I just returned from a 10 day trip to Kolkata, India to celebrate my cousin’s wedding. My last trip to Kolkata was 5 years ago and although I’ve written a book focusing on South Asian health, I made a commitment to restrain myself from offering abundant amounts of health advice and feeling guilty about delicacies I was sure to indulge in during the 4 day wedding festivities. I did well until the end when I just couldn’t tolerate one particular staple food which nearly all of my relatives were consuming (some of whom had diabetes) in the name of good health. Crispy snacks and Indian sweets are obvious health offenders, but this particular food is something many of their doctors recommended in the name of good health despite it containing some of the unhealthiest ingredients imaginable, which is why I’m calling it the most dangerous food I ate while in India. I’m referring to “brown bread” or what many of us refer to as whole wheat bread.
Anatomy of Brown/Whole Wheat Bread
Let's do a brown bread deconstruction to see if that piece of toast is really worth putting in your mouth every single morning. You've been doing it for years, maybe decades, but now it's time to step back for a moment and think about whether this so-called healthy food is doing your body any good and may possibly be doing harm. Let's analyze a few of the common ingredients found in brown bread. Be sure to read your ingredient labels since ingredients vary greatly by brand.
- Gluten: Gluten deserves its own dedicated post which I plan to do in the future, but for now here are the basics. Gluten is the protein in wheat widely recognized as a potential contributor to a variety of autoimmune diseases in addition to obesity and chronic conditions like diabetes. In its more severe form, gluten intolerance leads to a condition called celiac disease, manifested by more severe inflammation and damage of the small intestinal lining. Short of this, many people report having NCGS (non-celiac gluten sensitivity) where gluten sensitivity manifests as a variety of symptoms such as bloating, gas, bowel irregularities, acid reflux ,abdominal pain, joint pain, rash, fatigue, and/or depression which resolve after patients go gluten free. The best way to determine if you do have NCGS, is to eliminate wheat and gluten-containing foods for several weeks and see if your symptoms improve. Some of my patients notice profound health improvements in as little as 10-14 days of going gluten free. Practical Paleo author Diane Sanfilippo has a wonderful 1 page gluten-free guide here. Not everyone has issues with gluten, but just recognize that gluten has no essential role in our diet and if you are experiencing any of the mentioned symptoms, it is worth going off gluten to see if your symptoms improve. By the way, many people have a “dose-effect” where a certain threshold amount of gluten triggers symptoms. Notice how wheat and gluten are often listed as separate ingredients on a loaf of bread. That's because wheat already has gluten and then additional gluten (often called “vital wheat gluten”) is added to allow the bread to rise even higher.
- Sugar: This is actually an ingredient in many brown breads. Does it make any sense that my diabetic relatives were told by their nutritionists and physicians to replace nutritious eggs, which would have no impact on their blood glucose and insulin resistance, with brown bread containing excess carbohydrates and sugar? Hardy a diabetic-friendly food and many of my patients who check their blood glucose find significant spikes in their levels after consuming brown bread. In fact the glycemic index, a measure of how quickly a particular food turns to sugar in the blood, is the same for white bread and whole wheat bread, including brands that don't list sugar in the ingredients. Even without sugar listed in the ingredients, brown bread is so highly processed that it causes a rapid rise in blood glucose. Whole grain bread, however, does have a lower glycemic index but may still contain unnecessary and potentially unhealthy ingredients, especially if you have conditions like insulin resistance or gluten intolerance.
- High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS): HFCS is one of the most harmful ingredients in the modern diet and there are brown/whole wheat breads that actually contain HFCS. Fructose is metabolized/processed directly by the liver leading to fat production within the liver, contributing to fatty liver disease, and increased fat production in the blood in the form of elevated triglycerides. I have many Indian patients with fatty liver and elevated triglyceride levels that have been consuming a low fat diet for years, ignorant of the fact that many of the low fat foods they eat, such as brown bread are actually fueling fructose-driven fatty livers. Read the ingredient labels for all foods you eat and have zero tolerance for HFCS in your diet. This means sodas and most sugar sweetened beverages, snack foods, processed foods and yes, even many brands of brown/wheat bread!
