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Nutrition experts have long been advising us to eat whole grains, and now epidemiologists have evidence that getting three servings of whole grains daily can reduce the chance of an early death. In fact, two separate analyses published recently demonstrate that eating whole grains for a longer life is effective against a range of diseases.

Should You Eat Whole Grains for a Longer Life?

In one study, the researchers analyzed data from 12 published studies and from several National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys. All told, nearly 800,000 people from the US, the UK and Scandinavia were included in the analysis, which covered the time frame from 1971 to 2010.

Such studies can’t establish cause and effect, but the scientists found a convincing 23 percent drop in the death rate due to heart attacks and strokes among people who consumed three or more servings a day of whole grains. People following this dietary pattern also had a 12 percent lower chance of dying from cancer. Each additional serving of whole grains consumed each day appeared to offer a bit more protection.

Circulation, June 14, 2016

The other study considered data from 45 studies. It came to very similar conclusions: for three servings a day of whole grains compared to none, the risk of cardiovascular disease was reduced by approximately 23 percent. The risk of dying from cancer was 15 percent lower, while that of dying from any cause was 17 percent less. The specific types of whole grains considered in these studies included whole grain breakfast cereals and whole grain breads, but not white rice or total rice, and definitely not refined grain products.

These scientists, like those publishing in Circulation, suggest that their findings support the advice in the current dietary guidelines. Perhaps that is not so surprising, since members of the faculty of the T. H. Chan School of Public Health of Harvard University were among the collaborators on both papers.

BMJ, June 14, 2016

How Do You Choose Whole Grains for a Longer Life?

This recommendation to eat more whole grains has been made before, and it often causes confusion. Food manufacturers like to slap the words “whole grain” on their packages to take advantage of the health halo of whole grains. But such products aren’t necessarily good sources of whole grains. For that, it’s important to read ingredients on the label. Make sure “whole grain” or “whole wheat” is the first ingredient in the list.

You may wish to cook your own bulgur, brown rice, barley or steel-cut oats. Seeds such as quinoa or amaranth can also be good choices. A recent study shows that quinoa consumption can minimize the rise in blood sugar and insulin after a meal (Nutrients, June 16, 2018). If you are buying bread, look for a loaf that is dense and chewy and has whole grain as its primary ingredient.

Reviewed 7/12/18

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  1. Jake

    What about people who can’t eat gluten, due to celiac(?) disease? What white grains do not contain gluten?

  2. Someone

    The only thing wheat is good for is making you fat, raising your blood sugar, and rotting your teeth!

    • Jesse

      I agree. Avoid all grain!!! The lobbyists paid for these studies promoting grain.

  3. Cathy M

    I’ve eaten a Paleo diet for two years and avoid all grains. I wonder if grain in Europe is healthier? I have heard all grain is genetically modified now! Also I’m healthier now at 62 than ever before!

  4. Nancy
    suburban Chicago

    These comments are from 2016. Has any of this information been updated?

  5. Terry

    I’m not sure why there is such heated opposition to this article. All it does is confirm that a few servings of whole grains (not necessarily genetically modified wheat!) are part of a healthy diet. And a “serving” is one slice of bread, or 1/2 cup of rice or pasta – not a huge pile of white carbs. Whole grains can be part of a paleo diet, flexitarian diet, whatever.

  6. Helen

    I have a touchy digestive system which doesn’t always work well, leading to extra bathroom trips. I even have to closely monitor how much water I drink, though I try to drink a healthy amount. It’s related to a neurological condition not fully understood by my gastro doctor or my neurologist. All I seem to read is “more whole grains,” “more vegetables,” etc.. but people like myself have to cut way back on these seemingly very healthy foods.

    I try hard to eat well, but it’s an incredible balancing act. Perhaps there are others here like me, looking for a better solution. Any suggestions?

  7. Linda

    Ditto! Val, you nailed it. What were the non-whole-grain eaters who died earlier eating instead? Refined flours? Paleo? Tons of veggies? Hamburgers and milkshakes? Without knowing who the 3-whole-grain-a-day-eaters were being compared to, it’s not only NOT cause and effect, it isn’t even a particularly helpful correlation.

  8. Edwin
    Dallas, TX

    What about the books like “Wheat Belly” that the doctor wrote, about the damaging effects of wheat on us because it was genetically modified?

  9. Cindy M. Black
    Seattle, WA

    Whenever I eat grains, of course they’re whole-grain… But THREE SERVINGS A DAY? And how many servings of leafy greens and other veggies? How many servings of fruits and legumes…? And of course you have to have some dairy for calcium too…!

    The problem is, my stomach has become very exclusive real-estate in that I’ve lost most of my appetite. I could go all day very happily with hardly any food at all, but I force myself to eat because I want the health benefits! If I have a medium-sized green salad for breakfast, I can barely stuff down my power shake for lunch (with kefir, berries and whey), and simply cannot force another thing into my mouth for hours. I try to have a little protein and veggies for dinner and again am ABSOLUTELY STUFFED. Then before bed I force myself to eat half a banana, some cherries, some walnuts and a bit of chocolate. I cannot add one more thing without deleting something. Adding 3 servings of grains would be absolutely impossible. How can healthcare people pooh-pooh the idea of supplements when they should know that most people CANNOT POSSIBLY eat the numbers of servings of all the recommended healthy foods in any given day?

  10. Carolyn

    My mother always had very high cholesterol, never took statin drugs and lived to 103. She ate a varied diet, but was not fanatical about avoiding natural fats. She believed in the old adage, ‘everything in moderation’.

  11. Mary

    They need a newer report on wheat specifically. That grain is not the same plant it was in the mid-1990’s.

    • Steve
      Winston-Salem, NC

      The genetic makeup of wheat changes every year, as plant breeders release for sale new wheat varieties with increased yields, better standability, more disease resistance, etc. This has been done since wheat was first domesticated maybe 10,000 years BC, by farmers picking out the better kernels to sow the next year. And despite many people’s beliefs, there is no GMO wheat grown in the US. A Roundup resistant variety was bred, but not released for sale.

  12. Val

    Were the people in the studies randomly chosen to eat 3 servings of whole grains, or did the researchers just compare people who already ate whole grains as part of a lifestyle that might well have included other healthy habits that contributed to the outcome with people who didn’t eat that amount of whole grains? I don’t think we can draw any conclusions about cause and effect without knowing if other factors were controlled for.

    • PLR
      RTP NC

      Amen to Val! We should be very skeptical of conclusions coming from diet recall studies, regardless of their size. Multiple confounding factors on top of fuzzy data does not add up to actionable advice.

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