Is bread fattening? Not unless you eat too much of it. Is bread bad for you? Not unless you’ve got a food intolerance or digestion issue. No reason to hate on bread. The truth is, bread haters are just HANGRY. That’s right, they’re mad at the rest of the world because yummy bread (and yummy pasta) is forbidden to them (sadly, at times, due to arbitrary fad diet rules with no scientific rationale). Meanwhile, those of us here who practice bodybuilding-style nutrition (Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle) know how to use starchy carbs and grains intelligently rather than demonize them completely…
This whole topic came up recently when I got this email from a Burn the Fat Blog reader:
QUESTION: Tom, I’m entering your upcoming Burn the Fat Challenge contest, and I’ve thought about ways to improve my nutrition. A strategy that has worked well for me is having a fixed breakfast and lunch. Part of the lunch includes a sandwich with two slices of whole grain bread with no HFCS. It does a great job of keeping me satisfied until dinner. I also eat a piece of whole grain bread with some PB2 before going out for very intense or long bike rides.
Although I know many folks have gluten or wheat issues, I haven’t noticed any problems with my body handling the bread. As I think about things, though, I’m wondering if having bread is consistent with a clean bodybuilding diet. After all, it is processed. Are there any successful bodybuilders who eat bread on a regular basis? Has bread been unfairly demonized, or should I make the effort to avoid it?
If I should avoid bread, suggestions for carb dense substitutes that can be eaten cold while tasting good would be appreciated. Brown rice is fine when I have access to a heating unit, but often I am eating lunch away from home. Thanks
ANSWER: You asked, “Are there any successful bodybuilders who eat bread on a regular basis?”
First, people who have metabolic problems, gastrointestinal disorders or even gluten intolerance should talk to a dietician or a physician for information about dealing with those issues. I’m not talking to them or about them.
But I can certainly answer your question because I’ve been involved in bodybuilding culture for over 30 years and bodybuilding nutrition is my expertise. Eating for fat loss and muscle gain is my specialty.
The answer is yes, absolutely there are successful bodybuilders who eat bread on a regular basis.
Science-minded bodybuilders and dieters don’t demonize bread.
Usually, they simply eat whole grain bread because it’s less processed, higher in fiber, and contains more nutrients.
Bodybuilders also typically vary the amount of starchy carbs they eat (including bread) based on their goal or the phase / season they are in. More carbs in the muscle-mass building season and less in the cutting season is standard.
During muscle-building programs, calorie requirements are higher, so there’s a lot more room for those carbs.
I know fewer bodybuilders who eat bread during contest prep (a serious fat loss goal with a tight calorie budget). It’s not that they couldn’t eat bread – a small handful do make it fit. It’s just that they typically don’t.
Too many bread calories can push out other types of foods that are important when you’re on low calories (namely protein).
Sometimes bodybuilders take high carb days even during fat loss phases. Using the carb-cycling (aka refeeding) technique is as popular as ever. The refeed days are high in carbs and it’s common to include bread, pasta and other grains or starches.
Like bodybuilders, you’ll rarely see endurance athletes avoiding or demonizing starchy carbs or grains either. Any kind of athlete doing a high volume of training will have a larger calorie budget and need energy-dense fuel sources to keep up performance.
That’s another important point: The more active and athletic a person is, the more room they usually have for starch and grain calories. The more sedentary a person is, the less room they have for those carbs.
We simply have to be careful not to confuse eating less bread because you have a small calorie budget with “bread makes you fat” or “you can’t get ripped while eating bread.” Is bread fattening? No! If you eat bread and sustain a calorie deficit, you’ll still lose fat.
Is bread unhealthy? Well, the processed and white flour breads are not nutritious. Even whole grain breads I’d consider a “B choice,” not an “A choice” because they’re still at least slightly processed. I mean, you don’t see a slice of bread hanging off a tree branch. The grain, as it originally appeared in nature, does require some processing to get into bread form.
