Does Bread Make You Fat? The Myth Of Bread’s Role In Making You Gain Weight
Does bread make you fat and gain weight? Does eating bread, white or whole grain cause weight gain, and is bread the weight gain menace that many health-conscious people believe it to be? As with most questions about weight gain and getting fat, the answers aren’t straightforward. Bread can make you fat and bread can make you gain weight, but, according to the laws of thermodynamics, any food can make you fat and gain weight IF YOU EAT TOO MUCH OF IT. Thus the common question of whether bread can make you fat does not have a clear cut answer as your body doesn’t care whether the calories come from proteins, fats or carbs. As long as energy consumption is greater than the amount of calories required to maintain your current body weight, excess calories (absorbed), may be stored as body fat and you will gain weight over time. Processed and refined foods are usually more energy dense than naturally occurring ones, and they tend to have a high glycemic index and are low in the appetite suppressing fiber that minimizes the likelihood of overeating. As such, these foods bypass our natural inclinations to not eat more than we should and consequently can make you gain weight. Breads are relatively calorie dense and modern refined breads are not particularly high in fiber compared to a truly high fiber food like oat bran cereal. A slice of bread averages 70-80 calories per ounce, and most breads today are made with refined flour blends, which cuts down on the nutritional value and the fiber content. As we said, the less fiber a food has, the more of it you will tend to eat, and breads made with refined flour are no exception. In fact, refined flour products make up about 20% of the calories in the average American’s diet. A diet that tends to unfortunately be higher in calories than is needed to maintain energy balance. As such the notion that bread does indeed make you gain weight and that eating bread will make you fat. Giving up bread is one of the most common methods people employ to lose weight, and given the number of calories saved in the average diet by cutting out breads, such diet strategies do have some merit. Advocates of (what is commonly called) the ‘Paleolithic Diet’ suggest that bread is a fairly recent addition to the human diet and vilify bread as one of the culprits responsible for the extra pounds around your waist. The argument is that early man followed a hunter-gatherer lifestyle for the greater part of our time on the planet and that we are not biologically designed to eat bread, grains or any foods that are agriculturally based and so eating bread will make you fat and unhealthy. It’s an interested presumption and given the remarkably healthy constitutions of the hunter-gatherer bands that still exist on earth, it does sound pretty easy to blame our current societal weight gain and obesity problems on the consumption of bread, wheat and grain products. However, these arguments don’t account for the fact that numerous cultures have eaten bread as a staple for millennia without the obesity and health problems we see today in our society. While we can indeed learn a lot from hunter-gatherer diets, it isn’t as simple as singling out bread and grains as the cause of our weight gain woes. For one, bread was indeed eaten by early man, a fact that throws into question a central premise of the Paleolithic Diet’, and secondly, the refined product found on supermarket shelves today bears little resemblance to the bread that sustained so many human lives for centuries. In this article we will explore how changes in the way bread is made and consumed over the centuries has made bread a food people associate today with gaining weight.
Does Bread Make Fat And Gain Weight? Understanding The History Of Bread
Contrary to the popular belief that we ate only meat, nuts, fruit and roots during our time as hunter gatherers, there is archeological evidence today that a form of flatbread was made by early Europeans during the Paleolithic era as early as 30,000 years ago using plant roots. When bread made from wheat and other grains became a prevalent addition to the diets of the inhabitants of the Fertile Crescent where wheat was first domesticated around 8500 BC , there was no catastrophic increase in the incidence of obesity or metabolic diseases. One can argue that the nutrition from a predominantly hunter gatherer is indeed superior to one of a more agriculturally based diet, but there is no evidence whatsoever of widespread illness as a result. Instead, it paved the way for stable villages instead of nomadic wandering, which lead to animal rearing and the creation of civilization as we know it.
