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A new study suggests that eating 3 servings of whole grains a day can help reduce several risk factors for heart disease including, waist size, blood pressure, blood sugar, triglycerides, and cholesterol. Getty Images
  • Research has found a link between higher whole grain consumption and lower increases in certain heart disease risk factors.
  • Nutritional experts say this may be because refining removes fiber and heart-healthy nutrients.
  • It is recommended that people eat at least three servings of whole grains a day.

According to new research published in The Journal of Nutrition, eating whole grains is associated with smaller increases in waist size, blood pressure, and blood sugar.

This was true for middle-aged and older adults who ate a minimum of three servings a day.

Those who ate less than one-half a serving a day did not fare as well.

The researchers’ goal in conducting the study was to determine just how whole grain versus refined grain consumption would affect various risk factors for heart disease, including waist size, blood pressure, blood sugar, triglycerides, and HDL cholesterol.

The team used data from the Framingham Heart Study Offspring Cohort — which began in the 1970s — to assess these risk factors.

There were 3,121 people who participated in the study. Most were white, with an average age in the mid-50s.

The researchers looked at the participants’ health outcomes for a median of 18 years to determine what effect whole, and refined grains had.

They compared the changes that occurred at four-year intervals.

The team found that waist size increased less among those who ingested more whole grains.

In addition, blood sugar and systolic blood pressure increases were greater in those who ate fewer servings of whole grains.

Lower intake of refined grains was also linked to greater mean decline in triglyceride levels.

According to Mary-Jon Ludy, PhD, chair of the Department of Public & Allied Health and associate professor, Food & Nutrition at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, whole grains are better for us because they include all the edible parts of the grain kernel: the bran, the germ, and the endosperm.

When grains are refined, the fiber-rich bran and the nutrient-rich germ are removed, she explained. What is left behind, the endosperm, is mainly starchy carbohydrates and a smaller amount of vitamins and minerals.

Ludy said that these lost components play important roles in health.

“Fiber helps to maintain steady blood sugar levels, can lower cholesterol, and promote healthy digestion,” she explained.

“The combination of fiber with B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin), vitamin E, minerals (iron, magnesium, selenium, zinc) provides a host of disease prevention benefits, including lower levels of inflammation and reduced rates of heart disease, hypertension, stroke, type 2 diabetes, colon cancer, and obesity.”

She did want to note, however, that refined grains may be fortified with nutrients like folic acid that do not naturally occur in whole grains. If you are attempting to increase your whole grain consumption, especially if you are pregnant or may become pregnant, it’s a good idea to make sure you are getting enough folic acid.

Colleen Tewksbury, PhD, national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, said the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends at least three servings of whole grains a day.

Refined grains should be limited to three servings or less.

A serving is usually the equivalent of a small slice of bread or a half-cup of a cooked grain product like pasta, oats, quinoa, or rice.

“A good place to start,” said Tewksbury, “is to look at what foods you are already eating that are refined grains and see if you can replace them with the whole grain version.

“Eating pasta? Maybe try out replacing it with whole-grain pasta,” she said. “Same for breads or other bread products.”

According to the Oldways Whole Grains Council, one easy way to determine if a food contains whole grains is to look for the whole grains stamp. They say that to reach the recommended amount of whole grains, you can eat three servings with a 100 percent stamp or six servings with any whole grain stamp.

If there is no stamp, they suggest looking elsewhere on the product for a statement that the product contains whole grains. If the first ingredient on the label is whole grain, then the chances are good that it’s mainly whole grain.

Some of the terms that may be used to identify whole grains include:

  • whole grain [name of grain]
  • whole wheat
  • whole [other grain]
  • stoneground whole [grain]
  • brown rice
  • oats, oatmeal (including old-fashioned oatmeal, instant oatmeal)
  • wheatberries