How Whole Grains Keep You Healthy—Plus, Tasty Ways to Eat More

How Whole Grains Keep You Healthy—Plus, Tasty Ways to Eat More

Whole grains are red hot! Seventy-five percent of supermarket shoppers—including you, we hope—say they’re looking to buy more. And in 2015, a large, long-term study published in JAMA Internal Medicine suggested that whole grains are linked to better overall health.

For the study, researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health tracked the diet and health of 117,000 women and men for 25 years to uncover this whole-grain connection. People who ate more—such as whole-grain bread, oatmeal, brown rice, barley or another whole grain—had a 9 percent lower mortality rate during the study time period. Their heart health was superior, too. For every daily serving they ate, the risk of dying from a heart attack, stroke or related problem dropped by 5 percent. On average, they ate enough grains to lower heart-related deaths by 15 percent.

That’s a huge benefit from one of the easiest food groups to love. And it’s not the only advantage. Other studies have also shown that choosing foods made with fiber-rich, nutrient-packed grains instead of the refined kind can slash your risk for type 2 diabetes by as much as 30 percent, reduce stroke risk up to 36 percent, cut odds for heart disease by 28 percent, and help banish belly fat.

Inviting more whole grains over for meals—and cutting back on refined grains—may even lower your risk for asthma, colon cancer, gum disease and high blood pressure.

How do whole grains work?
There are three essential parts to a whole grain:

  • The outer skin, called the bran
  • The inner core, called the germ
  • The germ’s food supply, called the endosperm

When a grain is refined, the bran and the germ are often removed. When a grain is whole, all three parts remain, which makes it better for you, nutritionally speaking. 

Compared to refined grains, whole grains are a superior source of satisfying fiber because the fiber-rich bran isn’t polished off. Since the germ remains intact, too, whole grains have more protein, a smidge of good fat and a rainbow of good-for-you vitamins and minerals, such as magnesium, selenium, copper and manganese. Whole grains also deliver a slow drip—rather than a spike—of energizing carbs found in the grain’s endosperm layer.

These bonus nutrients do plenty of important jobs in your body. Fiber slows the digestion of carbohydrates, so blood sugar rises more slowly. One type, soluble fiber, can lower cholesterol. Another type called insoluble fiber helps keep you regular. Phytochemicals in the germ discourage “bad” LDL cholesterol from turning into artery-clogging plaque, while phytoestrogens may help ward off some cancers. 

How to eat more whole grains
Why not try a new 100% whole grain this week? These tips can point you in the right direction—whether you’re a newcomer to whole-grain goodness or a long-time fan looking for something completely different.

  1. Go for fast-cooking whole grains. Dr. Mike likes to cook up a big pot of brown rice, barley or quinoa on Sundays and then keep it in the fridge for fast meals during the week. Another option is grains that can be prepared in 10 to 15 minutes, such as quick-cooking pearl barley, bulgur or farro. You can also look for ready-to-heat, precooked grains in pouches.
     
  2. Make an easy switch. Instead of white bread go for 100% whole grain; boot white pasta for 100% whole grain noodles; pick a 100% whole-grain breakfast cereal. Don’t buy any product based on the words “whole grain” on the label; it doesn’t mean 100% whole grain unless it says 100% on the ingredients list.
     
  3. Try a new taste. Already in love with 100% whole grains? Branch out. Serve an ancient grain like quinoa, millet, amaranth or spelt. Each has its own strengths. Quinoa is high in protein, millet’s tiny grains are rich in magnesium and amaranth cooks into a creamy porridge that’s delicious on cold winter mornings. You can also buy these grains as flour to add to muffins. Now there’s a great way to start a hot new trend in your house.

Medically reviewed in October 2019.

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