The Health Benefits of Whole Grains

Studies Point to the Health Benefits of Whole Grain Foods

Source: Tufts University
October 2, 2000 (Reviewed: January 17, 2003)

Two recently published Harvard studies highlight how a healthy lifestyle that includes a diet rich in whole grain foods can contribute to better health in women.

Researchers assessed the food intake of more than 75,000 middle-aged and older American women several times over a 12-year period, and kept track of how many developed diabetes or suffered a stroke during that time. Results showed that, after accounting for other factors that affect health, women who consumed the most whole grain foods were more than 30% less likely to suffer a stroke and about 25% less likely to develop type 2 diabetes than those who consumed a less varied diet.

Why did whole grain foods have such a significant impact on women's health? Grain foods that include both the outer bran layer and the inner germ layer are good sources of fiber, which may help control type 2 diabetes. In addition, these foods are high in many nutrients, including folate and vitamin E, two vitamins that have been linked to reduced risk of stroke. Plant foods are also rich sources of antioxidants and phytochemicals, substances thought to help the body fight disease.

But can diet totally account for the results seen in these two studies? Probably not. These recent findings were extracted from information gathered as part of Nurses' Health Study, an ongoing research project that monitors the health of thousands of American women. The sheer size of this study makes its results compelling, but it is not always possible to isolate one component, like whole grain foods intake, from all the other genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors that determine whether an individual remains healthy or becomes ill. The women in this study who ate the most whole grain foods consumed less dietary fat and cholesterol and were more likely than other participants to take multivitamins and vitamin E supplements. They were also less likely to smoke and more likely to exercise than other women in the study. Any or all of these factors could have contributed to the overall protective effect attributed in this study to whole grain foods.

Still, whole grain foods like bran cereal, whole wheat bread, and brown rice contain more nutrients per serving than their more processed counterparts. Nutritionists recommend that individuals plan their meals to include several servings of whole grain foods a day, consumed in place of refined white bread, cereal, rice, and pasta. Note that not all wheat breads are created equal--check the label to make sure that the bread you buy is made primarily with the whole grain. In baked goods, that means that whole grain flour.

A prospective study of whole-grain intake and risk of type 2 diabetes mellitus in US women. S.›Liu, ›et al., American Journal of Public Health., 2000, vol.› 90, pp.›1409--1415

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