This post originally appeared on CNN Health.
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One of the foods many people hate to love is bread.
It tastes so good, but we often get messages that, nutritionally, it’s so bad. There are entire diets centered around cutting out bread and other carbohydrates and shaming people who eat them, said Natalie Mokari, a dietitian based in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“I see a lot of clients that think they should not be eating bread, which is sad to me because bread is a great source of whole grains,” she said.
Yes, it’s true: Bread can be part of a balanced diet, and carbs are crucial to good health, she said.
It could be a good idea to get two to three daily servings of whole grains, which can be found in bread, as they can prevent type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and colorectal, pancreatic, and gastric cancers, according to a 2017 study.
“We need carbohydrates to function,” Mokari said. “Carbs are brain food. If you notice, whenever you don’t have carbohydrates, you feel really sluggish, you might have brain fog, you just don’t have as much energy.”
If you are looking for the healthiest bread, there are many factors to consider, like what kind you buy, what you eat with it and how balanced your relationship with it is, Mokari said.
Wheat, white and sourdough
Is there a type of bread that is more nutritious than the others? It depends on what you are looking for.
“It’s important to define your health goals,” said Steph Grasso, a dietitian and TikTok creator based in Washington, DC. “What does healthy mean?”
Wheat breads offer more vitamins, whole grains and fiber, and they have less of a negative impact on blood sugar, which can be helpful for people who have insulin resistance, Mokari said.
But some people just have a strong preference for white bread, and to them, Mokari says go for it.
“If you break it down and put the labels side by side, they’re not really that different,” she said.
For those who have concerns about gut health or who want to capture the taste of white bread without the same level of refining, she suggested trying out sourdough.
Sourdough is fermented, a process that can be helpful to gut microbiomes, and if what you have is truly slow-fermented sourdough, you may be able to digest the gluten easier.
Beyond the type of bread, Mokari recommended looking at how it is made. Look for simple ingredients, like flour, water, salt and yeast, she said, especially because it’s easy to sneak higher levels of sugar and sodium into bread products.
If you are looking for more fiber, whole grains are the way to go, Grasso said. To avoid misleading labels, check the list of ingredients – the first word should be “whole” if it’s really whole grain bread, she added.
For a little extra fiber, look for bread with seeds in the crust, Grasso said.
And if possible, buying from local bakeries can help you find good-quality, fresh bread with simple ingredients, she advised.
What about diet or low-carb breads? Mokari is not a fan. They usually have more added and unnecessary ingredients to make them taste better, she said.
“But I respect people’s wishes if they truly feel that low-carb is best for them,” she said.
Add to it
Rarely do people just eat bread by itself, so it is important to think about the nutrition of the whole meal.
If you are worried about blood sugar, bread can be part of a balanced meal if you add healthy fats and proteins, Mokari said.
Carbohydrates like those in bread can give you a quick hit of energy that crashes if eaten alone, but adding in protein and fat helps keep your momentum sustained, Grasso said.
“Whether it is whole grain or white bread, I’m going to encourage somebody to always have a protein and a fat with it,” Mokari added.
For example, if you are making breakfast, try pairing toast with eggs, avocado or peanut butter, she added.
For lunch, sandwiches are underrated for their ability to combine proteins, produce, healthy fats and carbohydrates, Grasso said. And if she is having a big salad with protein for dinner, she always makes sure she has carbs like a piece of bread to go with it.
“It’s about balance,” Grasso said. “At the end of the day it’s going to give you energy – it’s going to make you feel good.”
Work with yourself
Even more than finding the best ingredient label, it’s important to know what works for you, Grasso said.
Breads can range widely in price, but you can find something that fuels you just as well no matter the budget you have, she said.
“Fancy doesn’t mean it’s always better,” Grasso said.
And if you like bread, eat it in ways you enjoy, because restricting yourself severely from foods you like can backfire – and it’s just not a very happy way to live, she said.
“Just like anything, the more you restrict the more you’re going to want it, so keep it in the mix,” Mokari said.
There might be some anxiety around carb-heavy foods like bread, because diet culture has made many people think that it makes people gain weight, Grasso said. But carbohydrates serve an important purpose, and without them you may end up feeling sluggish and irritable, she added.
“Take that stigma away from bread and those other carbohydrate foods that have been demonized and include that as part of a balanced diet,” Mokari said.
“You’ve just got to treat your body nicely,” Grasso said. “It’s healthier to have a non-restrictive mindset and balance it out through your day.”
This post originally appeared on CNN Health.