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9 Health Benefits of Eating Whole Grains

Health + Wellness
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By Kerri-Ann Jennings, MS, RD

Whole grains have been a part of the human diet for tens of thousands of years (1).


But proponents of many modern diets, such as the paleo diet, claim that eating grains is bad for your health.

While a high intake of refined grains is linked to health problems like obesity and inflammation, whole grains are a different story.

In fact, eating whole grains is associated with various benefits, including a lower risk of diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure.

Here are the top 9 health benefits of eating whole grains.

What Are Whole Grains?

Grains are the seeds of grass-like plants called cereals. Some of the most common varieties are corn, rice, and wheat.

Some seeds of non-grass plants, or pseudocereals, are also considered whole grains, including buckwheat, quinoa, and amaranth.

Whole-grain kernels have three parts (2):

  • Bran. This is the hard, outer shell. It contains fiber, minerals, and antioxidants.
  • Endosperm. The middle layer of the grain is mostly made up of carbs.
  • Germ. This inner layer has vitamins, minerals, protein, and plant compounds.

Grains can be rolled, crushed, or cracked. Nonetheless, as long as these three parts are present in their original proportion, they're considered whole grains.

Refined grains have had the germ and bran removed, leaving only the endosperm.

Though enriched refined grains have had some vitamins and minerals added back, they're still not as healthy or nutritious as the whole versions.

Common varieties of whole grains include:

  • oatmeal
  • popcorn
  • millet
  • quinoa
  • brown rice
  • whole rye
  • wild rice
  • wheat berry
  • bulgur
  • buckwheat
  • freekeh
  • barley
  • sorghum

Products made from these foods are considered whole grain. These include certain types of bread, pasta, and breakfast cereals.

When you purchase processed whole-grain products, read the ingredient list to make sure they're made entirely from whole grains, not a mixture of whole and refined grains.

Also, keep an eye on the sugar content, especially in the case of breakfast cereals, which are often loaded with added sugar. Seeing "whole grain" on the packaging does not automatically mean that the product is healthy.

Summary

Whole grains contain all three parts of the grain. There are many different kinds, including whole wheat and whole corn, oats, brown rice, and quinoa.

1. High in Nutrients and Fiber

Whole grains deliver many important nutrients. These include:

  • Fiber. The bran provides most of the fiber in whole grains.
  • Vitamins. Whole grains are particularly high in B vitamins, including niacin, thiamine, and folate (3, 4).
  • Minerals. They also contain a good amount of minerals, such as zinc, iron, magnesium, and manganese.
  • Protein. Whole grains boast several grams of protein per serving.
  • Antioxidants. Many compounds in whole grains act as antioxidants. These include phytic acid, lignans, ferulic acid, and sulfur compounds (5).
  • Plant compounds. Whole grains deliver many types of plant compounds that play a role in preventing disease. These include polyphenols, stanols, and sterols (6).

The exact amounts of these nutrients depend on the type of grain.

Nevertheless, to give you a sense of their nutritional profile, here are the key nutrients in 1 ounce (28 grams) of dry oats (4):

  • Fiber: 3 grams
  • Manganese: 69% of the Reference Daily Intake (RDI)
  • Phosphorous: 15% of the RDI
  • Thiamine: 14% of the RDI
  • Magnesium: 12% of the RDI
  • Copper: 9% of the RDI
  • Zinc and iron: 7% of the RDI

Summary

Whole grains deliver a variety of important nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, protein, fiber, and other healthy plant compounds.

2. Lower Your Risk of Heart Disease

One of the biggest health benefits of whole grains is that they lower your risk of heart disease, which is the leading cause of death worldwide (7).

A review of 10 studies found that three 1-ounce (28-gram) servings of whole grains daily may lower your risk of heart disease by 22% (8).

Similarly, a 10-year study in 17,424 adults observed that those who ate the highest proportion of whole grains in relation to their total carb intake had a 47% lower risk of heart disease (9).

Researchers concluded that heart-healthy diets should include more whole grains and fewer refined grains.

Most studies lump together different types of whole grains, making it hard to separate the benefits of individual foods.

Still, whole-grain breads and cereals, as well as added bran, have been specifically linked to reduced heart disease risk (8).

Summary

Eating whole grains may lower your risk of heart disease, especially when they replace refined grains.

3. Lower Your Risk of Stroke

Whole grains may also help lower your risk of stroke (10).

In an analysis of 6 studies in nearly 250,000 people, those eating the most whole grains had a 14% lower risk of stroke than those eating the fewest (10).

Furthermore, certain compounds in whole grains, such as fiber, vitamin K, and antioxidants, can reduce your risk of stroke.

Whole grains are also recommended in the DASH and Mediterranean diets, both of which may help lower your risk of stroke (11).

Summary

As part of a heart-healthy diet, whole grains may help lower your risk of stroke.

4. Reduce Your Risk of Obesity

Eating fiber-rich foods can help fill you up and prevent overeating. This is one reason high-fiber diets are recommended for weight loss (5).

Whole grains and products made from them are more filling than refined grains, and research suggests that they may lower your risk of obesity.

In fact, eating 3 servings of whole grains daily was linked to lower body mass index (BMI) and less belly fat in a review of 15 studies in almost 120,000 people (12).

