woman pushing bread away with hand

Is Bread Really Bad for You and Your Weight?

By Tracey Walton wlr team

Bread gets a battering these days, even when it’s not fried. The accusations fly:

  • Bread’s high carb (unfashionable in 2019)
  • Bread makes you fat
  • Bread’s full of sugar
  • Bread’s protein deficient
  • Bread has scary sounding gluten
  • Bread's bad for you

Are these accusations valid? Do you really need to ditch bread in order to control your weight and take care of your health?

Let’s have a look at each point in more detail …

Bread’s High Carb

True – bread is classed as a starchy carbohydrate.

Opinions surrounding this point of the bad bread list are that carbohydrates, including bread, are bad and you need to cut them dramatically to lose weight and be healthy.

These opinions are associated with very low carb and keto diets that have seen a resurgence in popularity during recent years, mainly because of the relatively high initial weight loss. This evens itself out over time, so for long term weight loss there's nothing to be gained.

At wlr we like to look at opinions in the light of guidelines from suitably qualified professionals drawing from a broad evidence base.

Here’s an important guideline about bread from our evidence-based NHS:

“Base meals on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates; choosing wholegrain versions where possible.” 

Source: A Quick Guide to the Governments Healthy Eating Recommendations, produced by Public Health England (PHE)1.

Starchy carbohydrates are the second item on PHE’s list after fruit and vegetables, and bread is the second item in the carbohydrate group after potatoes.

For most* of us, far from cutting bread from our diet, if we want to eat healthily it should be one of the main foods we base our meals on.

* People with conditions such as coeliac disease and other problems associated with gluten are unable to eat bread made from wheat. Diabetics also have to be careful about their carbohydrate intake, and a lower carb diet may be recommended. However this is not the same as the extreme low carb (20g a day) keto diets that dominate the field. For more information on this we recommend the resources at the official British Diabetic Association website diabetes.org.uk. They have a lower carb meal plan aimed at helping diabetics to find a suitable level of carbohydrate.  

The Calorie and Nutrition Profile of Bread

Before we go any further let’s look at the actual calorie and main nutritional content of bread.

We’ll go with Warburtons since it’s the biggest-selling bread brand2 in the UK, and white bread first because it represents around 60-70%3 of consumption.

Bread, White, Medium, Warburton's

  per 100g per Slice/40g
Calories 244 98
Protein 9.1g 3.7g
Carbohydrate 46.4g 18.7g
Sugars 3g 1.2g
Fat 2g 0.8g
Fibre 2.3g 0.9g

(Source: WLR Food Database)

Brown / wholemeal bread has a similar profile, the main difference between whole grain and white bread is the amount of fibre they contain.

Sticking with Warburtons, here’s the numbers for medium sliced wholemeal:

Bread, Wholemeal, Medium, 800g Loaf, Warburton's

  per 100g per Slice/45g
Calories 231 104
Protein 10.6g 4.7g
Carbohydrate 37.8g 16.9g
Sugars 2.4g 1.1g
Fat 2.8g 1.3g
Fibre 6.4g 2.9g

(Source: WLR Food Database)

Wholemeal bread is often recommended over white bread, mainly because it makes an important contribution to our intake of fibre, and most of us struggle4 to get the recommended daily amount of 30g.

Fibre is your friend when you're trying to lose weight. A high fibre diet helps to fill you up and keep you fuller for longer. Fibre's also credited with health benefits5 for the heart, digestive system and control of blood sugar levels.

Note that not all brown coloured bread is made entirely, or evenly partly, with whole grain flour. So it's worth a quick look at the ingredients and fibre content of different brands where a bread is not actually described as wholemeal or wholegrain.

So that’s what’s in our daily bread, which brings us nicely to …

Bread Makes You Fat

There's evidence to show that it doesn't, and none showing that it does.

Simple common sense should also be brought to bear on this issue:

  • Overweight and obesity have been on the rise only for the last 40 years or so
  • We’ve been eating bread for over 10,000 years

You’d think somebody would have noticed before now if bread was making us fat.

Here's another couple of simple facts which show that bread can't be responsible for fattening us up:

1) We Don’t Eat That Much Bread

According to the government’s National Diet and Nutrition Survey, median bread consumption per person is approximately 90 grams per day, higher for men (113g) than for women (76g)6. This means that bread accounts for around 10% of recommended daily calorie allowances for adults.

  • Women eat 76g which provides an average of 181 calories, 9% of the recommended 2000 daily calories
  • Men eat 113g which provides an average of 270 calories, just under 11% of the recommended 2500 daily calories

It’s pretty hard to conclude that bread is making us fat when it accounts for such a small proportion of our daily calories.

2) The Amount of Bread we Eat is Decreasing

According to Government statistics, purchases of bread are on a long term downward trend: down 20% between 2001 and 20127, and falling a further 5% between 2014 and 2017/188, periods during which the nation continued to get fatter.

