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Ho Ho Whole Wheat Bread

December 25, 2010

As we wake up, we look under the tree to see what was left through the night. Have you been naughty or nice? What did you leave for Santa? I would love to hear your comments.

During this time of festivity, food is often a centerpiece of the holiday. It is used to bring families together, to share in old traditions and make new ones, and is consumed with wicked abandoned. How many of us can’t help but reach for the butter cookies with icing? I know in my house, especially with my daughter, they are a favorite. Or perhaps those Russian Tea Cakes are your weak spot. Oh, yes! And sure when we reach for those things, none of us are pretending that they are in any way good for us – physically or mentally. But don’t they taste good?

The reality of the situation is that any foods, even the most fat, salt, and sugar laden, are fine to consume in moderation at special times like Christmas, Hanukah, Birthdays, or Tuesdays (just kidding). But what about those other things that we eat? Things like pasta, rice, or bread. How much thought do we give those foods? Pasta is served in almost every restaurant between here and Italy. It’s a staple of every kids menu (mac and cheese, spaghetti with red sauce). Or how about bread? Can you imagine a meal without some sort of bread product? According to my 7 year old, this would be akin to treason.

But here’s the thing, these products have very similar effects on our mental health as those foods that we know are perhaps not the best for us. The reason for this is that the pasta and bread  you eat for dinner, and that iced sugar cookie you want to grab on Christmas morning all contain carbohyrates. These carbohydrates can either be simple or complex, but in the end they are all processed in the body  the same way — they are broken down into sugar.

According to the Harvard School of Public Health, “The digestive system handles all carbohydrates in much the same way—it breaks them down (or tries to break them down [as fiber can’t be broken down]) into single sugar molecules, since only these are small enough to cross into the bloodstream. It also converts most digestible carbohydrates into glucose (also known as blood sugar), because cells are designed to use this as a universal energy source.”

However, there is a major difference between simple and complex carbs.

It takes the body longer to process unrefined complex carbs, such as whole wheat, then it does to process refined simple carbs, such as white rice, because with complex carbs the bran and germ are still intact. Because the outer layers of simple carbs have been removed, they are almost all starch. As a result, the refined product is almost immediately broken down once it enters the body and is turned into sugar. The result is that the sugar more quickly passes into the blood stream. To compensate for this spike in blood sugar the body responds by quickly increasing insulin production. Unfortunately your body typically overreacts and there is generally more insulin produced than is needed, which leaves the body with too little sugar. The result is that you feel tired, irritable, and down (not to mention the increased risk for diabetes that that can result from the repeated spikes in insulin).

The big difference with eating whole, complex carbohydrates is that the insulin is produced slower over time and the body will not feel the spikes of insulin that result from eating simplex carbohydrates.

So you may have been wondering what the connection is to mental health, and here it is. As was the case with breakfast and sugar, so is the case with refined carbs and any meal: these foods cause us to feel “up” and energized for a short time, but leave us feeling “down” for the rest of the day. And here’s the thing with this constant up and down: it leaves our bodies and minds unable to find a baseline and therefore unable to cope with the ups and downs of life. In general, consuming refined simple carbohydrates is a very ineffective way to deal with feeling down. Like those who turn to drugs to cope with depression or anxiety, turning to carbohydrates to feel better affects our body and mind in much the same way. The person who seeks carbs often time is seeking a fix; a fix from feeling overwhelmed, hopeless, and exhausted.

So what is a better approach to carbohydrates? Eat whole grain products like whole wheat flour, brown rice, or fruit, so your body doesn’t experience the constant shifts. When looking for a bread, try whole wheat rather then white. And don’t be fooled by the many mainstream breads sold in super markets that call themselves whole wheat. Look at the list of ingredients and make sure that whole wheat or whole wheat flour is the first ingredient listed. Or, better yet, make your own homemade bread, like the one below.

Honey Whole Wheat Bread

This recipe was adapted from St. Martin’s Table in Minneapolis. Like the Granola recipe prior, this is a family favorite that is easy to make, tasty, and good for sandwiches, dipping, or just eating in hunks. In fact, my wife has declared this to be the best bread she has ever eaten! Because the recipe is for two 2-pound loaves, it can be halved if need be.

3 1/3 cups lukewarm water

3/4 cup olive oil

3/4 cup honey

2 tbsp dry yeast

2 tbsp salt

2 cups unbleached white flour

8 – 10 cups whole wheat flour

1. Combine lukewarm (110 degrees) water, honey, olive oil, and yeast. Let stand 4 -5 minutes unitl yeast is dissolved and mixture is frothy.

2. When yeast mixutre is frothy, add salt and white flour. Mix together until flour is incorporated well. Let stand for 2 minutes.

3. Add the additional whole wheat flour by the cupful (the final dough will be slightly sticky).

4. Knead until smooth and elastic (about 10 minutes), and form into a ball. Place in a large, greased bowl. Cover and leave in a warm, draft-free place until doubled in size. Punch down. Form into two loaves, place in greased pans and again leave covered in a warm place until doubled in size.

5. Bake in 350 degree oven for 40 to 45 minutes, or until a rap on the bottom of the bread (not the pan) gives a hollow sound.

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