The scientific community, including the Pritikin Program, has long promoted the health benefits of whole grains. In study after study, a high intake of whole grains has been associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and weight gain.
Now, two large review studies provide compelling findings that clarify and quantify the benefits of a diet rich in whole grains.
More Whole Grains, More Longevity
In one of these reviews, reported in British Medical Journal, researchers analyzed data from 45 studies. They determined that people who ate 90 grams of whole grains daily (the equivalent in the U.S. of 5 to 6 servings daily) netted a 17% lower risk of death compared to people who ate no whole grains.
The other study, published in Circulation, analyzed the results of 14 studies that involved nearly 800,000 men and women. The authors found that people who ate the most whole grains significantly reduced their risk of both disease and death. For every daily serving of whole grains, the risk of mortality fell by 7%.
A serving of whole grains, according to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, is 16 grams. You can get 16 grams from any of the following:
- 1 slice of 100% whole-grain bread
- 1 small (6-inch) corn tortilla
- 1/2 cup of cooked brown rice
- 1/2 cup of cooked whole-grain pasta
- 1/2 cup of cooked quinoa
- 1/2 cup of cooked hot cereal, such as oatmeal
- 1 cup of 100% whole-grain, ready-to-eat (dry) cereal
More Whole Grains, Less Risk of Heart Disease, Diabetes, Cancer
The international team of researchers involved in the British Medical Journal study, led by Dr. Dagfinn Aune from Imperial College in London, found the following benefits among people who ate 5 to 6 servings daily of whole grains:
- 19% reduced risk of coronary heart disease
- 22% reduced risk of cardiovascular disease (including hypertension, diabetes, and heart attacks)
- 17% reduced risk of all-cause mortality
- 14% reduced risk of death from stroke
- 15% reduced risk of death from cancer
- 22% reduced risk of death from respiratory disease
- 26% reduced risk of death from infectious disease
- 51% reduced risk of death related to diabetes
“These results,” reported Dr. Dagfinn Aune and colleagues, “strongly support dietary recommendations to increase intake of whole grain foods in the general population to reduce risk of chronic diseases and premature mortality.”
Paleo Diet’s Ban On Whole Grains: “Ridiculous”
“These two new studies help counter the crackpots that argue for a Paleo-diet, gluten-free diet, and low-carb diet, and these diets’ claims that whole grains are unnatural and bad for health. These are ridiculous claims,” asserts Dr. Jay Kenney, Nutrition Research Specialist and Educator at the Pritikin Longevity Center in Miami, Florida.
Focus On an Overall Healthy Diet, Not a Single “Superfood”
But keep things in perspective, points out Dr. Qi Sun, senior author of the Circulation study and professor of nutrition at Harvard University. “You shouldn’t hope that you will cure diseases with whole-grain foods. You still have to pay attention to other good dietary and behavioral practices.”
Dr. Tom Rifai, Regional Medical Director of Metabolic Health & Weight Management at Henry Ford Health System and member of the Pritikin Scientific Advisory Board, concurs. “It is important to keep in context that whole grains would still play a minority role in a healthy daily diet versus other components like vegetables and whole fruits. Sadly, no one is overdosing on whole fruits, vegetables, and legumes in our ‘amber waves of grain’ here in America. Even the ‘fruited plain’ got second billing.”
Whole Grain Gotchas
And do scrutinize food labels, as guests at the Pritikin health resort learn how to do in Pritikin’s nutrition education classes.
“In today’s supermarkets, many whole-grain breads, dry cereals, crackers, breakfast bars, bagels, and other foods with whole grains are heavily promoted as ‘healthy.’ Often, they’re not,” points out Dr. Kenney. “Many come with lots of salt, and often sugar, and then people often pair their whole grains with lots of saturated-fat-packed foods like butter, cream cheese, and other cheeses.”
Yes, dousing your whole-grain pasta with Alfredo sauce would surely negate any benefit of the whole-grain pasta.
Whole Grains Vs Refined Grains
Finally, the two new research studies make one crucially important distinction that Pritikin Alumni will certainly recognize. Whole grains like whole wheat, oats, corn, barley, and brown rice promote healthy outcomes while refined grains like white bread and white rice do not. Indeed, the scientists found no reductions in risks of disease and death with intake of refined grains.
Refining whole grains robs them of most of their nutrients and fiber, dramatically reducing their health benefits. Fiber, for example, helps control blood sugar levels and lower cholesterol. Fiber also helps us feel full longer, consume fewer calories, and maintain a healthy weight.
What’s Best For Weight Loss
As guests at the Pritikin Longevity Center learn, cooked rather than dry whole grains are the way to go if you’re trying to lose weight. Bulked up with water, cooked whole grains like whole-wheat pasta, brown rice, wild rice, quinoa, barley, buckwheat, farro, and oatmeal satisfy hunger better and longer than dry whole grains, and on a lot fewer calories.
The Truth About Whole Grains | Bottom Line
Don’t listen to Paleo diet fans. Far from being the cause of health problems, whole grains, especially cooked whole grains, are a perfect part of a healthy diet and lifestyle. “They’ll help satisfy your hunger, reduce your waistline, reduce risk of chronic disease, and increase longevity,” sums up Kimberly Gomer, MS, RD, Director of Nutrition and Educator at Pritikin.
“The science-based truth about whole grains is that they can help us live longer, healthier lives.”