Vegetables on the other hand? You can pull them out of the ground and eat them in their 100% natural form, so they get an “A grade” in my book. As much as there are differences in nutrition ideologies these days, almost no one disagrees on that point. (Veggies are a good choice, and a diet emphasizing veggies plus protein as the first priorities is a superb way to get lean).
Bread has been demonized for a variety of reasons.
One reason there are so many hangry bread haters today because of the popularity of low carb diets for fat loss. Bread is a carb. If carbs must be low, therefore bread intake must be low.
Another is the recent popularity of gluten-free diets. Some people are gluten intolerant and can’t eat wheat. But somehow that has a strange way of morphing into, “NO ONE should eat bread… ever… it’ll kill ya! It’s evil!” They scream.
No, bread is not evil. Foods are not evil. Hitler was evil. Osama Bin Laden was Evil. But foods don’t go around the world committing atrocities.
I have a reward for anyone who can prove (with science) that 200 calories of bread is any more fattening than 200 calories of sweet potato (the latter usually consider the more “clean” carb). The condition is that all else in the diet and lifestyle must stay the same, including protein, calories in, and calories out (burned), including N.E.A.T. (non-exercise activity thermogenesis).
Now on the other hand, if you “cheat” and change the macros – like if you want to do an unfair comparison of 200 calories of bread versus 200 calories of chicken, you may see a difference in body composition. A calorie is not a calorie when it comes to your health. But if you change the macros, a calorie is not just a calorie for weight loss either.
But bread is not inherently fattening, calorie-for-calorie.
Bread is not inherently unhealthy either, especially if we’are talking about 100% whole grain bread. Whole grains are more nutrient-dense than refined flours. Assuming a person has no pre-existing health problems, intolerances or allergies, there’s no reason to avoid them.
It does pay to choose the least processed foods you can. No one recommends white flour products as a first choice for carbs. They’re best kept as “free meal” foods for occasional enjoyment. A calorie is not just a calorie from a nutrient density and health point of view. White bread products are empty calories. When you’re on a calorie budget, we could describe them as a “waste of calories” (just like we might describe blowing money when you’re on a tight financial budget).
By the way, some of the people to entered our last Burn the Fat Challenge got ripped even while still eating whole grains. I know a few of them in particular who love Ezekiel bread and a few others who used whole wheat or whole grain wraps every single day. So aside from the science behind it, there are plenty of real world examples of people enjoying bread and other carbs and getting super lean.
Bread and gluten may be unhealthy or problematic for some people who are gluten intolerant. Those individuals often end up being promoters and loyal followers of gluten-free diets. That’s fine of course. They’re avoiding a food because they have a specific health problem. Unfortunately, many of them get on a platform and preach about how “evil” bread is and how it’s “not fit for human consumption” and so on. They’re projecting their own personal health problems onto the rest of the world.
People with lactose intolerance make the same mistake. They preach about the so-called evils of dairy products. The fact is dairy proteins are some of the best proteins in nature. Milk has been a staple bodybuilding food since the golden era of physical culture.
Some people in our burn the fat challenge contest have gotten shredded – I mean, spectacular body transformations to the point that they’re our before and after spotlight success stories, while eating Greek yogurt, cheese, and or cottage cheese every day (on top of the bread). Probably most of them use whey and or casein (milk proteins) in supplement form.
The moral of the story is that fad weight loss diets suck people in by doing the same thing – demonizing a food or food group. It’s the classic diet program pitch and storyline. In any good story, there has to be a bad guy to attack… or at least some big bad pharmaceutical company to be mad at.
It’s a human tendency to blame problems on something outside rather than take responsibility. It’s a major part of diet program marketing too. The fault for being overweight has to be something else…. some evil company, evil food… evil carbs… evil bread…. evil grains… evil gluten… evil lectins…. something… anything… but… drum roll… eating too much!
