just a carb then.
That’s important to realise because we do know that higher protein diets are beneficial for weight loss. But the thing is you can gain all the benefits of some extra protein, without going low carb. Indeed many of the research studies on high protein diets have moderate carbs. For example an Australian study of young women reported weight loss benefits of a higher protein, moderate carbohydrate diet that included 4 serves of wholegrain, high fibre or low GI grain foods daily. While a big European study found that the best diet for preventing weight regain after weight loss, was again a higher protein, moderate carbohydrate, low GI diet. The take home message is that you can eat bread as part of your high protein weight control eating plan.
"you can eat bread as part of your high protein weight control eating plan"
Fibre comes next. Grain foods, including bread, contribute more fibre to our diets than any other food. We absolutely must eat more vegies, but the bottom line is that we would need to eat at least 9 serves of vegies to meet our daily fibre targets. Bear in mind that our last nutrition survey showed that only 7% of Aussies ate the recommended 5 vegie serves a day.
Furthermore cereal fibre from wholegrains seems to play a particular role in gut health. It helps to keep you regular, reduces the risk of several bowel diseases including cancer, and the emerging interest is its role in ‘feeding’ the good bacteria that live in our bowels. The enormous impact these microorganisms have on our health is only just being realised.
If we turn to micronutrients, bread is a significant provider of B group vitamins including folate, niacin and thiamin, and minerals including iron, zinc, magnesium, phosphorus and manganese. What is lesser known about wholegrain foods is how awesome they are for antioxidants. In many cases the antioxidant capacity is equal to that of vegies and fruits! It shouldn’t really be that surprising – grains are fellow plant foods after all.
So all up bread really does offer us an impressive nutrition package. It’s also an affordable food that can help Australian families put healthy meals on the table. I firmly believe we need to stop demonising this food and put our focus on cutting back on all the cheeky extras that sneak into the day instead. Cookies, cakes, muffins and so on are all carb-rich foods that don't have much, if anything, to offer nutritionally. Bread is not in this category. It is nutritious and can be teamed with other core foods to create healthy, balanced meals we truly enjoy. And ultimately that’s the bottom line.
For more help on which bread to choose, and to view two of Joanna's favourite sandwich recipes watch her video A Grain of Truth.
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