- Phytic Acid: This is not listed on the bread ingredient list, but is a chemical found in whole wheat that actually binds to vitamins and minerals such as zinc, magnesium, and vitamin D and removes it from your body, earning it the title of “antinutrient.” That seemingly nutritious wheat bread or wheat chapati may actually be removing nutrients from your body. Read my post on phytic acid here to learn more. Apart from phytic acid, one study here found that high fiber diets in Asian immigrants actually reduced vitamin D levels, which as we've discussed here is a major epidemic, especially in South Asians. Keep in mind that eating a balanced diet with rich sources of plant-based fiber (predominantly vegetables) and healthy fats will enhance vitamin D absorption since vitamin D is a fat soluble vitamin. This is in contrast to eating mostly bread and grain-based fibers in the absence of healthy fats which would likely promote vitamin D depletion.
- Browning Agents: What gives that slice of bread its shiny brown crust? It's a chemical process called the Maillard reaction which combines amino acids (building blocks for protein) with glucose in the presence of heat to produce the characteristic flavor of bread crusts. It's the same process that produces that caramelized crust when you sear a steak or salmon on the grill. Unfortunately this process also produces substances called advanced glycated end products, or AGEs, which can increase inflammation and even accelerate aging. That’s right, AGEs from browned foods like wheat bread crusts may contribute to advanced aging! Read here about why so many of us are aging faster than ever.
- Other Ingredients: Many wheat breads contain vegetable oils which as I discuss here further increase our intake of already excess omega-6 fats, throwing our omega-6 to omega-3 dietary ratios completely off balance. There are also numbered bread preservatives in the ingredients such as preservative 282 (aka calcium proprionate), a controversial bread preservative implicated in behavioral disorders in children.
Brown/Wheat Bread is a symbol of what has gone terribly wrong in our current food supply. Yeast, flour, water and salt are all that are needed to make bread, but the food industry can throw in over 50 different FDA-approved chemicals including chemical bleach and a chemical called azodicarbonamide (read the NPR investigation here) which is found in yoga mats! Yes, that bread you are chewing on might be a combination of sugar, bleach and yoga mat. Brown bread is a nutrient deficient food with ingredients that can raise blood glucose, body fat, inflammation, autoimmunity and a wide array of related chronic illnesses, disguised as being diabetic and heart healthy and being recommended by most health professionals. More tragic is that it is replacing nutrient dense foods and healthy sources of fat such as eggs (if you’re afraid of eggs, read this), and dairy fat (if you’re afraid of dairy fat, read this).
When I explained the above facts to my relatives, I'm happy to say one of them threw their loaf into the trash and another decided to give it to their housekeeper. Although I can't say I condoned giving the loaf to the housekeeper, at least she is slender and very physically active. She is constantly climbing stairs, lifting heavy objects and squatting to clean floors. Her active muscles will easily burn through that glucose from the brown bread, unlike my relatives and my patients who are mostly sedentary and insulin resistant. Assuming the housekeeper doesn't have significant issues with gluten or the other artificial ingredients we discussed, wheat bread is unlikely to do much harm to her health. My point is that starchy foods like brown bread and white rice have the most adverse effects in individuals who are inactive and show signs of insulin resistance. Be sure to read about carb trafficking so you understand why. If you must have bread, choose a sprouted grain bread made with mostly organic ingredients (Ezekiel and Manna are two manufacturers, but there are lots of others) and try to consume after an early morning exercise session. Don't just eat it plain. Mix it with protein and fat. This makes your breakfast more nutrient dense and also lessens the blood glucose and insulin spike from just eating plain bread for breakfast. Try spreading some almond or sunflower seed butter on your toast or have some eggs, avocado wedges or unsweetened yogurt on the side.
What Should I Eat For Breakfast? The “Prescription Foods” Series
I've heard your feedback. You've enjoyed reading my posts but need recipes and more practical information. I'm happy to say I've partnered with some incredibly talented nutritionists, chefs, and moms who are going to start contributing to a new series of posts called “Prescription Foods.” I enjoy writing the scientific stuff, but am going to consult these experts to help provide recipes and share links so you can start putting the science into practice. The logical question after reading this particular post is….”What should I eat for breakfast?” I mentioned a few options already. I also have breakfast suggestions and recipes in my book, including an easy 5 minute almond flour bread recipe you can make in the microwave. Now you'll also start getting recipes from my blog. If you have a talent for cooking and want to share recipes, send them my way. I will happily taste them with my highly qualified staff (aka my wife and two sons) and post them if they meet our approval. Stay tuned!