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Wholegrain heroes

Jean Hailes Magazine 29 Aug 2019
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Don't go against the grains. Research shows they're disease fighters that deserve a place on your plate.


Look in a lifestyle magazine, browse the health blogs, scan the 'must-avoid' foods from the latest fad diet, and grains are suddenly the bad guys. Grains are getting the blame for many of our modern-day health issues and rising obesity levels.

But away from the hype and the headlines sits a body of evidence that's built on long-term, high-quality research and backed by leading international authorities. This evidence shows that whole grains are not dietary devils, but disease-fighting heroes worthy of a place on our plates.

Explain the grain

Grains, also known as cereals, are basically the seeds of grasses, says Jean Hailes naturopath Sandra Villella. And the key to their protective powers lies in the 'whole'.

A whole grain is a grain that has all of its original parts still present, including the bran (the outer protective layer) and the germ (the seed's reproductive part), says Ms Villella.

Rich in fibre and a source of B vitamins and other micronutrients, it's the bran and germ that prime us with protective benefits. However, these are lost in the refining process.

Turning brown rice into white rice, or wheat kernels into white flour, turns the grain into a refined carbohydrate and strips it of its disease-fighting power," says Ms Villella. "It's white-out and miss out.

Commonly eaten whole grains include oats, brown rice, black rice, barley, millet and corn, as well as wholemeal and wholegrain breads, pastas and crackers. Quinoa and buckwheat, while not technically the seeds of grasses, are often still classed as whole grains and – along with rice, millet and corn – are also gluten-free.

What are the benefits?

Accredited Practising Dietitian Kim Menzies says whole grains provide a whole range of nutrients that "make them power-packed sources of nourishment for good health." The research illustrating their many benefits delves deep, covering issues such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer.

And it's research with a backbone – long-term studies, with large numbers of participants; high-quality findings, unswayed by food-fashion agendas.

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The research

A decade-long study from Harvard University showed that women who ate 2-3 servings of whole grains a day had a 30% reduced risk of heart attack or death from heart disease, compared to those eating 1 serving per week.

The findings from seven major studies taken together showed heart disease was 21% less likely in people who ate 2.5+ servings of whole grains a day, compared with those who ate less than 2 servings a week.

A study of 72,000 postmenopausal women found that the higher the intake of whole grains, the lower the risk of type 2 diabetes (a 43% reduced risk for those who ate 2+ servings daily).

A review of four large studies showed that whole grains are protective against bowel cancer.

Such are their health-packed powers that an international authority on cancer prevention, the World Cancer Research Fund, advises people to "make whole grains, vegetables, fruit and pulses (legumes) such as beans and lentils a major part of your usual daily diet".

Slow and steady

The fibre and extra nutrients present in whole grains have a slowing and steadying effect on blood sugar and energy levels – helpful in maintaining a healthy weight.

Ms Villella says whole grains also do a wonderful job of feeding our gut bacteria and improving gut health – so why not make a few easy swaps in your diet?

"Swapping refined grains for wholegrains improves several important factors when it comes to digestive health," she says.

That could be as simple as choosing whole grain bread over white bread and brown or black rice over white rice.

"There's a whole host of reasons why we should be including more whole grains in our diets," says Ms Villella.

Boost your whole grain quota this week with Ms Villella's delicious recipe, Black rice, basil and pine nut salad.