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The Whole Truth About Whole Grains

11 reasons to make the switch now

From the WebMD Archives

Want to statistically reduce your risk of death from all causes (in other words, your total mortality rate) by 15% just by making one dietary change? Choose whole grains whenever you can.

We all know we're supposed to eat more whole grains. We know they're "good" for us (full of fiber, phytochemicals, and vitamins and minerals). Yet most Americans eat less than one serving of whole grains a day. So what's stopping us?

Maybe it's our fear of "brown" food. But you might be surprised how easy it can be to embrace the brown if you set your mind to it. Some of you will have no problems switching to whole-grain bread but will draw the line at whole-wheat pasta. For others, it might be the other way around.

The bottom line is that switching to whole grains is one of the most important things you can do for your health. So make the switch everywhere you can -- and draw the line wherever that may be for you.

For me, about the only refined-grain products I eat are the occasional sourdough and French bread, pizza crust (when I buy it out), and sometimes pasta (which I always cook al dente because it has a lower glycemic index this way). I used to think I could never accept whole-wheat noodles as "pasta." But never say never! In developing the recipes for my next book, I used a whole-wheat pasta blend and I really started to like it.

And don't think that you can keep eating white, refined-grain products and just supplement them with some extra fiber. Research suggests that the various nutritional components of whole grains work together to affect our health.

A Bite of Whole-Grain History

When the industrialization wave hit America in the later 1800s, a new way of milling and mass refining took hold in the grain business and never let go. Removing the bran and germ seemed like a good idea at the time, since it meant that grain products could sit on store shelves much longer without spoiling.

But the worldwide epidemic of B-vitamin deficiencies (pellagra and beriberi) that followed was only the beginning. Frankly, we are only just realizing the nutritional fallout from almost eliminating whole grains from our diet over the past hundred years.

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11 Ways Grains Are Great

Here's a quick list of all the ways that whole grains benefit your body. After reading it, you may ask yourself, "What don't they do?"

1. They're digested slowly.

Whole grains are digested more slowly than refined grains, which has beneficial effects on blood sugar and insulin (keeping levels of both down). A recent study found that the more whole grains men and women ate, the lower their fasting insulin levels were. And this is a good thing.

2. They reduce mortality rates.

After analyzing data from more than 15,000 people aged 45-65, researchers from the University of Minnesota School of Public Health found that as whole-grain intake went up, total mortality (the rate of death from all causes) went down.

3. They help reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.

The Nurses' Health Study found that women who ate more than 5 grams of fiber from whole-grain cereals daily had about 30% less risk of developing type 2 diabetes than those who ate less than 2.5 grams of whole-grain fiber a day.

Other research found that women who ate a diet low in cereal fiber and high on the sugar (glycemic) index doubled their risk of type 2 diabetes.

4. They help control weight.

One study found that women who ate three or more servings of whole-grain foods a day had significantly lower body mass indexes (BMIs) than those eating less than one serving a day. (This was found in men, too, but the link was more significant in women.)

Another study found that women whose diets included the most whole grains were half as likely to gain a lot of weight over a 12-year period as those who ate the least whole grains. This slimming effect was seen even in teens.

5. They may protect against metabolic syndrome.

Research has found that metabolic syndrome -- a condition that raises the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and stroke -- was found much less often in people who ate the most cereal fiber and whole grains compared with those who ate the least.

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6. They reduce risk of heart disease.

At least 25 studies have found that people who regularly eat whole grains have a lower risk of heart disease.

"The evidence is quite consistent and convincing that people who eat at least one serving of whole grains a day have a lower risk of heart disease and stroke," reports Mark Pereira, PhD, a nutritional epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School.

In studying the dietary habits of male health professionals, researchers found that for every 10 gram increase in cereal fiber eaten each day, the risk of heart attack was reduced by nearly 30%. A more recent study found this beneficial effect is even stronger in women.

8. They cut cholesterol levels.

Researchers at Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago found that adding oats to an already low-fat diet helped women cut their blood cholesterol by an additional 8 or 9 mg/dL after only three weeks. (That came on top of the 12 mg/dL reduction seen with the low-fat diet alone!)

Antioxidants found in oats cut cholesterol by suppressing the molecules that make blood cells stick to artery walls. When these cells stick to artery walls and cause inflammation, plaque deposits build up and narrow the passageways where blood flows, leading to "hardening of the arteries."

9. They reduce blood pressure.

Eating foods containing barley decreases blood pressure and improves several other risk factors for heart disease, according to a recent study. (Other studies of high-fiber, whole-grain foods have also reported significant reductions in blood pressure.)

