Should I be eating bread?

“Should I be eating bread?”. If I had a pound every time people asked me this question, I would be paying someone to write this bloody blog.

My answer is always the same: what is your question? Are you asking me if you are hungry and should have a slice of toast? Whether bread is nutritious? If eat bread? Are you asking me whether eating bread is going to make you put weight on? Or are you actually telling me that you don’t eat bread anymore and are waiting for me to comment?

I know I’m being facetious but help me out here, what do you really want to know?

What is it that you want to know about bread?

If you’re hungry, well, yes you could have bread or fruit, nuts, seeds, eggs, ham, etc.

Is bread nutritious? Yeah, depending on which kind, bread contains fibre, some protein, some healthful fats, starch, B vitamins and minerals.

Do I eat bread? What do you think? Have you ever heard me talk? Over here I’m known as “French Anne” and that should tell you everything you need to know.

Is bread going to make you fat? Well, my mum used to say “it’s not bread which is fattening, it’s what people put on it”. She had a point but she was a pharmacist, not a nutritionist to be fair. My answer would be: perhaps and, it depends. How much bread are you eating? If you’re eating a entire loaf every day and especially if you slather butter on, as Maman pointed out, yes it might well contribute to some rolls of other kinds.

You’ve stopped eating bread? Ok, what else have you got to tell me because frankly I don’t care.

Bread has been part of our diet for thousands of years

You don’t need a nutrition degree, or even a diploma, to see that even though bread has been a staple in the human diet for thousands of years, we haven’t done too badly as a species. If bread was toxic we’d be dead by now. Of course, the bread you can buy in the supermarkets these days bears very little resemblance to the bread the Egyptians used to make.

The very first loaves of bread were probably not even loaves at all, consisting of roughage and gloop. As bread evolved, it got more palatable, less like porridge and closer to the bread we eat now. It’s in the Middle Ages that people first started talking about refining bread so that the rich elite could feast on the white stuff while the poorer masses had to make do with brown and fibrous bread. It’s really in the 20thcentury, though,  that manufacturing of bread took a turn for the worst when we started adding gums, emulsifiers, preservatives, extra gluten, sugar, quick yeast and more.

Is gluten to blame?

People who eschew bread often cite gluten as a reason: gluten would be the source of their digestive discomfort. It may well be the case, they may be unfortunate enough to be coeliac and that’s just bad luck, they’ll never be able to have nice “regular” bread. When they eat bread their body mounts an immune response against gluten but by doing so it also attacks and damages healthy tissues.

Some people aren’t coeliac and yet still complain of digestive discomfort after eating bread and wheat in general. Why is that? Are they just hypochondriac whingers? Some may be but some do really feel crap after eating bread and these people may suffer from what we call “non coeliac gluten sensitivity” (NCGS). They are sensitive to gluten rather than having developed a full-blown immune response to it. That could be because of dysbiosis, a sensitivity to proteins other than gluten or to sugars contained in grains.

I have often wondered though whether NCGS wasn’t simply a reaction to the sheer amount of grains eaten. How often have you had Weetabix for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch and couple of biscuits here and there and pasta for dinner? Think about it… I’ve also wondered if NCGS wasn’t in fact a reaction to some of the  yeast or additives found in modern bread rather than anything to do with gluten.

If it’s not gluten, what else could make you feel unwell?

Did you know that to make bread fluffier bakers started adding extra gluten in the dough? Did you also know that we started adding extra yeast to shorten the bread making process? Bread is no longer a simple mix of just flour, salt, water and a starter slowly fermentated. You could make bread in 2h flat according to some recipes. Have you ever been hit by a wall of yeast when you stepped in your local supermarket? What if that was the problem? It’s interesting that people who eat sourdough (without emulsifiers, mould inhibitors etc.) and bread made from ancient grains, such as spelt, as opposed to fortified wheat, report fewer digestive problems. What if by trying to be too clever we messed it all up?

Regarding whether bread is fattening I’d direct you back to the aforementioned staple diet, which used to be based heavily on grains and yet people were not overweight. Oh but, hang on, these people walked for miles everyday carrying children/water/dirty laundry, they raked their fields manually and danced for fun… What if the problem wasn’t bread, aka starchy carbohydrates, but rather a lack of activity?

Quality over quantity

And what about quantity? Have you thought about that? Yes, but, I hear you say… You lot Frenchies are munching on baguettes all day long. Are we? French people do eat bread every day but they don’t eat as much bread as you think.

Firstly, bread is often the only starch in their meal. They might have some pork, green beans with a side of bread and a chunk of cheese, for good measure. Not pasta served with garlic bread and followed by crumble (like what my kids get given at school, but more on that anther time).

Secondly, although they do eat bread at every meal they only eat small portions, and that perhaps because they eat it at every meal i.e., it’s not exceptional. This is in stark contrast to people over here who are on and off low carb diets and who then have half a baguette with their soup for lunch.

Finally, and importantly, French bread is mostly air. This isn’t a joke. Have you ever noticed how light baguettes are in France compared to here? How often have you bought a baguette for it to snap on the way home? Have you ever seen a snapped baguette in France? A nibbled one perhaps but not snapped. Here they snapped because they are much denser and that they can’t take the weight when upright.

Bread is tightly regulated by law in France and baguettes have to follow strict rules, one of them being that they should be 250g. Do you know the weight of a baguette in the UK? Well it could be anything since there’s no law that I’m aware of, but on average they are around 400g! Eating ¼ of 250g and ¼ of 400g isn’t the same…

Take home message

So should you be eating bread? If you’re not coeliac and that you like it, why not? Do yourself a favour though and eat good quality bread. Don’t just eat the white stuff which makes perfectly square sandwiches, which doesn’t taste of much and has fewer nutrients. Don’t make bread the basis of your every meal (not everything has to be served on toast) and don’t eat the entire baguette to yourself.

I hate to say it because it makes my toes curl (and not in a good way) but for most of us, it does all come down to moderation. Eat a bit of bread along side your vegetables, fruit, meat, fish, eggs, nuts etc.

If you’ve got lost in your nutrition knowledge and that you’re struggling to know what you can eat, contact me.