Ask a Dietitian: Expert weighs in on multigrain bread, plant-based protein and superfoods

A Canadian registered dietitian gave us the scoop on this week's top health questions from her followers.

Welcome to Ask A Dietitian, a new series where Yahoo Canada digs into food trends and popular nutrition questions with registered dietitian Abbey Sharp.

A Canadian registered dietitian has answered this week's top questions from followers.
A Canadian registered dietitian has answered this week's top questions from followers.

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Contact a qualified medical professional before engaging in any physical activity, or making any changes to your diet, medication or lifestyle.

New health and weight loss trends make the rounds on social media every few months, while some old ones keep resurfacing.

To see what's currently trending, Yahoo Canada checked in with registered dietitian Abbey Sharp. With more than 240,000 followers, the dietitian and YouTuber gets hundreds of comments daily asking for advice on trending health hacks.

She gave us the scoop on three recently most-asked questions:

  • Is multigrain bread healthier than white bread?

  • What’s the actual difference between animal protein and plant protein?

  • Are “superfoods” really better than other foods?

Read on to find out what the expert has to say about each.

Is multigrain bread healthier than white bread?

What makes multigrain bread different from white bread is that it is made from multiple grains, as opposed to just wheat flour. (Getty)
What makes multigrain bread different from white bread is that it is made from multiple grains, as opposed to just wheat flour. (Getty)
  • Multigrain bread is bread made with multiple types of grains, whereas a white bread is typically simply just made from refined wheat flour.

  • Multigrain bread is often marketed as a “healthier” alternative to white bread, but that may not always be the case.

  • An expert says the term “multigrain” is “sneaky” – and really, it’s all about the ingredient list.

What sets different bread types apart?

Dietitian Abbey Sharp explained what makes multigrain bread different from white bread is that it is made from multiple grains, as opposed to just wheat flour. However, in many cases, it still uses those refined grains – and that means it’s not necessarily healthier.

“That's sneaky,” Sharp said. “It sounds inherently healthy, the more grains the better, right? But a lot of these grains can still technically be heavily refined just the same way that you would refine white wheat flour.”

Multigrain bread will have more fiber compared to white, she added, but “you really do need to turn the package around to read the nutrition label and the ingredient list.”

Which ingredients to look out for in bread?

What you really want to look out for in a healthier bread, Sharp said, is whole grains.

Top view of sliced wholegrain bread on white ructic wooden background closeup.
A bread containing whole grains makes more of a difference than multigrain versus white bread. (Getty)

Grains that are less refined contain the beneficial bran and germ, which provide us with the fiber and the matric micronutrients and the healthy fats in grains, the expert said.

“Whole grain is just healthier,” she claimed.

“When you are refining a grain… you're stripping it of those beneficial fibers and nutrients. So you're getting a carbohydrate load without the fiber to help slow down the blood sugar response, and insulin response.”

Sometimes the marketing on the outside of the package sounds really good – but it doesn't actually tell the full story.Abbey Sharp

Another thing to look out for is the number of ingredients, specifically the number of preservatives. Fresh bread from a bakery will likely have less additives than packaged bread from a grocery store, for example Wonderbread, whether it’s multigrain or white.

What is recommended?

According to dietitian Sharp, the “best bread” comes down to preference. As long as it’s whole grain, the health benefits will be there.

Her preference is a whole multigrain bread, with which “you might be getting some extra fiber, because you might be getting some of the higher fiber grains in there. You might be getting extra protein, if it contains grains like quinoa and things like that,” she explained.

For those with sensitive stomachs, Sharp also recommended whole grain sourdough bread, which is “a lot easier to digest because of the fermentation process.”

In general however, her best advice is to simply be aware of ingredients.

Is animal protein better than plant protein?

Balanced diet food background. Organic food for healthy nutrition, superfoods, meat, fish, legumes, nuts, seeds and greens
Plant-based proteins are slightly less bioavailable compares to animal proteins. (Getty)
  • Protein is a macronutrient made up of individual amino acids that ultimately play a role in a wide range of bodily processes, like enzymes, hormones, antibodies and muscles.

  • The human body needs 20 different amino acids to function properly and some of them, the body can’t produce.

  • Some fitness influencers often say that animal protein is necessary for overall health, and especially to meet fitness goals such as building muscle. However, some disagree.

How is animal protein different from plant protein?

Expert Sharp said our whole body is made up of amino acids and protein. While we can produce some of them, the nine essential amino acids need to be consumed from food or supplements.

The amount of those amino acids in protein is where animal and plant-based sources differ.

“Animal proteins are what we call complete proteins, because they contain all nine essential amino acids,” Sharp explained.

“With the exception of a few plant based proteins, most plants are what we call ‘incomplete proteins,’ meaning they're missing one or more essential amino acids.”