The researchers also noticed a decrease in total cholesterol (an average of 21% reduction in those eating lots of soluble fiber, such as that found in barley and oats), and "bad" cholesterol. Levels of "good cholesterol" either increased or did not change.

10. They can decrease your risk of stroke.

A recent Harvard study found that a diet with large amounts of whole-grain foods was associated with a decreased risk of stroke in women.

11. They reduce cancer risks.

More than 40 studies looking at 20 types of cancer have suggested that regularly eating whole grains reduces cancer risk.

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It's thought that whole grains may accomplish this by blocking DNA damage, suppressing the growth of cancer cells, providing antioxidant protection, and preventing the formation of carcinogens. The particular components of whole grains that may be protective include fiber; antioxidants including vitamins (like vitamin E) and minerals (like selenium); and various phytochemicals.

Among the types of cancer that whole grains help protect against are gastrointestinal cancers such as stomach and colon cancers, along with cancers of the oral cavity, pharynx, esophagus, and larynx.

Your Whole Grain Line-Up

If you're ready to go brown, whole-wheat bread is a great place to start. But don't stop there.

Here are nine common whole-grain foods that you'll probably find at your supermarket:

  • Brown rice
  • Oats
  • Whole-wheat flour
  • Rye flour
  • Barley
  • Buckwheat
  • Bulgur (steamed and dried cracked wheat)
  • Millet
  • Quinoa

And don't think that cooking them has to be difficult and time-consuming. Here are a couple of easy (and yummy) ways to prepare some whole-grain favorites.

Quick Mexican Brown Rice

Journal as: 3/4 cup starches/legumes with 1 teaspoon fat (stuffing, rice).

Your family might be more inclined to like brown rice if it is in a mixed dish like this one.

2 tablespoons canola oil

2 cups brown rice, uncooked

3 cups low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth

1 1/2 cups finely chopped white or yellow onions

2 teaspoons minced garlic

1 can (14 1/2 ounces) Mexican style tomatoes

1 bell pepper (any color), finely chopped

Salt and pepper to taste (optional)

  • Heat canola oil in a medium nonstick saucepan over medium heat and sauté the rice just until golden (about 5 minutes).
  • Add 1/2 cup if moisture is needed. Add the onions and garlic and sauté for a couple of minutes.
  • Stir in tomatoes (including juice), the rest of the broth, and bell pepper. Bring mixture to a boil, then reduce heat to low. Simmer, covered, for 20 to 25 minutes or until the broth is absorbed. Add salt and pepper to taste, if desired, and serve.

Yield: 8 servings

Per serving: 240 calories, 6 g protein, 43 g carbohydrate, 5.7 g fat (0.9 g saturated fat, 2.5 g monounsaturated fat, 1.6 g polyunsaturated fat), 2 mg cholesterol, 3.3 g fiber, 54 mg sodium (using low sodium chicken broth and canned tomatoes). Calories from fat: 21%.

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Quick-Fix Tabbouleh Salad

Journal as: 1/2 cup starches/legumes with 1 teaspoon fat (stuffing, rice).

Tabbouleh is one of most popular ways to use bulgur. Here's a quick and light rendition.

1 cup dry bulgur

1 cup boiling water

3/4 teaspoon chicken broth powder (or vegetable broth powder)

1/4 cup toasted pine nuts (or walnut or pecan pieces)

1/2 cup chopped green onions, the white and part of the green

1 1/2 cups diced fresh tomatoes (or 10 cherry tomatoes, quartered)

3 tablespoons lemon juice

1 tablespoons olive oil

Pepper to taste

  • Pour boiling water over bulgur in an 8 cup measuring cup or medium bowl. Let sit 30 minutes or until water is absorbed. Blend 3/4 teaspoon chicken broth powder with 3 tablespoons very hot water together in a custard cup and set aside.
  • Add remaining ingredients, including chicken broth, pine nuts, green onions, tomatoes, lemon juice, and olive oil. Toss thoroughly and add pepper to taste.
  • Cover and chill at least 2 hours.

Yield: 6 servings

Per serving: 137 calories, 5 g protein, 21 g carbohydrate, 5.3 g fat (0.8 g saturated fat, 2.6 g monounsaturated fat, 1.4 g polyunsaturated fat), 0.4 mg cholesterol, 5 g fiber, 17 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 32%.

WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

Sources

SOURCES: American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, September 2003; September 1999. Environmental Nutrition, February 2001; February 2003. The Journal of the American Medical Association 1997: 277; 1996: 275; June 2, 1999. American Journal of Epidemiology, Aug. 1, 2003. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, June 2000. Diabetes Care, 27. News release, Agricultural Research Service, May 29, 2003. American Association of Nutritional Sciences joint conference, Experimental Biology, 2004.

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