The Whole Truth About Whole Grains

11 reasons to make the switch now

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

Want to statistically reduce your risk of death from all causes (in other words, your total mortality rate) by 15% just by making one dietary change? Choose whole grains whenever you can.

We all know we're supposed to eat more whole grains. We know they're "good" for us (full of fiber, phytochemicals, and vitamins and minerals). Yet most Americans eat less than one serving of whole grains a day. So what's stopping us?

Maybe it's our fear of "brown" food. But you might be surprised how easy it can be to embrace the brown if you set your mind to it. Some of you will have no problems switching to whole-grain bread but will draw the line at whole-wheat pasta. For others, it might be the other way around.

The bottom line is that switching to whole grains is one of the most important things you can do for your health. So make the switch everywhere you can -- and draw the line wherever that may be for you.

For me, about the only refined-grain products I eat are the occasional sourdough and French bread, pizza crust (when I buy it out), and sometimes pasta (which I always cook al dente because it has a lower glycemic index this way). I used to think I could never accept whole-wheat noodles as "pasta." But never say never! In developing the recipes for my next book, I used a whole-wheat pasta blend and I really started to like it.

And don't think that you can keep eating white, refined-grain products and just supplement them with some extra fiber. Research suggests that the various nutritional components of whole grains work together to affect our health.

A Bite of Whole-Grain History

When the industrialization wave hit America in the later 1800s, a new way of milling and mass refining took hold in the grain business and never let go. Removing the bran and germ seemed like a good idea at the time, since it meant that grain products could sit on store shelves much longer without spoiling.

But the worldwide epidemic of B-vitamin deficiencies (pellagra and beriberi) that followed was only the beginning. Frankly, we are only just realizing the nutritional fallout from almost eliminating whole grains from our diet over the past hundred years.

11 Ways Grains Are Great

Here's a quick list of all the ways that whole grains benefit your body. After reading it, you may ask yourself, "What don't they do?"

1. They're digested slowly.

Whole grains are digested more slowly than refined grains, which has beneficial effects on blood sugar and insulin (keeping levels of both down). A recent study found that the more whole grains men and women ate, the lower their fasting insulin levels were. And this is a good thing.

2. They reduce mortality rates.

After analyzing data from more than 15,000 people aged 45-65, researchers from the University of Minnesota School of Public Health found that as whole-grain intake went up, total mortality (the rate of death from all causes) went down.

3. They help reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.

The Nurses' Health Study found that women who ate more than 5 grams of fiber from whole-grain cereals daily had about 30% less risk of developing type 2 diabetes than those who ate less than 2.5 grams of whole-grain fiber a day.

Other research found that women who ate a diet low in cereal fiber and high on the sugar (glycemic) index doubled their risk of type 2 diabetes.

4. They help control weight.

One study found that women who ate three or more servings of whole-grain foods a day had significantly lower body mass indexes (BMIs) than those eating less than one serving a day. (This was found in men, too, but the link was more significant in women.)

Another study found that women whose diets included the most whole grains were half as likely to gain a lot of weight over a 12-year period as those who ate the least whole grains. This slimming effect was seen even in teens.

5. They may protect against metabolic syndrome.

Research has found that metabolic syndrome -- a condition that raises the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and stroke -- was found much less often in people who ate the most cereal fiber and whole grains compared with those who ate the least.

6. They reduce risk of heart disease.

At least 25 studies have found that people who regularly eat whole grains have a lower risk of heart disease.


"Studies...have suggested that regularly eating whole grains reduces cancer risk."

"The evidence is quite consistent and convincing that people who eat at least one serving of whole grains a day have a lower risk of heart disease and stroke," reports Mark Pereira, PhD, a nutritional epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School.