5 Reasons Grains Aren't As Bad As Everyone Says

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Health messages about nutrition can be conflicting and confusing, and because your daily food choices are so important, separating the passing trends from the solidly researched advice will go a long way toward ensuring long-term health.

One of the hottest trends is avoiding whole grains such as whole wheat in order to avoid a reaction from the gluten, gliadin, lectins, amylopectin-A and other components of wheat. Other whole grains include food items like brown rice, bulgur, oatmeal, and whole cornmeal.

I'm always puzzled by this because I lecture to the public at least once a week on nutrition. I show the audience the USDA food plate, introduced in 2011, that advises a quarter of a meal be grains. I then show them the Harvard School of Public Health version of the food plate, which specifically emphasizes whole grains as a source of ¼ of meals.

I've previously written about conversations I've had with medical doctors with divergent opinions on eating wheat. I decided to revisit the topic, because new research linking whole grain consumption and heart health was just published.

1. Whole grains improve heart health.

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A meta-analysis that examined whole grain consumption and the risk of developing coronary heart disease like heart attacks in more than 400,000 participants found that the highest consumption of whole grains reduced the risk of heart issues by about 25%. The authors indicated that whole grain foods contain fiber, vitamins, minerals, phytoestrogens, phenolic compounds, and have a favorable effect on measures of cholesterol, blood glucose, inflammation and arterial function.

2. Whole grains lower diabetes risk.

A review and meta-analysis indicated that the more whole grains consumed, the lower the risk of type 2 diabetes mellitus. The reduction for 3 servings per day was in the order of 1/3 lower risk. Whole grain breads, cereals, wheat bran and brown rice had favorable impact on the risk for diabetes but white rice did not.

3. Whole grains reduce cancer risk.

Colorectal cancer remains a major cause of death in the Western world, and there's been evidence that whole grains may be preventive. In a meta-analysis of whole grain and fiber consumption, data from 25 studies indicate that 3 servings of whole grains a day reduced cancer risk by almost 20%. Fiber from legumes was also found to be beneficial, and lowered risk almost 40%.

4. Whole grains prevent obesity.

The American Society of Nutrition analyzed studies through 2010 relating whole grain consumption and body weight, finding that increased whole grain intake was modestly associated with lower body weight.

5. Whole grains promote a long life.

A just-released study analyzing the amount of whole grains consumed and survival in more than 360,000 people found the more grains participants ate, the longer they lived. This was true not only for overall survival but for specifically avoiding deaths from heart disease, cancer, diabetes, respiratory diseases and infections.

Data recently published indicates that while fiber intake in the last decade increased, whole grain consumption did not rise at all.

Although all of the studies listed above are observational, together they support the recommendation of both the USDA and the Harvard School of Public Health to incorporate 25% of meals as whole grains. It's likely that increased whole grains in the diet often replace calorie-dense processed foods. The health implications of eating more whole grains in place of nutrition-poor options and the potential to reduce rates of heart disease, cancer, diabetes and obesity are enormous.

While celiac disease and gluten sensitivity appear to be on the rise, estimates by Dr. Alessio Fasano at Harvard are that these disorders affect less than 10% of the population, and that the majority of people can eat whole grains — including whole wheat for the health benefits shown in dozens of scientific studies.

Due to hybridization, we may not be eating whole grains identical to those enjoyed long ago. However, at least compared to highly processed foods found in the Western diet, they remain an important contributor to optimal health.

Graphic by MBG Creative