These robust plant foods offer a wealth of benefits
Grains. Love them or hate them, they’re the foundation of many traditional diets around the world and continue to be a staple in modern civilization. Most of the grains eaten today, however, have been refined to the point where they no longer provide the nutritional value that makes the original whole forms such an amazing staple food. These “empty calories” have given rise to the prevailing thought that grains are bad, carbohydrates are killing us and we all need to run in the other direction every time we see a bowl of rice.
Whole grains, however, are something we should be running to. Slowly but surely, the public eye is being opened to the fact that grains in their original, unrefined forms are among the healthiest foods out there. These grains are nourishing, power-packed choices that can be enjoyed at any meal. They’re delicious savory or sweet, with vegetables or fruit, tossed with herbs or seasoned with spices. However you like to prepare them, grains like rice, quinoa, millet, barley, amaranth, teff, corn and wheat can do amazing things for your health.
Better Heart Health
In How Not to Die, Dr. Michael Greger cites a study showing consumption of three servings of whole grains a day — which is about 1/2 to 3/4 of a cup of cooked grains — reduced the risk of a heart attack by 15 percent and strokes by 25 percent. The Whole Grain Council reports higher numbers, showing a 25 to 28 percent risk reduction for heart disease and a 30 to 36 percent drop in stroke risk among those including whole grains in their diets.
The high fiber content of whole grains may have something to do with these benefits, according to Brenda Davis in her detailed compendium, Becoming Vegan. High fiber diets have been linked with a lower overall risk of cardiac events as well as a reduction in the risk of developing cardiovascular disease in the first place. Fiber combines with cholesterol-rich bile acids and lowers fatty acid synthesis in the liver, leading to lower blood levels of these potentially damaging substances. Fiber may also work to remove undesirable blood clots by breaking down the fibrin necessary for clots to form.
Methyl donors may be another reason why grains are so good at protecting heart health. When the body metabolizes the amino acid methionine, an intermediate compound called homocysteine is formed. Unless homocysteine is remethylated — that is, unless it gets a methyl group from another compound such as choline, betaine or inositol, all found in whole grains — it may lead to an increase in inflammation and promote adhesion within blood vessels. Inflamed blood vessels don’t heal well, and prolonged damage to the inner lining, called the endothelium, can promote clot formation and increase the risk of atherosclerosis. Whole grains also contain vitamin B6, folic acid and zinc, which also play a role in controlling homocysteine levels.
Lower Risk of Type 2 Diabetes
Fiber is at least partly responsible for the statistics showing that consuming three servings of whole grains a day can lower diabetes risk by one third. A study by Harvard Medical School showed similar benefits in a group of 11 overweight and obese subjects consuming six to 11 servings of whole grains per day. Even with partially refined foods such as breads, pasta and baked goods included in the serving count, subjects experienced a 10 percent drop in fasting insulin, lower insulin secretions and greater glucose infusion into cells when compared to a similar diet containing refined grains.
When fiber-rich foods are ingested, the fiber delays absorption of both fat and carbohydrates, resulting in a more stable glucose response, which in turns reduces the need for high levels of insulin to normalize blood sugar. Since high blood sugar and excessive insulin production may both contribute to type 2 diabetes risk, it makes sense that whole grains appear to confer benefits. The Whole Grains Council places total risk reduction between 21 and 30 percent for people who consume whole grains.
Cancer Risk Reduction
Phenols, lignans and saponins are phytonutrients found in whole grains, and they’re superheroes in the fight against cell damage. Cells throughout the body are bombarded every day by artificial compounds in food and body care products, chemicals in the environment and the daily effects of metabolism. When left unchecked, the effects of these encounters have the potential to initiate cancer as cells mutate and multiply. Phytonutrients have antioxidant properties to prevent the damage from getting out of hand. The compounds found in whole grains are particularly effective against colorectal cancer. Eating three servings per day has the potential to lower the risk of the developing the disease by 20 percent.
Lignans also act as phytoestrogens, notes Dr. Greger in How Not to Die. These “plant estrogens” create a buffer to control high levels of estrogen associated with hormone-driven cancers, especially those of the breast and prostate. By docking on hormone receptors, phytoestrogens block the more aggressive estrogens believed to play a role in the development of these cancers. To get the benefits of lignans, however, you need a healthy gut. Whole grains contain only the precursors to lignans; a strong community of friendly gut bacteria is necessary to transform them into the final product.
Even before people knew what fiber was or how it worked, its role in digestive health was clear. A visit to the General Store & Apothecary Shop at the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, VT, reveals a surprisingly large collection of products created to counteract the effects of inadequate fiber intake in a population that ate a great deal of cured meat and other high-fat, low-fiber fare. The same problems are evident in the large amount of shelf space modern pharmacies devote to digestive aids.
Unfortunately, Americans and other cultures eating predominantly Western-style diets continue to consume levels of fiber far below the recommended amounts, with average intakes hovering around 15 to 17 grams. Adequate Intake (AI) levels are set at 38 grams for men ages 19 to 50 and 25 grams for women in the same age bracket. Older men should consume at least 30 grams and older women at least 20 grams.
Those eating vegan diets that include whole grains average between 35 and 50 grams of fiber per day, and whole-food plant-based diets may provide up to 60 grams of fiber per day. Grains often figure predominantly in these eating plans. Fiber consumed at these levels provides enough food for the diverse community of bacteria that thrives in the human gut. As these bacteria break down strands of fiber, they release short-chain fatty acids that strengthen colon walls. Complex sugars called oligosaccharides act as prebiotics to provide more nourishment for these bacteria.
A strong colon is a healthy colon, and people who eat more fiber may be at a reduced risk for diverticulitis, irritable bowel disease, hemorrhoids and colorectal cancer. In fact, one study showed that consuming ten extra grams of fiber per day reduced the risk of this type of cancer by 10 percent.
Refining grains strips away the outer bran and germ, removing up to 80 percent of the healthful compounds that give the whole forms their benefits. When eaten in their unrefined states, grains provide a range of nutrients, including:
- B vitamins: thiamine, riboflavin, niacin and folate
Each of these nutrients supports one or more essential bodily processes. Some, like selenium and zinc, act as antioxidants. Zinc is essential for over 100 enzymatic processes, and selenium is a critical component in thyroid hormone conversion. Many B vitamins support energy production and a healthy metabolism. Folate is essential for cell division, which is why pregnant women are encouraged to consume more of this nutrient. Magnesium balances out calcium to promote bone health. Other benefits for immunity and cell activity can also come from these vitamins and minerals.
Learn More About Whole Grain Benefits
The Vegan Health Guide: Whole Grains — Discover the health benefits of specific grains, why you should choose whole instead of refined and how to find the best grains when shopping!
Health Studies from the Whole Grains Council — Search by grain or health condition to find studies detailing the perks of including whole grains in your diet.
More Than Just Fiber? — This abstract discusses the “whole grain package,” suggesting the benefits of these foods may come from far more than the nutrients usually studied in isolation.
Lignans: The Linus Pauling Institute — An objective scientific look at the potential health effects of lignan consumption.
I’d love to hear about why you love whole grains. Share your favorite grains and recipes in the comments!
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