If anything, we should be asking ourselves if diminishing quantities of bread in our diets is contributing to weight gain.

Are We Eating Enough?

Research published in the journal Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism9 found that central obesity (excessive fat around the stomach and abdomen) was associated with a lower intake of any bread, and of whole-grain bread in particular.

Bread’s Full of Sugar

It’s not. Bread is officially a green light, low sugar food

You can see from the nutrition charts above that bread contains very little sugar. In fact it has a green light as a low sugar food in the traffic light labelling system since it has less than 5g of sugar per 100g.

The small amount of sugar that is in bread is naturally occurring, from sugars present in flour and produced through the action of yeast during the fermentation process.

Like our popular bread examples above, most everyday loaves have no added sugar. In the rare commercial bread recipes where sugar is added it is in very small amounts.

Glycaemic Index of Bread

Closely aligned to unfounded concerns about sugar content, the GI of bread also gets a bashing.

Foods are classed as high GI if they have have a glycaemic index of 70 or more.

White bread has a glycaemic index of 72, wholemeal 73.

However, bread is seldom eaten on its own, and therefore the glycaemic load is different when it is combined with other foods. Even just a spread of butter or margarine lowers the GI of a slice of bread.

Since greater than 50% of bread consumed in the UK10 is in sandwiches filled with foods containing protein and fat, and we’ll quite often eat beans or eggs with our toast, we’re unlikely to suffer from the fast release of glucose into the bloodstream associated with high GI foods.

Bread’s a Protein Deficient Wimp

It’s not, and anyway it wouldn’t matter if it was.

Protein deficiency is not a general problem in the UK.

According to the British Nutrition Foundation, protein intakes for UK adults is more than sufficient11 at an average of 64g a day for women and 88g a day for men.

(The Reference Nutrient Intake (RNI) is set at 0.75g of protein per kilogram bodyweight per day in adults. This averages approximately 56g a day for men and 45g a day for women.)

Bread provides about 10% of our daily protein consumption, which is in keeping with the 10% of recommended calories. Practically perfect.

The issue here may be why we seem to think that foods have to be high in protein to be healthy. There’s a lot more to eating healthily than protein, and too much can lead to health problems.

It also may be that protein is perceived as a food that's good for weight loss, even though excess calories from protein can be stored as fat the same as excess calories from carbs and fat.

(If you’re interested in why we have this obsession with protein, take a look at food journalist Bee Wilson’s Protein Mania article published in the Guardian.)

Bread's Got Gluten

Bread made from wheat flour (most is) does contain gluten.

For all but a minority of people there's nothing scary about gluten. It is a protein found in wheat which contributes to the satisfying texture of bread. (That's why finding a good replacement is proving difficult.)

Recent attention to gluten has helped coeliacs and others who have serious problems digesting wheat, since they now have many more gluten free products to choose from on the supermarket shelves.

However, it has also caused a lot of confusion and worry that gluten is in some way bad for you. It isn't, unless you're in the 1-2% of people who have medical conditions affected by gluten.

This video produced by the ACS, and featuring some faces you may recognise from Bake Off, does a brilliant job of explaining what gluten is and what it does in just 3½ minutes.

In Conclusion

  • There’s nothing unhealthy about bread as a food and it won’t make you fat.
  • Unless you are one of the rare people who are unable to eat bread for medical reasons, you should embrace it as an important, convenient and healthy part of your diet.
  • Choosing whole grain varieties is beneficial for weight loss and health in general.
  • If you’re looking to reduce calories for weight loss, you’ll be far better off paying attention to the fillings you use and accompaniments you have rather than the bread itself
Published: 31 October 2019

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References

  1. Public Health England, A Quick Guide to the Governments Healthy Eating Recommendations September 2018
  2. Statista, Brands of bread ranked by number of users in Great Britain from 2016 to 2018
  3. National Association of British and Irish Millers (nabim), Flour & Bread Consumption
  4. British Nutrition Foundation, Dietary Fibre
  5. James W Anderson, Pat Baird, Richard H Davis, Stefanie Ferreri, Mary Knudtson, Ashraf Koraym, Valerie Waters, Christine L Williams, Health benefits of dietary fiber, Nutrition Reviews, Volume 67, Issue 4, 1 April 2009, Pages 188–205, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1753-4887.2009.00189.x
  6. Federation of Bakers (fob), Other Industry Data - Bread Consumption
  7. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) Family Food 2012
  8. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) Family Food 2017/18
  9. Ingrid Løvold Mostad, Mette Langaas, Valdemar Grill Central obesity is associated with lower intake of whole-grain bread and less frequent breakfast and lunch Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 2014, 39:819-828, https://doi.org/10.1139/apnm-2013-0356
  10. Flour Advisory Bureau Facts About Bread
  11. British Nutrition Foundation, Protein - How much protein should we eat?
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