The growing of wheat to make bread spread throughout the Eurasian continent and parts of Northern Africa and for thousands of years, bread has been a major solution to the problem of producing high energy foods that can sustain us. With as little as 3.5 oz of handmade stone ground wheat bread yielding about a hundred calories, 46 grams of carbohydrates, 4 grams of fat and 10 grams of protein, bread was a concentrated and convenient energy source that became a healthy and wholesome part of the diet of most Eurasian cultures. To the extent that bread made up 70-80% of the calories for people of all classes in 13th Century Europe because it was an affordable and easily available food source. So given the fact that humans were eating bread from such an early point in our history, how could bread be a causative factor in making you gain weight? The now global problem of overweight populations didn’t exist in agrarian societies that had bread as a staple, so what could account for the idea that bread can make us fat? The answers come from the developments of the Industrial Revolution. Which would change not only the bread that humans had benefited from for countless generations, but also our fundamental relationship with food.
Does Bread Make You Fat And Gain Weight? Refined Flour As A Causative Factor In Weight Gain
The Industrial Revolution in the later part of the 1800’s brought new ways of addressing the food requirements of the growing number of people in living in Europe at the time. While initially created with the most noble of intentions, technology has done much to degrade the quality of food we eat today, but it also enables us to produce more of it to feed more people. Bread was one of the first casualties of this new technology when the method of producing wheat flour was changed. Before steel milling technology, wheat was stone ground, either manually or between large stone wheels powered by rivers or animals. The resulting flour was nothing like the white flour that we are used to today, as stone grinding only removes the bran from the wheat kernel, but not the endosperm (or wheat germ) which contains an impressive array of protein, folic acid, B vitamins, carotenes and omega-3 fatty acids. Stone grinding crushes the wheat germ and releases the oils inside, leaving it a yellowish gray color (thanks to the carotene content) and has the effect of decreasing the flour’s shelf life. The oils in the wheat germ soon oxidize and turn rancid when exposed to the air, as do all omega-3 fats at room temperature. Consequently, stone ground wheat flour was a very perishable food product, and every town had to have its own flour mill, as the finished flour could not be transported very far without spoilage.
The advent of steel milling changed this and revolutionized flour distribution. Steel rollers could grind wheat to a much finer consistency than stone grinding milling processes ever could, and steel milling grinds the wheat to such a fine consistency that it also removes the endosperm completely. Without the easily spoiled omega-3 fats, flours could be stored for longer periods of time and transported across vast distances. Vermin no longer ravaged the new nutrient depleted white flour, as it didn’t have the nutrition that pests and other animals would need. And so, they wisely avoided it. Europeans at the time preferred white flour over its courser and often times smelly stone ground counterpart. For years only wealthy members of society had access to truly white flour but now steam driven steel milling made it possible for everyone to have access to affordable white flour. By the 1880’s refined flour became the new European staple, one that would eventually spread around the world and with it came some problems that we are still dealing with today.
The first problem with refined flour was that all breads made from it were no longer the food that human had eaten for tens of thousands of years. It was an entirely new food, and in many ways unnatural, as it lacked the nutrients that helped us digest breads safely and efficiently for generations. As bread made from refined flours became more available there were outbreaks of crippling vitamin B deficiencies such as beriberi and pellagra as these vitamins were no longer present in the breads that most people of the time ate as their main source of food. The discovery of vitamins in the 1930’s lead to vitamin enriched bread, (basically adding crushed vitamin pills to the flour) which minimized the B vitamin deficiency related diseases. In 1996, health authorities realized that most people also had folic acid deficiencies and mandated that folic acid be added to refined flours as well. These measures may have stemmed some of the deficiency problems, but do little to address the problems of obesity, diabetes and certain cancers that have been linked to the process of refining carbohydrates. 
The second problem is that bread made from refined flours pose is the lack of fiber. Steel milling removes the fiber that served to slow the release of the natural sugars in bread. The fine grinding also reduces the flour is to smaller individual particles. As a result, there is a larger surface area exposed to our digestive enzymes when we eat it, so the starches in bread made from refined flours turn to sugar much faster and therefore increases its our bodies insulin response to it. (Read my article on glycemic index.) The rapid increase of sugars in the bloodstream then set off a chain of events that can lead to weight gain. The pancreas has to work harder than normal to deal with any rapid influx of sugars into the bloodstream. And so, a low fiber food like bread can elicit a spike in insulin levels to reduce the quickly rising sugar levels in the blood. The problem is that naturally occurring foods don’t create insulin spikes, and the human body simply didn’t evolve to handle such spikes, as it never was an issue in an environment before the advent of refined foods. Among other things, insulin spikes can prevent existing fat stores from being used as energy and promote fat storage. This cascade of events has been implicated as one of the causative factors for obesity, diabetes and the slew of metabolic related chronic diseases that we face today. The low fiber content also means you are more likely to eat more than you should. Naturally occurring carbohydrate sources all have high fiber content and fiber decreases the time it takes for food to empty from the stomach and triggers the sensation of feeling full and satisfied. Bread made with real stone ground flour has about 3.5 grams of fiber per slice, whereas regular white bread only has on average 0.8 grams of fiber and real whole wheat bread milled with whole grains only has about 2 grams of fiber per slice. That said, bread and wheat products made from refined flour do can indeed make you fat as overeating such a refined and high calorie carbohydrate source is just too easy and avoiding them is a prudent idea for those focused on maintaining a healthy body weight.
