The Truth About Bread and Carbs

The Truth About Bread and Carbs

Wheat Bread, White Bread, and Wraps. Let's discuss carbs and dieting.

Listen up, fellow bread fiends: I solemnly swear not to outlaw bagels. But there are several bread misconceptions we need to clear up, starting with these: Wheat bread is not always good, white bread is not always worse, and “browner” bread does not mean healthier. Rocking your world, right? Just wait until we get into wraps!

Bread is by far the most confusing part of that Club/BLT/egg and cheese sandwich. Especially now that you’re into turkey bacon, low-fat mayo and egg whites, right? Either way, we’ll simplify it so that whether you’re eating in or out, you’re not ruining a perfectly excellent breakfast, or as I like to call it the most important meal of the day, by unintentionally adding bread calories and carbohydrates.

100% Whole Grain vs. Wheat vs. White

Breads made with 100% whole grains are a great source of complex carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins and minerals. But when bread is made from white flour, it’s stripped of all of those nutrients, leaving just simple carbohydrates that your body will immediately break down into sugar. This category includes white bread, hoagies/wedges, rolls, most English Muffins, white pitas, and those bagels, too.

Unfortunately, you simply can’t say that wheat, whole wheat or whole grain always trumps white, because companies can use miniscule amounts of wheat flour in their products and label them as “whole wheat” or “whole grain” foods. Take Oroweat Bran’nola, that says it’s, "made with natural whole grain” on its label. Meanwhile, the first ingredient (the one used in the highest quantity) is white flour.

So what’s the answer? Look for “100% whole.”If breads are made purely out of non-processed flour, they’ll say 100% whole wheat, 100% whole grains, etc. Those two words are crucial. Without ‘em, you may be eating the equivalent of Wonder Bread while paying the equivalent of a fancy, fresh-baked artisanal loaf of bread.

Rye, Pumpernickel & Multigrain

This might be the most devastating one of all. Just because bread is brown or has seeds, it doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Genuine rye and pumpernickel breads from Germany are made from real rye and whole grains, and if you happen to have access to the traditional versions, they’re great options for a sandwich. Unfortunately, most of the squishy American versions are white breads that have been dyed brown with caramel or molasses (aka sugar) and have added high fructose corn syrup. Ick.

Similarly, just because a bread is called “multigrain,” “7-grain,” or “12-grain,” and has brown specks in it, it’s not necessarily 100% whole grain or healthy. Listen, I know the idea of reading food labels is like, the most annoying thing since Facebook made stalking so difficult (damn it, privacy settings), but just like you learned to navigate your arch enemy’s photo albums, you’ll learn to navigate nutrition labels. And since there are really only three things you’ll need to look at on a package of bread, we’ll start from the bottom up:

1. Ingredients:
Ingredients are listed in order of quantity used. So do the first few include whole wheat, oats, barley, rye or another whole grain? If yes, that’s a great sign. If the three ingredients include white flour/enriched wheat flour, some type of sugar (i.e. molasses, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, honey), or funky preservatives/unrecognizable/processed ingredients, leave it on the shelf.

2. Fiber:
Fiber is the hot nutrition topic these days because it’s good for your whole bod, from keeping you fuller longer and keeping your digestive system healthy to improving your cholesterol. Every piece of bread you eat should have at least 2-3g of fiber in it, which will go a long way to forcing nature's hand if you catch the drift.

3. Calories:
I hate this one, but you have to get used to looking at serving sizes and calories. Slices of bread can range tremendously, so on average try to stay between 80-120 calories a slice.

Wraps

Ignore this rant if you can’t live without wraps, but know that I think they’re evil. They are the most unassuming and unsatisfying form of bread humanly possible even if they fit into your low carb diet. A spinach or sundried tomato wrap sounds perfectly healthy, but many restaurant or deli versions have upwards of 300 calories each before adding all the fillers. So no, wraps are not a light option; if you like real bread, eat it - or buy wraps at your local grocery store that are in the 100-200 calorie range.

Bagels

I have to admit, on the random occasions I have a bagel, I’m an avid anti-scooper. Come on, the inside’s the best part! But if you’re a daily deli kinda guy or girl, you might need to rethink how you order that bagel. Many places now carry whole wheat or whole grain options, but even then they can be the equivalent of over four pieces of bread. The NYTimes estimated that the average NY bagel has anywhere from 320 to 800 calories! I’d guestimate they average around 500 calories, and we’re talking pre-butter and cream cheese. So, if you must, scoop away, stick to mini bagels or even try a bialy.

Here’s a run down of the Hierarchy of Bread, on average:

So, don’t be a carbophobe and avoid bread in an attempt to go completely low carb. After all carbs are crucial for energy levels, recovery, and brain functioning. But in your day-to-day life, opt for the healthier 100% whole grain options as opposed to bootleg wheat breads, molasses-colored pumpernickel, or misleading wraps. That way, on rare occasions, you can indulge in a doughy cinnamon-raisin bagel completely guilt-free. See, stayed true to my promise! Until next time…

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About the Author

Carolyn is a Nutritionist/Registered Dietitian and has her masters in Clinical Nutrition from NYU. She went to Tulane in New Orleans for undergrad, spent 3 months traveling around the world on Semester at Sea and then swung through Boulder, CO before landing in her current home of NYC. Carolyn has a blog called One Smart Brownie (www.onesmartbrownie.com) to simplify healthy eating for those who don’t spend their lives studying nutrition. Her favorite hobbies include getting new stamps on her passport and telling yo mama jokes, and she says that if she were to have a crush on a food it would be chocolate biscotti, no questions asked.