It is true that many foods made with flour are not healthy, but that is not entirely to blame on the flour itself. And it is not necessarily the number of carbohydrates those foods have that make them unhealthy either. If you are familiar with the 8-week program outlined in our Clean Cuisine book you know carbs are not a dirty word in my book. However, I do try to eat foods in their most natural and unrefined form. So, when it comes to flour, most of which is derived from whole grains (some flours such as almond flour come from nuts), it is better to eat the whole grains themselves in their unrefined “whole” state as opposed to whole grains that have been refined into flour.
And sure, whole grain flour is a far superior choice compared to the highly refined “enriched” flour most processed foods are made from, but all flour is going to be metabolized by your body differently than the unprocessed whole grain. That’s because when a whole grain is finely ground into flour it is absorbed into your bloodstream fairly quickly, which can spike blood sugar levels and increase your body’s insulin response. If you are overweight this is a particularly bad scenario because insulin is your body’s primary fat-storing hormone and a rapid rise in blood sugar is always followed by a rapid fall in blood sugar along with excess hunger. But, even if you are rail thin, it is still not desirable to have blood sugar spikes and insulin surges because both interfere with optimizing your energy levels, cognitive function, mood and your overall sense of well-being.
The other problem with flour has less to do with insulin and blood sugar and more to do with flour’s ubiquity. Flour is everywhere! And the vast majority of it comes from wheat, so if you are eating a lot of flour chances are you are getting an excessive amount of wheat and shortchanging yourself on other nutrient-dense foods such as beans, nuts, vegetables, fruit, etc. Grab a bagel, muffin or bowl of cereal in the morning and you start your day with flour. Have a sandwich or slice of pizza for lunch and you get more flour. Have some crackers or pretzels for snack and you get even more flour. Finish your day with a nice Italian dinner including bread sticks and pasta and you pack in more flour yet! If you add in a small sweet treat, let’s say a cookie, as the grand finale you can easily consume 12 or more servings of grains in a day —all in the form of flour (most of it likely not from “whole” grain flour)—and not even feel all that stuffed! There is NO WAY you could have eaten that many servings of non-flour whole grains without feeling considerably more full. In fact, flour is one of the main reasons I blame low-carb diets for gaining in popularity. Once people stop eating all of those processed flour-containing foods mentioned above and swap them for “whole” foods (vegetables, beans, etc.) they lose weight—it’s not necessarily because they cut out carbs, they just got rid of the unhealthiest and most processed carbs!
Complicating matters even more is the tremendous impact the gluten-free craze has had on the processed food world, most noticeably in replacing gluten-containing wheat flour with a variety of gluten-free flours that are less nutritious. According to Food Business News, the gluten-free products market is projected to reach $6.2 billion by 2018. The most important factor behind buying more gluten-free products is that people consider them to be healthier than conventional foods. However, if you read the ingredients list on so many gluten-free products you see that they contain a number of nutrient-poor ingredients, including processed and low-fiber flours. For example, the bread labeled “Whole Grain” from the very popular Udi’s brand gluten-free product line contains “Udi’s best blend” (tapioca and potato starch, brown rice & teff flour, modified tapioca starch) as the first ingredient, which I would not exactly consider a nutrient-rich “blend”. Nobody is talking about the fact that the processed flours used in so many gluten-free products are pretty much the nutritional equivalent of table sugar! Udi’s “Whole Grain” bread also contains processed omega-6 rich vegetable oils (which increase inflammation) and lots of sugar. This is hardly a product that reflects the true spirit of a real whole grain—it is simply a highly refined processed food that happens to be gluten-free. Hardly a health food product though!
But let’s get back to flour….
So, is flour bad for you or not? The answer is, as long as it is whole grain flour and you are not eating an excessive amount (I would say one or two servings a day is plenty) then flour can be a perfectly fine food as part of an otherwise nutrient-dense “Clean Cuisine” diet. Any flour that does not have the word “whole” in front of it (including the vast majority in gluten free packaged foods) is not healthy. For more information on flour, including my favorite baking flour, click HERE.