Bread on a sustainable, healthy, whole-food, plant-based diet?
Bread has come to be something in which many of us love to hate, or, hate that we love.
What we’ve largely come to fear when it comes to bread is the protein found in many whole grains, namely, gluten. The thing is, gluten can be quite harmful to some people, specifically those who have Celiac Disease (CD) and experience an auto-immune reaction when gluten is ingested. This causes inflammation and damage to the intestinal lining, manifesting as malabsorption of nutrients, among other harmful symptoms. Some people, although not diagnosed with CD, can still experience symptoms of a wheat allergy or intolerance. These people certainly should not eat bread or any gluten-containing products.
However, there are many people who’ve adopted a gluten-free, and/or grain-free diet, with no symptoms of CD, allergy, or intolerance, but because of the information that has been in circulation surrounding gluten, causing us to question whether we should include this controversial food in our diet.
To help you decide whether or not you would like to include bread in your diet, I’ve brought to the table a few things to keep in mind.
Is bread a “whole-food”?
Though the definition of a whole-food will vary from person to person, my favorite way of thinking of a whole-food comes from Michael Greger, MD’s definition of an unprocessed food.
“I define unprocessed food as nothing bad added, nothing good taken away” – Michael Greger
When applying this to bread, it’s important to point out that not all bread is created equal, and should not be classified as so. Bread, in order to be the closest to a whole-food, should be created by using only a few, simple, whole-food ingredients, such as whole-grain flour, water, yeast, and salt. No fillers, dough conditioners, dairy products, sugars, or oils added, and nothing good taken away, such as stripping away the bran and the germ to make white bread. Traditional bread making often involves fermentation. This fermentation process creates a sourdough bread, which is actually more nutritious than bread baked with bakers yeast, as the fermentation process breaks down the antinutrients in the grain, allowing more nutrients to be absorbed by the body. The same goes for sprouted bread, as the sprouting process makes nutrients more absorbable as well.
Why though, (aside from being an avocado toast, or toasted baguette with almond “goat” cheese and wine “foodie”), would we want to include bread in our diet? – because whole grains do provide us with energy, protein, fiber, phytochemicals (plant nutrients), B vitamins, and minerals.
What is the opportunity cost of eating bread?
Foods cannot necessarily be categorized into either “good for you” or “bad for you”. You must have something in which you’re comparing a certain food to in order to decide which one would be the healthier option. With regards to bread, we’ve established that, when chosen wisely, it can be nutritious, yet, there are foods within the plant kingdom that will grant you more nutritional bang for your caloric buck. I.e., if you, instead of bread, choose to eat the same amount of calories worth of the whole grain such as cooked wheat berries, or another complex carbohydrate altogether such as cooked sweet potato, you would indeed be packing in a more nutritious meal. Hence, the opportunity cost of eating bread is, you could arguably be fueling your body with a more nutritious option. If your nutrition goals are to stick with whole, unprocessed foods, you should stick with the intact grains instead of the grains that have been processed into flour and baked into a loaf of bread, or if you find grains bother your system, you can choose other complex carbohydrates to supply your energetic needs.
Is bread an environmentally sustainable food?
Again, not all bread can be judged equally when it comes to environmental sustainability. There are many factors involved in the sustainability of our food. To best ensure that we’re choosing food that has been grown with sustainability in mind, we want to look for bread that is made with organic ingredients, thus protecting the quality of our soils, ideally made with ingredients that are sourced locally, reducing food mile emissions and supporting local farmers, and having the bread made available to us in recyclable or biodegradable packaging, or better yet, sold as is to be taken home in a reusable cloth bread bag.
What about gluten-free bread?
With the rise of the fear of gluten, many companies have jumped on this trend and created many gluten-free options for some of our favorite foods. Again, not all of these options are going to be created equal, so it’s best to diligently read the ingredient labels, keeping in mind the whole-food philosophy mentioned above.
Typically, I find these products to be more processed than I like to fuel myself with, however, if you do have a gluten allergy or you have been diagnosed with CD these are great occasional novelty foods, and again, whether or not you want to eat them will depend on your health goals.
If you’re looking for a gluten-free, whole-food option for bread, my go-to’s are thinly sliced sweet potatoes toasted for “toast”, and romaine lettuce leaves or collard greens for “wraps”.
All in all, this one is going to have to be up to you. Only you know how your body feels after eating bread, and only you know what your health goals are, so only you can decide if bread belongs in your diet. For me, I don’t experience any noticeable symptoms after eating bread, so I choose to occasionally include a loaf of freshly-baked bread in my grocery basket, I ensure it’s from a local bakery that uses organic and locally sourced ingredients, and I thoroughly enjoy its deliciousness alongside a varied, whole-foods, plant-based diet.