Does Bread Make Fat And Gain Weight? The Role Of Whole Grains
That said, can you eat some kinds of bread and not have to worry about getting fat and gaining weight? The answer again, is yes and no. Whole grains breads are defined as those where the flour still contains the wheat germ and bran. They thus are higher in protein, healthy fats, vitamins and antioxidants. An study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition found that people eating whole grains tended to have lower fasting insulin levels as compared to those eating refined grains, and it suggested that whole grain consumption may be an important component in reducing type 2 diabetes. Other studies have also found that regular consumption of whole grains lowers LDL and triglyceride levels and can reduce the risk of heart disease by 26%.  Other studies found that the more whole grains were eaten, the lesser the likelihood of hypertension, diabetes and obesity when compared to those who ate refined grains.  The protective effects of whole grains may depend on the presence or interaction of several biologically active constituents, including dietary fiber, vitamin E, magnesium, folate, and other nutrients and non-nutrients. Dietary fiber absent or reduced in refined breads has been shown to decrease glucose, insulin, and serum lipid concentrations in both diabetic and non-diabetic persons.[8,9] Magnesium, found in the grain germ, is also associated with low insulin levels [10,11] and a low incidence of type 2 diabetes [12,13,14] and vitamin E and folate are both linked to a reduced risk of heart disease. [15, 16] Here in the United States relatively few consume true whole grain breads, as regulations allow for bread manufacturers to label bread made with almost whole grain flour, or with a blend of whole grain flours and refined flours so as to not make the bread too unpalatable, as truly whole grain bread doesn’t taste like what you can get at the supermarket or the local bakery. So shrewd bread manufacturers use confusing labels to make it difficult to discern whether a bread is really a 100% whole grains product.
At the end of the day even the few whole grain breads using only whole grain flour today are still a far cry from the food that our ancestors ate. The label, “stone ground” evokes the idea that the flour used is the same that our ancestors would have used before the Industrial Revolution, but nothing could be further from the truth. Modern mills have stones that can refine flours almost as finely as steel mills, but the average consumer has no way of knowing this unless they themselves with mortar and pestle at some point took a turn at stone grinding wheat the old fashioned way. As if you ever have the opportunity to do so, or see it done, you would clearly see that there is a monumental difference between what you make with a stone grinder and what is sold commercially as stone ground flour. Bakers used to be a hallmark of society, men and women focused on making bread, whereas today the focus has shifted instead towards making money. And so the onus is always to create a product that has as healthy and as organic sounding a label as possible, while delivering a product that appeals to modern tastes. Even if it means bending the truth to some extent. We see this in just about every other food related industry as well as economics are valued far more than consumer health and well being, which in essence is a fundamental part of the problem.
