- Megan Rossi, PhD, registered dietitian and gut-health research fellow at King’s College London
How Gluten Got Its Wrongful Gut Health-Disrupting Reputation
Dr. Rossi says that while the one percent of the population with Celiac Disease should certainly avoid gluten, as it can be a GI disrupter, that advice doesn’t apply to the vast majority of people. And while self-diagnoses of gluten intolerances or sensitivities have been en vogue over the past few years, Dr. Rossi says that only two to six percent of the population actually has a legitimate sensitivity to the protein. What's more, unnecessary avoidance of gluten can actually lead to negative health outcomes, including constipation (more on this later).
“You can find out whether you have gluten sensitivity using the evidence-based testing protocol in my first book, Love Your Gut, but unfortunately there are no blood, hair, or other tests that can validly test for gluten sensitivity, despite what charlatans may claim,” says Dr. Rossi. “Outside of these conditions, there is no evidence in human trials at present that gluten from whole grains can have a negative impact on health for those without a gluten allergy or sensitivity. That being said, it is worth ensuring you’re prioritizing whole grains—such as 100 percent whole grain bread—over refined grains, like white sandwich bread.”
Lastly, if you’re an avid label reader, you’ve likely noticed that gluten-free breads tend to be lower in fiber and protein than a gluten-containing, whole-grain version. "There are a lot of gluten-free products out there that are highly processed, breads included, that contain more chemical additives, while being less satisfying due to low fiber and protein counts," Dr. Rossi says. “This is because they’re trying to replicate the properties of gluten. Gluten gives bread that nice stretchy chewiness so, without it, they have to add additives to try and replicate this texture.” So, again, if you don't have any health-related reason to avoid gluten, you may be doing yourself a disadvantage by choosing gluten-free versions of foods like bread over whole grains.
Bread’s Impact on the Microbiome
Dr. Rossi is not only a best-selling author and doctor who specializes in gut health, she is also the founder of The Gut Health Clinic, a London-based destination with telehealth options for healing or balancing your gut. This means that she has both countless hours of research and hundreds of real-life cases under her belt, and has seen firsthand how bread impacts the gut—unlike that Instagram “health coach” who encourages everyone to ditch gluten for good without any evidence to back the claim up.
“Interestingly, we know that things like wheat, barley, and rye—in which gluten is found—actually contain prebiotics called fructans,” Dr. Rossi says. “Prebiotics are like fertilizer for the ‘good’ bacteria in your gut, and including the whole form of these grains in your diet has been associated with gut health benefits in terms of increasing this good bacteria, such as Bifidobacteria.”
While probiotics have gotten much of the gut-loving glory lately, it's important to keep in mind that they need to be supported by healthy intakes of prebiotic-containing foods to work their best, too. In fact, some research has shown that prebiotics could be even more powerful for improving your gut flora than probiotics. Increasing your intake of prebiotics leads to better bowel movements, a stronger immune system, and possibly even improved mental health.
To be clear, Dr. Rossi is a major proponent of plant diversity and underscores that bread shouldn’t be the only prebiotic source in your diet (garlic, onions, flaxseed, and bananas are also great sources), but it’s a delicious start.
“In terms of optimal bread options, there is some research suggesting that whole-grain sourdough is a great option, as it may have a lower impact on your blood sugars,” says Dr. Rossi. Her new book, How To Eat More Plants features a sentimental and satisfying bread recipe she snagged from her Irish father-in-law. It requires just 10 minutes of prep time (plus, a few optional hours to let your dough ferment) and it doesn’t contain yeast, so Dr. Rossi promises it’s a great pick for beginner bakers who are otherwise daunted by making homemade bread. Get the recipe, below:
Dr. Megan Rossi’s Foolproof Fermented Wheaten Bread Recipe
2 cups (300 grams) whole wheat flour, plus extra for dusting
Generous 3/4 cup (200 grams) probiotic yogurt
1 large carrot, shredded
1 Tbsp each pumpkin and sesame seeds
1 tsp baking soda
3 thyme sprigs, leaves picked, or 1 tsp dried thyme
1/4 tsp sea salt
Mix 1 cup (150 grams) flour with the yogurt and 1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon (100 ml) of water. Cover the bowl with a clean kitchen towel and leave to ferment for about three hours out of direct sunlight. When ready to bake, mix in the carrot, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, baking soda, thyme, and salt, using a butter knife to combine. Be careful not to overwork the dough as this will make it tough.
Combine the flour, carrot, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, baking soda, thyme, and salt in a large bowl. Mix well. Add in the yogurt along with 1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon (100 ml) of water and stir with a butter knife to combine. Be careful not to overwork the dough.
1. Gently turn the dough onto a lightly floured baking sheet and bring it together in a loaf shape. Score a cross on top with a sharp knife.
2. Bake for 40 to 50 minutes, until golden, and check that the base is dry and the loaf sounds hollow when tapped. Place on a wire rack and let it cool completely.
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