Go On, Live a Little (Longer): Eat More Whole Grains

Yet another study adds to the growing evidence that whole grains are good for your health.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Jan 6, 2015· 4 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

For those who vowed to eat healthier in 2015, here comes a study out of Harvard just in time to fortify your New Year’s resolution.

In particular, researchers found that eating more whole grains was linked to a significantly reduced risk of mortality—up to 15 percent—most notably when it comes to dying from heart disease. Eating bran, one of the components that makes a grain “whole” but that is often stripped out during the refining process used to make white flour, was associated with a 20 percent reduction in risk for heart disease.

Unless you're of the Paleo persuasion, you're probably thinking, “Well, duh.” Given that nutrition experts have been imploring us for years to give up white bread and sugary cereals in favor of the more, um, toothsome texture of whole grains, it would seem the science behind those recommendations must have been long settled.

Indeed, numerous large studies have linked consumption of whole grains with a reduction in risk for both cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, as well as better overall digestive health. But the new Harvard study, which was published online this week in JAMA Internal Medicine, appears to be one of the first—or at least one of the largest—to look at the connection between eating whole grains and mortality.

Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health combed through data from two huge studies, the Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study, amounting to a combined total of more than 115,000 women and men who had regularly completed detailed questionnaires about their diet from the mid-1980s to 2010. After adjusting for a number of factors—including whether participants smoked, their body mass index, and their level of physical activity—the Harvard researchers found that whole-grain consumption was linked to a decreased risk of mortality of up to 9 percent, and a reduction in the risk of death related to heart disease of up to 15 percent. Each serving of whole grains consumed (equivalent to 28 grams per day) correlated to a 5 percent reduction in the overall risk of death and a 9 percent reduction in the risk of death from cardiovascular disease.

Another publicity-savvy tidbit: Replacing one serving of red meat per day with a serving of whole grains cut the risk of heart disease by 20 percent.

“This study further endorses the current dietary guidelines that promote whole grains as one of the major healthful foods for prevention of major chronic disease,” said department of nutrition professor Qi Sun, one of the study’s lead authors, in a statement.

No doubt, but there’s just one problem: It’s become inordinately complicated for consumers to determine what constitutes a good source of whole grains.

As nutrition science has continued to ply us with ever more studies touting the health benefits of eating more whole grains, the processed food industry has, predictably, jumped on the bandwagon. As has so often been the case these past couple decades, the Food and Drug Administration has been of little to no help when it comes to clearing up the confusion associated with the proliferation of food makers’ “whole grain” claims.

Thus, we now have such mind-bendingly ridiculous concoctions as “whole grain” Beefaroni and Cocoa Puffs, as well as “nutri-grain” Eggos from Kellogg’s, the same company that also brings us Cinnabon Crunchy Cinnamon Multigrain Cereal.

Although the FDA issued a “draft guidance” for the food industry back in 2006 regarding the claims that could be made about a product's whole-grain content on its packaging, the agency has yet to produce any final rules.

Rather than hold your breath and wait for the FDA to deliver, here’s a quick whole-grain tutorial and some handy tips culled from nutrition experts.

Whole Grains in a Nutshell
A whole grain has three basic parts: an outer layer of bran that surrounds the starchy endosperm and the germ, or seed, inside. Highly refined grains, like your basic white flour, strip away the nutrient-rich bran layer and the germ, leaving just the endosperm—which is largely devoid of both nutrition and flavor.

Picking the Right Cereal...
As you’d expect, the cereal aisle is ground zero when it comes to the explosion of whole-grain claims. But even a supposedly “whole-grain” cereal can include a heap of not-so-healthy ingredients. Experts tout the whole-grain wonders of steel-cut or old-fashioned oats—not, pointedly, instant oatmeal. But if you don’t have a half hour or more to wait for your oatmeal in the a.m., Harvard nutritionists recommend looking for a cereal that has at least four grams of fiber but less than eight grams of sugar per serving.

…and Bread
A close second to breakfast cereal in the whole-grain circus has to be the bread aisle. Here again it’s best to look beyond the splashy claims on the front of the package (e.g., “multigrain” = pretty much meaningless) and turn to the nutrition panel. Make sure that the first ingredient listed is a whole grain; yes, the word “whole” should be there, as in “whole wheat flour.” No matter what the front of the package says (or what the color of the bread is), if it’s made from, say, “wheat flour,” “enriched wheat flour,” “unbleached wheat flour,” or the like, you’re essentially getting highly processed white flour. Nutrition expert Marion Nestle has offered this advice to befuddled bread shoppers: “[Y]ou must inspect the label to make sure the first ingredient is whole grain, the total number of ingredients is small and devoid of unpronounceable chemicals, the fiber content is at least 2 grams per 1-ounce serving and the label says 100 percent whole wheat. Anything less is reconstituted white bread with occasional pieces of original grain added back.”

Everything Else
You probably don’t need me to tell you that when it comes to eating more whole grains, your best bet is to leave the processed food industry behind and stick with what we know are bona fide whole grains, like brown rice or quinoa. But that sort of recommendation can be about one step shy of exhorting you to bake your own whole-grain bread. Patrick Skerrett, the executive editor of Harvard Health, has come up with a pretty simple rule of thumb for cutting through the clutter of food makers’ whole-grain claims. If you’re trying to decide between two products that are touted as “whole-grain,” check their labels: There should be at least one gram of dietary fiber for every 10 grams of carbs. Yes, it requires a bit of math, but it’s math that’s easy enough to do in your head while you're standing in the aisle—and “dietary fiber” is always listed immediately below “total carbohydrates,” so the numbers can be found quickly.