Bread – friend or foe?

Many of us have been swerving the bread basket for years under the misguided belief that we’re doing our waistlines a favour. Registered dietitian, Sue Baic takes a look at the humble loaf and its much maligned nutritional status.

It may surprise you but bread is the most popular food in the UK. Over 95% of Britons eat it regularly, chomping through an average of two medium slices a day. Whether it’s a slice of toast at breakfast or wrapped around your favourite filling for your lunchtime sandwich – bread is clearly a staple in our diets, but should it be banned or embraced when it comes to weight-loss? Opinions vary from fad diet to fad diet – some demonise a slice of white, opting for low-carb foods, while others extol the virtues as a hunger-busting, fibre-filled option. So who to believe? Registered dietitian and nutrition expert, Sue Baic gives us the REAL lowdown on the humble loaf and its nutrition credentials…

Bread breakdown

Bread provides an amazingly wide range of nutrients. It is a good source of both starchy carbohydrate and protein whilst being low in fat and sugar. It is a major contributor of B vitamins in our diet – in particular thiamine, niacin, folate.

Besides bursting with B vitamins, bread provides valuable amounts of other essential minerals including: potassium, copper and phosphorus and vitamin E in wheatgerm enriched bread. All types of bread provide dietary fibre needed for a healthy gut with wholemeal being a particularly good source.

Trends in bread consumption

UK National Diet and Nutrition Surveys  have shown small but steady drops in the numbers of people eating bread and in the amount eaten.

There are many possible reasons for declines in bread popularity including a resurgence in use of low-carbohydrate diets or concerns over the role of bread in weight management and in bowel problems such as bloating or food allergy. Given the valuable role of bread in the diet it is worth exploring these questions a little further…

1. Is bread fattening?

Often people have concerns that starchy foods such as bread are fattening however, each gram of carbohydrate has only 4 calories compared with 9 in a gram of fat. Studies have also shown carbohydrates – in particular higher fibre starchy carbohydrates – are good at satisfying our hunger.

Many people trying to lose weight mistakenly believe we should cut out bread. This idea has arisen in part from the popularity of low-carbohydrate diets such as the Atkins Diet. However, it is usually not the bread itself which provides most calories, rather what is added to it. For example if a fat spread is added thickly to toast, or if high-fat fillings are used for sandwiches, it is easy to consume more calories from these than from the bread itself (see the table below). Replacing overly processed white bread with higher fibre types is an easy way to increase fibre which may help those trying to lose weight feel fuller for longer. Seeded and wheatgerm enriched breads in particular have a low glycaemic index which help keep blood sugar levels steady and ward off hunger.

Item Energy content (Kcals) Fat (g)
 2 medium slices of bread  188 2
+ Margarine or butter (10g)  263 10.5
+ Cheese & pickle  492 26
+ Egg mayonnaise  612 43.5
+ Ham salad  315 11.5
+ Chicken salad  378 10.5

 

2. Should I cut out bread to lose weight?

Low-carbohydrate diets are sometimes used for weight-loss but long term studies have not convincingly shown that these are any more effective than other diets in helping people to lose weight and keep it off. There appears to be no magic metabolic effect from restricting carbohydrate and the approach is only effective if lower calories are eaten. However, we tend to over-do the carbohydrates and should probably be eating a bit less overall.

Cutting carbs completely is not a great idea though –  many people using this approach to weight-loss experience side effects such as constipation, fatigue, headache, bad breath and nausea. If you exclude an entire food group, you risk unbalancing your diet and missing out on essential nutrients.

3. Does bread cause food intolerance and/or bloating?

A recent scientific review found no evidence that bread causes bloating in healthy people. In fact low intakes of dietary fibre are more likely to be associated with constipation, which may aggravate feelings of bloating. So cutting out bread, which contributes significantly to fibre intake, could in fact worsen symptoms. 

Around 20% of people believe they have a food allergy, but it is estimated that only 1-2 per cent of adults have a genuine intolerance. Coeliac Disease (CD) is a specific condition where the gluten found in bread needs to be avoided. Whilst it is relatively rare – around 1 in 100 people in the UK have it – it has increased 4 fold in the last 20 years. But beware, self-diagnosis with over-the-counter allergy tests and unnecessary avoidance of wheat or gluten without a medical diagnosis can have a significant impact on both quality of life and nutritional intake. It is therefore advisable to consult your GP and get properly tested before cutting out bread if you suspect a food allergy.

The VavistaLife View

Bread is a versatile and affordable food and plays an important role in many healthy diets around the world. It is satisfying to the appetite and a good source of fibre. Enjoying a range of different breads in the diet is a tasty and convenient way of getting many of the key nutrients we need…but, like everything, should be enjoyed in moderation.

References

Bates B, et al (2011). National Diet and Nutrition Survey: Headline results from years 1 and 2 ( combined) of the Rolling Programme (2008/2009- 2009/10). Department of Health and Food Standards Agency: London.

British Dietetic Association . Food allergy and Intolerances https://www.bda.uk.com/foodfacts/Allergy.pdf

Thane CW, et al (2005). Whole-grain intake of British young people aged 4–18 years. British Journal of Nutrition; 94: 825–831

Wyness LA, Butriss JL, Stanner SA (2012). Reducing the population’s sodium intake: the UK Food Standards Agency’s salt reduction programme. Public Health Nutrition; 15: 254–61

Weichselbaum E (2012). Does bread cause bloating? British Nutrition Bulletin; 37: 30-36.