The truth is, for health reasons, you may have to avoid certain foods.
But you don’t have to avoid bread unless you have a specific reason to do so.
The key is to customize you nutrition. Like this:
1. Customize nutrition for your goals.
Are you pursuing bodybuilding or physique contest prep (or even a serious run for our “Burn the Fat Challenge title)? If so, yeah, you may want to reduce bread and other starchy carbs as a way to control calories. But it’s about calorie control, not good and bad foods.
2. Customize your nutrition for intolerance or allergy.
If you’re gluten intolerant then (duh) don’t eat gluten. And if you’re lactose intolerant, don’t consume lactose (duh) unless you like gastrointestinal messiness. Do your thing. But don’t run around telling everyone else that bread or wheat or dairy products are “bad.”
3. Customize nutrition for your health status and “metabolic type.”
I don’t believe in “metabolic typing” in the way some fad diets used to promote it. But I do believe you should consider your metabolic type defined as how well your body handles sugar and calorie-dense carbs in general.
Many people have serious problems with blood sugar regulation and suffer from metabolic syndrome. Type II diabetes is an epidemic right up there with obesity. Some people are better off with a low carb approach for health reasons. That would mean less bread. Reduced carb diets can be a good option for both health and weight loss for some people with certain health issues. We shouldn’t lump all low carb approaches in the fad diet category.
4. Customize nutrition for your personal preferences.
It’s all about compliance. You’ll never stick with a diet if you hate it, and you can’t burn fat on any diet you can’t stick with. Some people really want to keep bread in their meal plan. They like bread! They’d rather have some whole wheat toast in the morning than oatmeal for example (oatmeal is sometimes considered the more nutritious carb). If you’re one of them, have it. Just carefully track those calories and don’t allow yourself to eat more calories in whole grain bread than you would have eaten if you chose a less processed carb or more veggies.
Also realize that if instead you had all fibrous carbs instead of starch (for example a big pile of chopped veggies in your egg scramble), that lower carb, higher protein approach would most likely control calories better due to lower energy density and higher satiety and lead to better fat loss.
Last but not least
For whatever it’s worth, when I’m going after a fat loss goal, I don’t eat a lot of bread. I eat even less pasta. For the sake of more automatic calorie control, they’re not staples in my cutting diet meal plans and when I do eat them, the potions are carefully measured.
But if I’m on a muscle building programs, I’m highly active (like out on a backpacking trip), I certainly have lots of bread and starchy carbs if I want them. I simply fit them into my daily macros and calorie allowance. When you’re training hard or physically active – it’s easy to fit those calories in.
If I’m using carb cycling with (high carb) re-feed days I’m also a lot more more likely to include more starchy carbs (a nice big bowl of pasta – yeah!)
Bread is not “forbidden” to me. It’s not forbidden to people who follow Burn the fat, Feed the Muscle (BFFM) either.
Yes, we have our own ideology in BFFM – it’s bodybuilding nutrition.
But the difference between me and the fad diets is I don’t slap you with all kinds of forbidden food lists. BFFM has the unique distinction of being a structued and by-the-numbers (macros) plan, and yet also flexible at the same time. Yes that is possible! (Meal planning is not the opposite of flexible dieting).
Grain and bread haters can go on demonizing grains and bread… they’re just mad at the world… they’re HANGRY (hungry and angry) … we BFFM’ers will go on enjoying ourselves and being lean and happy… with more muscle too.
– Tom Venuto, author of Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle (BFFM)
PS. I hope this informed you all as well as amused you… as it was intended, LOL. But if all the haters show up in the comments, it will only provide further amusement and prove my points above, won’t it?
PPS. By the way, Burn the Fat Blog readers are invited to join us for the next Burn the Fat Challenge fitness contest. Check out the schedule at this link, especially if you’re looking for some motivation and connection with like-minded folks: Click Here For Burn The Fat Challenge Info.