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Q&A: Is Whole Wheat Bread a Good Choice on a Low-Carb Diet?

Whole Wheat Bread is Very Glycemic


Updated May 23, 2014

Whole wheat bread on chopping board, close-up
Smari/The Image Bank/Getty Images
Question: I thought it was good to eat whole grains. Some lower carb diets even encourage them. But you seem to be saying that eating whole grain bread is no better than sugar. Are you saying that nutritionists don’t know what they are talking about? Also, what about low-carb breads? (The writer was responding to my article about complex carbohydrates which describes products made with flour, even whole grain flour, as digesting as rapidly, or even more rapidly, than some sugars.)

Answer: For people who respond well to low-carb diets, it’s important to sort out the nutritional value of a food from its affect on blood sugar. For someone who is (take your pick as they mean similar things): sensitive to sugar, prediabetic, Type 2 diabetic, insulin resistant, or has metabolic syndrome, keeping blood glucose stable is an important priority for health. In that way, it’s not much different from any condition that is treated by diet –- tradeoffs must be made. Someone who is allergic to wheat, for example, can still eat a balanced, healthy diet without harming their body. So can someone who strives for stable, normal levels of blood sugar.

It’s definitely true that whole wheat flour is much more nutritious than refined (“white”) flour. If you tolerate sugar well, definitely choose the 100% whole grain bread –- it has more fiber and all kinds of nutrients. But whole wheat and white bread have essentially the same impact on blood sugar, which is to say you might as well be eating a big spoonful of sugar. Another way of saying this is that most bread has a high glycemic index. On the other hand, if you can find bread which is specifically designed to be low in carbohydrates, this can be a good choice for a low-carb diet –- these specialty breads usually substitute more fiber for the starchy part of the wheat.

Note that if you don’t grind the wheat grain into flour, you are much better off. It takes the body much longer to digest it, so it doesn’t cause as high a spike in blood glucose. In other words, “whole” grains should ideally be truly “whole” when eaten.

Since different people’s bodies handle sugars more or less well, it’s important to zero in on your ideal carbohydrate level. Some people do fine as long as they stay away from rapidly-digested carbs altogether. Others can eat a little bit. For people who don’t monitor their blood glucose with a home monitor, carb cravings and weight gain are two of the markers of eating in a way that spikes their blood glucose too much. Others may feel “fuzzy headed” or tired.

There aren't any nutrients in grains that you can't find in many other foods. Many baked goods can be made from nut flours and flax seed meal, without the rise in blood sugar (and corresponding rise in insulin). All that said, there are better and worse choices when looking for bread, from the standpoint of carbs. How to Find a Healthy, Lower-Carb Bread
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