Eat a variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Fill a quarter of your plate with these foods. You can add to your diet other nutritious foods such as legumes, nuts, seeds, fortified soy beverages, fish, shellfish, lean meats and low-fat milk, yogurt, kefir and cheese.
Let’s face it, bread is a big part of our lives. For breakfast, lunch, dinner and the snacks in between, many American meal choices include a slice of some sort.
Many of the packaged bread options at the grocery store boast that they’re the healthiest option to win over you (and your wallet), but how do you actually determine what’s best? Is bread actually good for you? And how much? We’re answering all of your bread-related questions and breaking down myths.
What is the healthiest bread?
The healthiest bread money can buy is 100% whole grain bread, but truthfully, any bread can be part of a healthy diet.
“It comes down to just looking at how it fits into what you’re eating on a regular basis and what you’re eating at that meal or snack,” says Jill Weisenberger, a registered dietitian nutritionist. “Some bread is going to be configured to anybody’s diet, it’s just a matter of quantity.”
Here are a few of the best healthy bread options Weisenberger suggests checking out the next time you grocery shop:
Whole grain bread
Whole grain bread is made of whole wheat flour, which means the grain kernels remain intact when making the bread. Other types of bread remove the germ and bran from grain kernels in manufacturing, which gets rid of important vitamins, minerals, fibers and phytonutrients, which prevent cell damage.
Whole grain bread may also contain other grains, like oats, barley or rye, which can add nutritional diversity to your diet, Weisenberger says. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 100% whole grain foods should make up at least half of your total grain intake.
“It comes down to what you enjoy, but I really like that people eat a variety of foods,” Weisenberger says. “So, if you eat a lot of wheat in the form of pasta, crackers and breakfast cereal, maybe it would be nice to have your bread in the form of oats.”
Weisenberger recommends flipping the product over to check the nutritional label and ingredients – the “fine print of your contract,” she says.
“When you look on the outside, the front of the package, a lot of the words are just marketing speak,” Weisenberger says. “So, when it says ‘made with whole grains,’ all that is factually correct but what it doesn’t tell you is made with how much whole grains.”
If a product is truly 100% whole wheat, don’t rely on the front packaging to tell you. It should list whole wheat flour as the first ingredient and won’t list any other kind of flour, like enriched wheat flour used to make white bread.
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Whole wheat bread
Another healthy choice is whole wheat bread, which is made only with whole wheat flour, Weisenberger says.
There are four main types of bread made with wheat:
- White bread: Made with enriched wheat flour
- Wheat bread: Made with a combination of enriched wheat and whole wheat flour
- White whole wheat bread: Made with white wheat rather than red wheat, which is typically found in whole wheat bread
- Whole wheat bread: Made with only whole wheat flour
There are three main parts to a grain kernel: the endosperm, the germ and the bran, where many of the vitamins and minerals are. When making white bread, manufacturers remove the germ and the bran and just use the endosperm.
Whole wheat bread, on the other hand, retains the germ and bran. Weisenberger compared it to eating an apple and removing the apple skin.
“That doesn’t ruin the apple, but you’re throwing away some of the nutrients,” Weisenberger says. “It’s the same thing, it’s just with the grain you’re throwing away a whole lot of nutrients, not just a little.”
White whole wheat, on the other hand, has about the same amount of fiber, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals as whole wheat bread but tastes similar to white bread.
“The white whole wheat doesn’t have (phytonutrients) compared to the traditional whole wheat, but otherwise it is a whole grain and it’s nutritionally comparable,” Weisenberger says. “People who have family members who don’t like whole wheat bread can pass this off (as white bread), nobody would ever know.”
Weisenberger, author of “Prediabetes: A Complete Guide,” specializes in diabetes and prediabetes care. Because of this, she recommends sourdough as a healthy bread for those managing their blood sugar levels. A study from the University of Guelph in Canada found lower glycemic responses compared to those of whole wheat breads.
Sourdough’s low pH and long fermentation time means the bread is more digestible than those fermented with baker’s yeast because the nutrients in sourdough have more time to break down. Sourdough also has increased minerals for the gut to absorb, according to Colorado State University. Unlike commercial baker’s yeast, sourdough organisms can quickly break down phytate complex, a molecule that sequesters calcium, sodium, zinc and magnesium.
Whole wheat sourdough, Weisenberger says, would be an even better option.
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Weisenberger also favors rye bread because it contributes to a varied diet.
“Rye is just one of those grains that we don’t get very much, so it’s a great place to get it by seeking out 100% whole grain rye bread,” Weisenberger says.
Rye also appears to have cholesterol-lowering properties and aids in weight loss compared to whole grain or refined wheat bread. It also supports cognitive functions. A 2018 study, for example, found rye bread consumption led to improved mood, glucose tolerance and insulin response, which is positively correlated with memory performance.
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Is bread good for you?
Bread, just like other food, can be part of a balanced diet. One of the main fears of bread is rooted in its processing.
“Bread is a processed food because it does not look like wheat berries, and a lot of people are fearful of processed foods,” she says. “But, you know, frozen broccoli is a processed food.”
There’s also a good amount of carbohydrates in bread, which is why fans of low-carb diets may remove the food from their diet completely.
“What I think the real problem is the quantity people can eat, it’s very easy to eat a lot of bread,” Weisenberger says. Bread can be devoured in a few bites, whereas something like a salad takes longer to eat and requires utensils to dig through.
“People often think that what they do now and then really matters, but I think it’s what they do all the time that really matters,” Weisenberger says. “If now and then you ate a large roll, I don’t think that’s a big deal. But if all the time you ate a large roll, it is.”
But bread also plays an important role, Weisenberger says. On one hand, bread has been an important cultural staple throughout history and is made uniquely across cultures. On the other hand, bread can be a vehicle for other nutritious food. For example, a sandwich contains bread, but it could also have protein, vegetables and healthy fat sources that are essential to daily nutrition. The bottom line, according to Weisenberger, is that you should allow bread to be a normal part of your diet.
“That’s why I stay in this field because it really breaks my heart to see people so confused and so fearful,” Weisenberger says. “I don’t think we should fear our food.”