Monday, March 15, 2010

Bread and Whole Grains

The mid-1990s started us through some dark times. It was then that we joined the Dr. Atkins Diet Revolution and swore off all the carbohydrates our will power would allow—we did especially well with bread. No matter how much we wanted it, we took up the mantra that bread was pure evil in tender, soft, fluffy form. So we did away it completely.

It really was a revolutionary time for us. Suddenly we were free to order fast food without the guilt. As long as it was a lettuce-wrapped burger and not loaded with sugary barbecue sauce, we were good to go. Eating out at Applebee’s, TGI Friday’s, and all the rest of the long list of chain “American” restaurants was pure and simple: steak or chicken, no bread, hold the potatoes, double the veggies. Instant Atkins approved meal!

Did we lose weight like the doctor promised? We sure did! So we were indeed on to something here in regards to the carbs, but something also seemed very wrong about this new diet revolution we were on. Could bread really be so bad for you that you’d instantly gain weight just by walking past a bakery? Also, though we don’t have a clear understanding for it, we always felt a little off-kilter after our Atkins meals. We felt full without feeling settled—sort of “incomplete.” Also, we didn’t do much exercise during this time—I’m not sure if it’s because this diet didn’t provide enough energy, or if it was just Wisconsin. Either way, something just felt a little “off” and unsustainable about this diet.

Though we still held onto the core teaching that carbs (especially breads) were bad and to be avoided whenever possible, we were feeling deprived. So we looked for ways to sneak bread back into our diets.

As we started to read and learn more about carbohydrates and whole grains, a veil was lifted and we could see clearly for the first time. We learned that the key to eating carbs is to eat the right ones—the ones that have been least processed.

Grains and the Refining Process—

Grains are composed of three parts: the bran, the endosperm, and the germ. The bran is the grain’s outer shell and contains most of the grain’s fiber plus B-vitamins, zinc, calcium, potassium, and magnesium. Next is the endosperm, the large white part of the grain, which contains the bulk of the carbohydrates and is the least nutritious part of the grain. Finally, the germ is the innermost part of the grain; it’s the grain’s powerhouse, containing B-vitamins and Omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s have been shown to reduce rates of heart disease.

Refining grains removes the bran and the germ, leaving us the nutrient-deficient (and fat-inducing) white endosperm. So if we know that refining strips away the nutrients, why is it done? It's because the Omega-3 fatty acids in the germ cause whole grains to go rancid quickly. By refining out the bran and the germ, flour is able to sit on shelves for months. This longer shelf life is clearly a benefit to flour millers and the food industry, as their products will survive the long haul from mill to factory to store to pantry. But it is of little benefit to our bodies as a food product.

What’s the benefit of eating whole grains?

First, a crash course on simple versus complex carbohydrates.

Simple carbs cause a blood sugar and insulin spike in the body. The insulin then goes running around the body bringing carbohydrates (energy) to the muscles. When the muscles don't need the energy, insulin stores the stuff away as fat that can be converted back into energy during lean times. We Americans, however, suffer very few lean times, if any. There always seems to be plenty of carbs to go around.

Complex carbohydrates, on the other hand, do not cause an insulin spike because the body must first break down the complex carbs into simple ones. The digestion process is slowed down.

All grains are by definition complex carbohydrates, which the body converts into simple carbohydrates, or sugar. The fiber in whole grains, besides keeping your bowels regular, gives the body more to work on during digestion, thereby slowing down the rate that complex carbs are converted into simple ones. The fiber also helps you feel full for a longer time after meals.

The problem with refined grains, or refined flour, is that much of the vitamins and fiber have been removed from the grain. The remaining starch is almost instantly converted into simple carbohydrates, causing the previously mentioned insulin spike. So in essence, eating pure refined flour is almost as good (or bad) as eating sugar itself—your body gets a sugar rush, you're full for a bit, then your blood sugar comes crashing down and, guess what, you're hungry again.

[You know the old saying about how you’re hungry again just a couple hours after eating Chinese food? Well, it’s true. You see, most of us, when having a Chinese meal, load up on white rice (or noodles) along with the more sugary meal choices such as Kung Pao Chicken, Sweet and Sour Pork, Honey Glazed Shrimp, and so on. All that sugar, along with the white rice—which is really just refined brown rice—or noodles (refined flour) are simple carbs and do very little to keep us full. A cup of brown rice has 3.5 grams of fiber, while its refined white counterpart has less than 1 gram.]

What to look for when buying bread—

There are a few basic rules to buying quality whole grain bread:
  1. It must say it’s 100% “whole.” If the first ingredient is “enriched flour,” do yourself a favor and put it back on the shelf. This heavily refined flour has been “enriched” because all the nutrients have been stripped away when the refineries took out the bran and germ. It might seem like you’re eating a higher quality bread because of the enrichment, but they’re really just putting back what was taken out in the first place, minus the fiber and Omega-3 fatty acids. 
  2. The fewer the ingredients, the better. Bread is a very simple food. It’s just flour, water, yeast, and sometimes sugar or honey. Be suspicious of breads with ingredients lists that read like the periodic table of elements. Most likely those chemicals are either preservatives or agent to make the bread unnaturally soft or smooth or sweet or who knows what.
  3. Watch out for high fructose corn syrup. If you must have bread that is sweetened, choose one sweetened with honey or sugar. More on this in a later blog, but high fructose corn syrup should be on your naughty list. It’s just empty calories that will mess up your metabolism.
The bread we are currently eating at home is Trader Joe’s Harvest Whole Wheat Bread. It contains only seven ingredients: stone ground whole wheat flour, filtered water, honey, cracked wheat, sea salt, fresh yeast, and whey. It is surprisingly soft and does not feel and taste like you’re eating a chunk of cardboard. Our 8-year-old son Nolan even likes it, having it with peanut butter everyday at school.

Just for comparison (and indigestion) sake, here are the ingredients for Sara Lee’s Soft and Smooth (made with) Whole Grain White Bread: Enriched bleached flour [wheat flour, malted barley flour, niacin, iron, thiamine mononitrate (vitamin B1), riboflavin (vitamin B2), folic acid], water, whole grains [whole-wheat flour, brown rice flour (rice flour, rice bran)], high-fructose corn syrup, whey, wheat gluten, yeast, cellulose, honey, calcium sulfate, vegetable oil (soybean and/or cotton-seed oils), salt, butter (cream, salt), dough conditioners (may contain one or more of the following: mono-and diglycerides, ethoxylated mono- and diglycerides, ascorbic acid, enzymes, azodicarbonamide), guar gum, calcium propionate (preservative), distilled vinegar, yeast nutrients (monocalcium phosphate, calcium sulfate), corn starch, natural flavor, beta-carotene (color), Vitamin D3, soy lecithin, soy flour.

First, did you notice that the label is careful to say “made with Whole Grain”? Whole grain is the fourth ingredient out of 24 ingredients in this bread. There are actually much more ingredients if you count all the individual additives to things like the enriched flour, dough conditioners, and yeast nutrients. If you whittle your way down the list, you’ll notice the high-fructose corn syrup and then a little further down something called cellulose. Cellulose is typically used in the food industry as a means of increasing the fiber content of bread. Sounds good, but keep in mind that cellulose is derived from wood pulp and cotton—it’s no wonder it’s indigestible. Yum!

We hope this will help you give whole grain breads—real bread—a try.

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