Loafing around: Bread and athletes

While bread is only a fair source of vitamins and minerals, it's an excellent carbohydrate source for a sports diet.
With the fall of the Atkins Diet, athletes are (thankfully) returning to eating bread and other starchy foods. They've realized carbs are not fattening; rather, excess calories are fattening. Bread and other grain foods are rightfully re-establishing themselves as the foundation of each meal.

The government's dietary guidelines encourage us to eat six to 11 servings of breads and grain-foods each day -- of which at least half should be made from whole grains (i.e., whole wheat, rye, oats, corn). Enjoying this many servings of grain-foods is an easy task for hungry athletes who commonly devour six servings at breakfast alone, such as a hefty bowl of cereal (four servings) with an English muffin (two servings).

Yet, confusion still abounds regarding the role of bread in a sports diet. Some weight conscious athletes still fear bread as a fattening enemy. They ask "Can I really eat toast at breakfast and a sandwich at lunch -- and not get fat?" Other athletes wonder if bread made from refined white flour is "evil." The purpose of this article is to replace some of the myths and misconceptions regarding bread and other grain foods and offer a grain of truth.

Myth #1: White bread is worthless; it has no nutritional value.

False. Although the refined white flour used to make bread may have been stripped of fiber, magnesium, zinc and several other nutrients, at least five nutrients have been added back by enriching the flour with B vitamins (thiamin, niacin, riboflavin, folic acid) and iron. Some white breads offer more of these vitamins than whole wheat breads. But not all the lost nutrients are replaced, so the optimal sports diet includes primarily whole grain breads and cereals.

When reading the label on the bread wrapper, be forewarned that wheat flour is synonymous with refined white flour. Only breads labeled as "100% whole wheat" are indeed made from all whole wheat flour. Most breads are white-flour based, with a dash of whole wheat (or other grain) added. The fiber-content offers a tip-off: look for breads with at least two grams of fiber per slice.

Comparing Calories in White Breads

Bread Weight Calories

Wonder bread, 1 slice 1 oz 70
Pepperidge Farm, 1 slice 1.3 oz 95
English Muffin, Thomas' 2 oz 130
Bagel, Lenders - small 2 oz 150
Bagel, Lenders - Big'n crusty 3 oz 210
Pita, 6" round 2 oz 160
Pita, 8" round 3 oz 240
Hotdog roll 1.5 oz 110
Hamburger roll 1.5 oz 110
Bulkie roll 2 oz 150

Eating white bread won't hurt your health unless your whole diet focuses on refined white flour products (i.e., too many white bagels and pasta meals). You'd be wise to eat a variety of grain foods and consume a variety of nutrients. Hence, if you eat a bagel made from white flour at breakfast, choose rye bread at lunch and popcorn for a snack.

Or, if you prefer white bread for a sandwich, enjoy whole grain Wheaties or oatmeal for breakfast and corn for dinner. So go ahead and enjoy the traditional leftover Thanksgiving turkey sandwich on white bread, if you so desire. And don't feel guilty if you really prefer white bread for your favorite PB&J sandwich.

The key to an optimal diet is to balance out the highly processed foods with more wholesome products the rest of the day. No one food -- not even white bread -- can be classified as bad. It can be integrated into an overall good diet.

Myth #2: Whole grain bread is a nutritional powerhouse.

False. Although whole wheat bread may have slightly more nutritional value than white bread, it's still not a "nutritional powerhouse." Bread provides only the foundation of a healthy diet; the nutrient-dense fruits, vegetables, lean meats and low-fat dairy foods eaten alongside bread are the stronger sources of vitamins and minerals.

For example, two slices of bread (two ounces) has far less protein, calcium, riboflavin, potassium, Vitamin D and other vitamins and minerals than two slices of (American) cheese.

While bread is only a fair source of vitamins and minerals, it's an excellent source of carbohydrate (starch). These carbohydrates are important for fueling muscles and helping enhance athletic performance. Your sports diet should get 55 to 65 percent of the calories from carbohydrates; bread offers 65 to 75 percent of its calories from carbohydrates.

Comparing Nutrients in Breads

White breads are enriched with B-vitamins to replace those lost during the refining process. However, white breads lack fiber as well as many other vitamins and minerals that are not replaced.

Fiber (gm) Iron Folic

Wonder bread, 1 slice -- 6% 6% 6%
Whole Wheat, not enriched 2 6% 2% 4%
Whole Wheat, enriched 2 10% 8% 15%

Myth #3: Bread is fattening.

False. Plain bread isn't fattening. Most of bread's calories are from carbohydrates. Your body preferentially burns carbohydrates during exercise rather than storing them as body fat. However, bread can become fattening if you smother it with lots of butter, margarine or mayonnaise. The fatty spreads that commonly adorn bread are, indeed, fattening.

If you're watching your weight, you can enjoy bread and bread products at each meal as long as you stay within a calorie budget that's appropriate for attaining your weight goals. Most active people can reduce body fat by eating 600 to 700 calories per meal (1,800-2,100 calories per day). Bread, with 70 to 100 calories per slice, can certainly fit within that budget. However, the pat of butter (50 calories) or tablespoon of mayonnaise (100 calories) spread on the bread quickly boosts calorie intake.

Myth #4: Diet bread helps with weight loss.

False. Diet bread is filled with extra air and sometimes extra fiber. The slices are extra thin. All this results in a lower-calorie product. Most diet breads have about 40 calories per slice, as compared to regular breads that tend to have 70 to 100 calories per slice. (One ounce of bread is generally 70 to 80 calories, regardless of whether it comes in the shape of a bagel, pita pocket, slice, wrap or sub roll.)

The key to bread's calorie content is knowing the ounces per serving. The more bread, the more calories. Although dieters can save a few calories by eating diet bread, the real key to weight reduction is to reduce calories from fats, not from carbs. Weight-conscious athletes are better off skipping butter, but loafing around with the bread.

Sports nutritionist Nancy Clark, M.S., R.D., counsels both casual and competitive athletes in her private practice at Healthworks (617-383-6100), the premier fitness center in Chestnut Hill, MA. Her best-selling Sports Nutrition Guidebook ($23), Food Guide for Marathoners ($20) and The Cyclist's Food Guide ($20) are available at www.nancyclarkrd.com or www.sportsnutritionworkshop.com or by sending a check to PO Box 650124, W. Newton MA 02465.

Copyright 10/05 Nancy Clark, M.S., R.D.

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