When it comes to incorporating whole grains into your diet, a little bit can go a long way. Just three slices of wholegrain bread a day can slash the risk of dying from heart disease by a quarter. Even small helpings of whole wheat pasta or brown rice, eaten each day, can help prevent disease or even an early death.
A recent Harvard study found that the multiple bioactive compounds in whole grains could contribute to these health benefits. What’s more, the high fibre content may help lower cholesterol production and make people feel fuller, and as a result they consume fewer calories.
Grains are important sources of many nutrients, including fibre, B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin and folate) and minerals (iron, magnesium and selenium). Whole grains – such as porridge, oats, muesli and seeded bread – include carbohydrates which haven't been processed. Although some wholegrain foods also contain sugar and salt which can be detrimental to health, they contain far lower levels than white bread, rice or processed cereals.
Furthermore, people who consume around 70 grams of whole grains a day have been found to have a 22% lower risk of total mortality, a 23% lower risk of heart disease mortality, as well as a 20% lower risk of cancer mortality in comparison to those who ate little or no whole grains. Each serving of whole grains (16 grams) was associated with a 7% reduction in an individual’s risk of death from any cause. The specific calculations showed that each wholegrain serving was associated with a 9% reduction in risk of heart disease and a 5% lower chance of death from cancer.
Whole grains are rich in fibre, protein, antioxidants, and certain vitamins which are thought to encourage digestion, help weight loss and prevent heart disease, cancer, and other illnesses. The heart benefits of whole grains don’t stop with cholesterol and triglycerides. They also help lower blood pressure, one of the most important risk factors for heart disease. Another study found a lower risk of hypertension among men who ate more than seven servings of wholegrain breakfast cereals a week, compared to those who ate one or less. Eating whole instead of refined grains substantially lowers blood cholesterol, blood pressure and insulin levels.
People who eat a lot of whole grains are also more likely to keep their weight in check, and less likely to gain weight over time than those who eat refined grains. In another study, women who consumed the most wheat germ, brown rice, dark bread, popcorn and other whole grains had a 49% lower risk of "major weight gain" over time, compared to women who favoured doughnuts and white bread. Grains can also help you cut down on the amount of body fat you have and lead to a healthier distribution of fat. Specifically, eating whole grains can leave you with less belly fat – what scientists kindly call “central adiposity” – which increases your risk of diabetes and other health woes.
Eating whole grains in adolescence may also ward off asthma and other allergic conditions. One study found that children who were introduced to oats as infants were less likely to have asthma or allergic rhinitis by the time they turned five. A Dutch study reported similar findings among children aged 8-13. An overall healthy diet with more whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and less meat and refined foods may reduce asthmatic wheezing.
"These findings support current dietary guidelines that recommend at least three daily servings (or 48 grams) of whole grains to improve long-term health and prevent premature death," said Qi Sun, assistant professor at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. His results were published online in the journal Circulation. For the study, the team conducted a meta-analysis of 12 published studies and which included 786,076 people in the US, Britain and Scandinavian countries between 1970 and 2010.
So the next time you’re given a choice between a refined or whole grain…. why not go whole for health?!