Bread has long been a foundational part of the human diet, but a revolt against it has been brewing for years—and seems to be leaving an increasing number of athletes wondering where to spread their peanut butter and jam. Today, many health gurus and influencers regard bread as a dietary nemesis: the cause of bigger waistlines, poor health, and dwindling athletic performances. But despite all of the anti-carb rhetoric out there, when you dig through the research it’s pretty clear that for most people bread can be part of a healthy diet (especially when you are torching a bunch of calories and can put their carbs to better use). Certain slices will offer you the opportunity to fill up with extra fiber and vital nutrients.
Don’t give bread the boot. Instead, raise a toast to these bread winners that rise above the rest.Section divider
To assure your morning toast delivers more nutrition in each bite, look for wheat-based bread that is made mostly with whole wheat flour. This means that the germ and bran of the wheat kernel, which harbors the lion’s share of its nutrients and fiber, are present in the bread. More heavily refined bread flour has been stripped of its nutritious germ and bran leaving behind just the starchy endosperm, though B vitamins and iron are added back in later on in the production process. There is data suggesting that prioritizing whole grains like whole wheat bread may confer protection from certain cancers including colorectal and bladder.
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Read bread packages carefully. Whole grain labels on items like bread and cereals are so confusing or misleading that people may read them wrong and overestimate how much whole grains they contain, according to a study published in Public Health Nutrition. Label claims like “multi-grain” and “made with whole grains” make a loaf of bread seem whole-grain wholesome but are often made mostly with white flour. Pay close attention to the ingredient list and look for an option that lists whole wheat as the first ingredient (whole being the keyword here) and not simply wheat flour or unbleached flour, both euphemisms for white flour. A slice with 2 to 3 grams of fiber is a good benchmark. Ideally, choose brands that are not made with added sugars. With this said, a slice or two of doughy white flour bread could be an acceptable option shortly before working up a sweat since it will be easier to digest than higher fiber whole wheat.Section divider
Scandinavian athletes are wise to make rye bread a staple carb and a foundation of smørrebrød, an open-faced sandwich piled high with nutritional winners like pickled herring. The hearty, flavor of the earth bread can have up to 5 grams of fiber in each slice to help take an anvil to hunger pangs and maybe even trim down cholesterol numbers. One study found that the consumption of rye bread can make LDL cholesterol more resistant to oxidation, which could be key in lowering heart disease risk. And a Journal of Nutrition investigation suggests that fiber-rich rye bread can improve bowel functioning by offering some reprieve from constipation issues. Rye is also a reliable source for a range of vital micronutrients including magnesium, zinc, phosphorus, and B vitamins. Since real rye bread can be so high in fiber it might not be the best option before working up a sweat as its slower digestion may bring on gastro woes when pushing the pace.
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Watch out for American bastardized rye and pumpernickel loaves made mostly with less nutritious refined wheat flour and some molasses for color trickery. You want a loaf nearly as heavy as a U-lock and listing whole rye flour or meal as the first ingredient.Section divider
If there is one good thing to come out of COVID it’s a renewed interest in all things sourdough. (Suddenly everyone was pumping spent sourdough starter into everything from pancakes to muffins.) Sourdough’s quintessential tang and crusty-on-the-outside-airy-on-the-inside texture hail from the old-school baking method of using a bacteria-rich “starter” to kickstart fermentation–a process that not only creates taste-boosting compounds, but also lessens the impact on post-meal blood sugar levels which, overall, may lower the risk for metabolic conditions like diabetes. Analysis of sourdough bread’s found they can contain extra amounts of branch-chained amino acids, the aminos that are especially effective at repairing and building lean body mass, and bioactive compounds like phenolic acids. Also, during the fermentation process by bacteria including lactobacilli grain molecules are broken down and levels of gluten are lowered which can make slices of sourdough easier to handle for sensitive tummies.
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Don’t fall for sourdough impostors that may add items like ascorbic acid or vinegar to give loaves a sour taste. If not baking your own, your best bet for the authentic stuff comes from local bakery shops that often employ longer fermentation periods for better taste and health benefits. For added nutrition, choose options made with whole grains like rye flour.Section divider
You’ve likely seen Ezekiel bread on grocery store shelves, which has garnered a cult-like following. Mostly, it’s praised for being made from sprouted grains which can give it a flavor and nutritional leg-up. The nutrient and antioxidant content of whole grains like wheat and barley are increased during sprouting, while levels of the anti-nutrient phytic acid are reduced which may allow your body to absorb more of the micronutrients in each slice. Sprouted bread also typically has more protein than your standard Wonder–about five grams of protein per slice, or 10 grams per sandwich. Research also demonstrates that eating sprouted bread improves post-toast blood sugar control compared to other styles of bread including non-sprouted whole-grain. Most of these next-level breads are also made without added sugars, which is surprisingly rare in the commercial bread world.
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Though anecdotal evidence suggests that sprouted grains and the products made with them can be easier to digest, most sprouted breads are not gluten-free and need to be avoided by those with Celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity.Section divider
With the rise of diets like Paleo, Whole30, and Keto that eschew grains it was only a matter of time before a swell of caveman-worthy grain-free bread came on the market. Out with the wheat flour and in with the flours made from almonds, flax, coconut, and arrowroot. Some brands even bake in nut butter for a dose of healthy fats. Loaves typically have twice as much protein and half the amount of carbs as standard slices. This helps give you some extra muscle-building protein, but if you are training hard just make sure you are getting enough carbs elsewhere to support training needs. There isn’t any research to suggest that these new-style breads are healthier than whole grain loafs, but if you are using these slices instead of those made from refined white flour there could be a nutritional and health advantage. And they typically forgo preservatives, which is why they need to be stashed in the fridge or freezer.
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Don’t expect the same doughy PB&J experience when using no-grain bread. You’ll likely need to test out a few options to find one with an appetizing texture.