Whole Grains, Whole Lotta Benefits

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Whole grain foods linked to lower death risks

Beautiful mother and daughter are talking while having a breakfast in bed.

Eating whole grains is associated with lower risks of dying from certain conditions, according to new research published in the journal Circulation.

The research, an analysis of 14 major studies that included a total of 786,076 adults, showed that eating three servings of whole grains daily was linked to:

  • A 20 percent lower risk of death from any cause;
  • A 25 percent lower risk of dying from heart disease or stroke; and
  • A 14 percent lower risk of cancer-related death.

In the largest study of its kind to date, the analysis underscores current guidelines to eat at least three servings a day. On average, Americans eat less than one serving daily.

“Whole grains should be an integral part of our diets. The whole plant is important, and picking whole grains over highly processed ones is associated with better health,” said Michael Watkins, MD, an interventional cardiologist at Ascension Seton Heart Institute.

Previous research suggested a link between eating whole grains and lower mortality rates, but the connection was not as strong, according to the study authors.

Examples of whole grains are whole wheat, oats, brown rice and popcorn.

More whole grains may be better

Different types of cereal grains with ears.

The current study showed that while three whole grain servings is recommended, even one serving a day helps.

Just 16 grams a day of whole grains yields a 7 percent decrease in dying from any cause, and a 9 percent and 5 percent decline in risks of dying from cardiovascular and cancer-related causes, respectively.

“One of the most interesting parts of this study is that the more whole grains, the better,” Watkins said.

“Trying to eat like our ancestors did — straight from the garden, straight from the wheat or barley fields – and eating foods that look pretty much like how you find them in nature is showing to be much healthier for our hearts and the rest of our bodies,” said Watkins, who is a vegan himself and has a special interest in diet as part of his patient’s heart disease and stroke treatment plan.

What’s so special about whole grains?

Although it’s not clear what exactly about whole grains causes the drop in death risks, researchers believe it’s related to the higher fiber content, says Watkins.

“The fiber speeds up the transit time of foods through your system, so they pass out quicker. This transit time may diminish your body’s exposure to certain toxins in the food,” Watkins said.

Whole grains may also help by improving cholesterol, regulating blood sugar, and making you feel full longer so you eat less.

Pick your carbs carefully

“All carbs tend to get lumped together. This study highlights that we need to look at unrefined, whole grains in a separate category from refined or processed grains,” Watkins said. “Health problems arise when you consume highly processed grains, such as processed flour and alcohol. Those are the foods that are typically associated with obesity, diabetes and other cardiovascular risk factors,” he said.

Whole grain means the entire cereal grain seed or kernel remains in the food. Usually the kernel is cracked, crushed, or flaked when it’s milled.

Food described as “seven-grain” or “multigrain” may still not be whole grain products. The best way to know which foods contain whole grains is to check the label carefully. Look for the word “whole” before the first ingredient, says the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) — such as “whole grain wheat flour.”

How to work more whole grains into your diet

  • One way to eat least three whole grains a day is to start the day with a whole-grain food, like cereal, oatmeal, granola or whole-grain toast.
  • Try more rustic or ancient grains such as quinoa, bulgur, amaranth, buckwheat or barley as side dishes with lunch or dinner.
  • Pass on refined versions of grains in favor of whole grain versions, including bread, tortillas and pastas.
  • Switch out half the white flour in your baking recipes for whole wheat flour.
  • Sneak high-fiber items such as bran or oatmeal into mixed foods like casseroles, meat loaf or smoothies for an added fiber boost.