This is a primer on how to eat bread. Maybe that sounds like an inane exercise because you’ve been eating copious amounts of it all your life. Or maybe you have recently sworn off it completely, avoiding the restaurant bread basket like a great peril. But these common extremes are testament to why you need to rethink your approach to this ancient staple and learn how to get the most out of it, for both sensory pleasure and nutrition.
Despite all the anti-carb clamoring, bread can be very healthy, particularly if it is made with whole grains. One ounce (one slice) of whole-wheat bread provides significant fiber, protein, B vitamins and essential minerals including calcium, iron, magnesium and zinc, as well as antioxidants, all for just 70 calories. Even white bread, which is often demonized as equivalent to sugar because of the similar way it spikes blood glucose, offers more than just empty calories because of the vitamins and minerals in the enriched flour used to make it.
The problem many people face with bread is twofold: First, it is all too easy to overeat, throwing diets off balance and padding them with unwanted calories. Second, the kinds of bread people choose are often subpar — soft, bland, additive-laden white breads.
A bagel for breakfast, a sub sandwich for lunch and a couple of soft rolls with dinner — not an uncommon pattern — adds up to double the six ounces a day for all grain foods recommended by the Agriculture Department for most adults. But that doesn’t mean you should pass on bread entirely. It is time to get out of the extremes and learn to enjoy it in a balanced, healthy and satisfying way. Following these three simple steps can help you get there:
1. Go for quality
Taking a “qualitarian” approach to bread eating — that is, saying no to so-so and opting instead to eat only top-notch bread — has both taste and nutritional benefits. You generally know good bread when you see it. It tends to have a caramelized, well-developed crust or crisp exterior, an enticing aroma and a fresh, not-quite-uniform appearance. But it’s what’s inside that really counts.
Many industrially produced breads are riddled with unpronounceable additives — dough conditioners, gums and preservatives — that speed up the breadmaking process and extend shelf life. But the best loaves are a true slow food, produced with a few basic ingredients and requiring extensive fermentation time. (They won’t last weeks in your cupboard, but they freeze well.)
Health-wise, the fermentation process changes the starch in bread, making it more slowly digested and, in turn, reducing its effect on blood sugar. It also makes the minerals in the bread more readily absorbed. This effect is most prominent in sourdough breads, which are highly fermented.
The type of grain used is important, too, and whole grain is best not only for its nutritional value but also for flavor.
2. Savor it
Approaching bread with the same appreciation as you approach wine means using all of your senses when you eat it, not just gobbling it mindlessly. Next time you eat a piece of bread, take a moment to experience it fully. Observe the color and thickness of its exterior and the density of the crumb. Listen for the cracking of the crust when you break it. Take a whiff of it, note its aroma, and when you take a bite, let its subtle flavors unfold as you chew.
3. Scale it down
Choosing chewy, whole-grain breads made with simple ingredients and enjoying them slowly means you are getting the most flavor and nutrition and building in speed bumps to prevent overeating. Rethinking how you serve bread in the context of your meals can help you find a better balance as well.
Instead of making bread the main player, give it a supporting role on the plate. That means making open-faced sandwiches or toast piled with vegetables and healthy protein. Cut loaves into thin slices, rather than thick. If you have a food scale, weigh a slice of the bread you buy (or, if packaged, get that information from the label) so you have a sense of what a one-ounce portion looks like, and keep that in mind when you serve yourself. In a restaurant, ask that the bread basket come with the entree, not before, so that rather than filling up on it, you can enjoy it as an enhancement to the rest of the meal.
Isn’t it nice to know you don’t have to forgo it entirely?
Ellie Krieger is a registered dietitian.