Protein molecules, illustration.
Protein is a macronutrient made up of individual amino acids. (Getty)

There are some complete plant-based proteins, however. Among others, those include:

  • Soy

  • Peas

  • Buckwheat

  • Zekiel

  • Hemp

  • Chia

  • Quinoa

  • Spirulina

  • Nutritional yeast

In addition, plant based proteins are slightly less bioavailable, meaning they are about 20 to 30 per cent less digestible, according to Sharp.

“We basically would need to ideally consume more of them in order to get the same protein back in our body.

“But considering there's so many different health benefits to consuming plant-based proteins, I really do think this is an easy trade off in terms of the benefits of plant-based over a more animal-based protein diet.”

There are some ways to increase the bioavailability, she added, with processes like soaking, fermenting and sprouting.

Can you meet fitness goals with plant-based protein?

Sharp said a common misconception in the fitness industry, especially on social media, is that you need animal-based proteins to meet your fitness goals.

High protein food for body builders as meat, fish, dairy, eggs, buckwheat, oatmeal, nuts, bean, pumpkin seed and sunflower seed. Top view.
Meeting fitness goals is absolutely possible on a plant-based diet, according to the expert. (Getty)

“Most animal proteins that fitness influencers or fitness professionals are relying on are very low fat and low carb; they're essentially straight up protein. We don't exactly have an equivalent to that in plant based foods, unless we're talking about plant protein isolates,” she explained.

It’s true that for bodybuilders who are trying to “cut” and consume very little carbohydrates, it would be harder to do so on a plant-based diet.

“But it is absolutely still possible to do with careful planning,” she claimed.

For example, Sharp explained, cow's milk or eggs have a 1.0 digestibility factor, and beef is about 0.92. Soy isolate is also a 1.0, and pea protein isolate is at 0.89.

“It's absolutely possible to meet those nutrient needs with some of these more bioavailable plant based options.” Sharp added, as long as a person is consuming a varied diet, the body will combine complete and incomplete amino acids from various plant sources over time.

“I actually think it's probably easier to have a ‘healthy balanced diet’ if you're eating mainly plants.”

Are 'superfoods' really 'super'?

According to an expert, superfoods are just a marketing tactic. (Getty) Pattern of variety fresh of organic fruits and vegetables and healthy vegan meal ingredients on beige background. Healthy food, clean eating, diet and detox, eco friendly, no plastic concept . Flat lay, top view
According to an expert, superfoods are just a marketing tactic. (Getty)
  • “Superfoods” describes foods that are dense with nutrients and benefits.

  • Some common superfoods include: berries, kale, quinoa, salmon, legumes and nuts.

  • The term is often used to sell products, such as green juices or supplements, in the context of “boosting” a meal with various health benefits.

What is a superfood?

A superfood is “simply a marketing buzzword,” according to dietitian Sharp.

“It basically denotes a food that has high nutritional density, but there's no scientific consensus about what constitutes a superfood. And there's also no regulation around the term,” she explained. “Technically, any food can be marketed as a superfood.”

However, there are some characteristics that get certain foods on these lists.

“We think about superfoods as those that give us the most nutrient bang for our caloric buck,” Sharp said.

“In a lot of cases, the superfoods are those that are rich in immune supporting antioxidants, which we know is associated with a reduced risk of chronic disease.”

Can certain foods 'boost' your health?

Smoothie bowl with fresh berries and granola. The expert recommends counting colours over calories for a balanced diet. (Getty)
The expert recommends counting colours over calories for a balanced diet. (Getty)

Sharp said including more nutrient dense foods is going to contribute to a more nutrient-dense diet overall. But that’s often not what wellness influencers explain, she added.

“I think this idea of superfoods has traditionally been used to sell this idea as like ‘food as medicine,’ and that eating a certain specific food will just magically transform your health and life,” she claimed.

“The reality is: no one food is going to make or break your diet – or your health,” Sharp said.

Adding spirulina to your brownies doesn't cancel out the frosting on top.Abbey Sharp

Rather than focusing on any one ingredient and “expecting magical things to happen,” Sharp recommends thinking about the dietary pattern over time.

Are superfoods recommended?

“I always say count colors, not calories. Because I think, generally speaking, a colorful varied diet is one that is going to be supercharged with nutrition.

“One superfood is not going to move the needle the way that a general balanced lifestyle and diet will.”

Another important thing to note, she added, is to be mindful that social media is not the best place to get health advice.

“When it comes to what we see online about superfoods… if an influencer is calling something a ‘superfood,’ it's typically a red flag that they don't really understand how nutrition works,” she said.

“The biggest take-home here is to focus on the big picture, and note that variety is the spice of life.”

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