Does Bread Make You Fat And Gain Weight? Real Bread Probably Won’t
Bread is one of the first human food products and in it’s true form is a model of simplicity. Bread, for a very long time, was a simple mix of stone ground flour, water and later yeast. Stone ground flour, made with wheat untouched by chemicals, genetic modifications and grown in unpolluted soil, water and as years went on yeast was added as an ingredient in some parts of the world, although many cultures never made the switch to bread made with yeast. That said, there were no chemical additives to help hasten the baking process, as in its natural form, bread requires a significant amount of time to prepare, nor was it filled with additives to sweeten, emulsify and preserve the bread. Bread was not made with test audiences to determine precisely the amount of sugar and other chemical additives needed to make people eat more of it. Contrast this simple three ingredient and naturally nourishing heritage food with its modern counterpart. One brand of stone ground whole grain and whole wheat bread, (which certainly sounds healthy) has a total of 15 ingredients. Which include high fructose corn syrup, soybean oil, mono-diglycerides, mono-calcium phosphate, calcium propionate, ethoxylated mono-diglycerides and soy lecithin. It does remotely resemble the wholesome breads of our forefathers, and if history is to teach us one thing, it should be that modernized food products may be easier to make, appeal to our very refined tastes and are more convenient to store, but they come with very real health consequences. As there is always a price to pay when we change the eating habits of animal. Today, the healthy properties of one ingredient is held up as a justification to classify a food as being healthy, but I doubt that anyone would consider a bread with high fructose corn syrup and several unpronounceable chemicals healthy or natural even if it was made with stone ground flour.
When it comes to bread, the less ingredients the better. Some brands are better than others, but bear in mind that real bread has a limited shelf life, is far more expensive and won’t have the taste you may be used to. In a way it’s ironic that the very bread that the poorer people ate has become the most expensive and is in fact the healthiest. Stone ground and whole grain or not, you still need to bear in mind that bread is a high calorie food. In years past people subsisted on bread with very simple additions to their diet, and not the abundance of foods that we eat today. That said, they didn’t have to worry about portion control the way we do today as very often, the bread they ate was all they had to eat. So the argument that our ancestors ate it all the time, so we can as well doesn’t really work in an environment that is superabundant in food supply. If our ancestors could have eaten more they most certainly would have, and it’s important to understand this very real aspect of eating habits for all mammals, not just humans.
Does Bread Make You Fat And Gain Weight? The Gluten Controversy
One of the main reasons today why people feel bread will make them fat and gain weight is gluten, and the belief that a diet containing gluten will somehow lead to increased likelihood of weight gain. Gluten is a protein found in wheat and some grains that elicits an adverse reaction in those suffering from celiac disease. For someone suffering from celiac disease, consumption of bread and products containing gluten can damage the lining of the small intestine, which is responsible for nutrient absorption. And so to avoid damage to the small intestine, those with celiac disease must avoid any product containing gluten.  That said, here in the United States, the term gluten free has become more of a marketing catch phrase and the idea that bread and other grains are to blame for the growing obesity problems in America. It is human nature to look for simple answers to our problems and to overlook our own complicity and the idea of bread and gluten making you fat and gain weight is unfortunately one of them.
While you can easily overeat modern bread products, the fact is that most people who eat high calorie and high fat wheat products such as pastries, cakes and pies, and consume high calorie sandwiches ignore the laws of thermodynamics that indicate they are ingesting more calories than their bodies need, and instead place the blame on gluten. Savvy marketing helps reinforce this misguided idea as the sale of gluten free food sales increased by a third since 2006 to a 2.64-billion-dollar industry in 2010. One that continues to grow. Now there are some people who exhibit symptoms of gluten sensitivity, but they make up less than 6% of the U.S. population. Only 1% of Americans have celiac disease, so combined, 93% of the U.S. population gains no added health or potential weight loss benefit from avoiding gluten, yet these are the main consumers of gluten free products. The problem is that most manufactured gluten free foods are just as unnatural and highly processed as the breads people are trying to avoid. When consumers replace breads with gluten free versions of the bread products they are trying to avoid there has been no demonstrated improvement in weight loss outcomes. The decrease in bread consumption thanks to the growing gluten free and low carb diet fads over the past several years have done nothing to arrest the increasing rates of obesity here in the United States as it’s a movement based purely on marketing. Most gluten free products have the same amount of carbohydrates and fiber as their wheat based counterparts, but are more likely to be higher in in fat, sugar and calories. The question then becomes can you have bread and still lose weight? It is possible, but for most of the population, regular consumption of such a high calorie food isn’t a best practice for weight loss. It can be done, if you have access to real bread made of only stone-ground flours, yeast and water, but even then, only in limited quantities and not something that you could have daily. The fact is that we have so many options today in terms of food choices that there is no need for bread every day, as there are numerous other and better options. At the end of the day, if watching your weight is a priority, you might be better off eating bread in limited quantities relative to your activity level and caloric needs or not at all.
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