Another study reviewing research from 1965 to 2010 found that whole-grain cereal and cereal with added bran were associated with a modestly lower risk of obesity (13).

Summary

Decades of research suggest that whole grains are linked to a lower risk of obesity.

5. Lower Your Risk of Type 2 Diabetes

Eating whole in place of refined grains may lower your risk of type 2 diabetes (14).

A review of 16 studies concluded that replacing refined grains with whole varieties and eating at least 2 servings of whole grains daily could lower your risk of diabetes (15).

In part, this is because fiber-rich whole grains can also help with weight control and prevent obesity, a risk factor for diabetes (16).

Moreover, studies have linked whole grain intake to lower fasting blood sugar levels and improved insulin sensitivity (17).

This could be due to magnesium, a mineral found in whole grains that helps your body metabolize carbs and is tied to insulin sensitivity (16).

Summary

Fiber and magnesium are two nutrients in whole grains that help lower your risk of type 2 diabetes.

6. Support Healthy Digestion

The fiber in whole grains can support healthy digestion in various ways.

First, fiber helps give bulk to stools and lowers your risk of constipation.

Second, some types of fiber in grains act as prebiotics. This means they help feed your beneficial gut bacteria, which are important for digestive health (5, 18).

Summary

Due to their fiber content, whole grains help support healthy digestion by giving bulk to stools and feeding your beneficial gut bacteria.

7. Reduce Chronic Inflammation

Inflammation is at the root of many chronic diseases.

Some evidence suggests that whole grains can help reduce inflammation (19).

In one study, women who ate the most whole grains were least likely to die from inflammation-related chronic conditions (20).

What's more, in a recent study, people with unhealthy diets replaced refined wheat products with whole wheat products and saw a reduction in inflammatory markers (21).

The results of these and other studies support public health recommendations to replace most refined grains with whole grains (22).

Summary

Eating whole grains regularly could help lower inflammation, a key factor in many chronic diseases.

8. May Reduce Your Risk of Cancer

Research on whole grains and cancer risk have provided mixed results, though they show promise.

In one review of 20 studies, 6 showed a reduced risk of cancer, while 14 indicated no link (23).

Current research suggests that whole grains' strongest anticancer benefits are against colorectal cancer, one of the most common types of cancer (24, 25).

Additionally, some health benefits linked to fiber may help lower your risk of cancer. These include its role as a prebiotic (24, 26, 27).

Lastly, other components of whole grains, including phytic acid, phenolic acids, and saponins, may slow the development of cancer (24).

Summary

Whole grains may help prevent colorectal cancer, one of the most common types of cancer. Still, research on whole grains' anticancer effects is mixed.

9. Linked to a Reduced Risk of Premature Death

When your risk of chronic disease is reduced, your risk of dying prematurely also goes down.

In fact, one study suggested that whole grain intake specifically lowered the risk of dying from heart disease, as well as any other cause (28).

The study used data from two large cohort studies, adjusting for other factors likely to influence death rates, such as smoking, body weight, and overall eating patterns.

Results indicated that every 1-ounce (28-gram) serving of whole grains was linked to a 5% lower risk of death (28).

Summary

Whole grains are linked to a lower risk of dying prematurely from any cause.

Whole Grains Are Not for Everyone

While whole grains are healthy for most people, they may not be appropriate for all people at all times.

Celiac Disease and Gluten Sensitivity

Wheat, barley, and rye contain gluten, a type of protein that some people are intolerant or allergic to.

Having a gluten allergy, celiac disease, or gluten sensitivity can cause a range of symptoms, including fatigue, indigestion, and joint pain.

Gluten-free whole grains, including buckwheat, rice, oats, and amaranth, are fine for most people with these conditions.

However, some have difficulty tolerating any type of grain and experience digestive distress and other symptoms.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Some grains, such as wheat, are high in short-chain carbohydrates called FODMAPs. These can cause symptoms in people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which is very common.

Summary

Some people have difficulty tolerating grains. The most well-known issue is gluten, which affects people with gluten allergy, celiac disease, or gluten sensitivity.

How to Incorporate Whole Grains Into Your Diet

You can incorporate whole grains into your diet in many ways.

Perhaps the simplest thing to do is to find whole-grain alternatives to refined grains in your diet.

For instance, if white pasta is a staple in your pantry, replace it with a 100% whole-wheat or other whole-grain pasta. Do the same for breads and cereals.

Be sure to read the ingredient list to see if a product is made from whole grains.

Look for the word "whole" in front of types of grains. If it simply says "wheat" instead of "whole wheat," it's not whole.

You can also experiment with new whole grains that you may not have tried before, such as quinoa.

Here are some ideas for adding whole grains to your diet:

  • Make a cooked porridge out of oatmeal or other grains.
  • Sprinkle toasted buckwheat groats on cereal or yogurt.
  • Make polenta out of whole-grain cornmeal.
  • Swap out white rice with brown rice, or for a different whole grain like quinoa or farro.
  • Add barley to vegetable soups.
  • Try using whole-grain flours, such as whole-wheat pastry flour, in baking.
  • Use stone-ground corn tortillas rather than white tortillas in tacos.

Summary

There are many ways to work whole grains into your diet. Replacing refined grains with whole grains is a good place to start.

The Bottom Line

Whole grains deliver a variety of health benefits.

Regularly eating whole grains may reduce your risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity. This is particularly true when they replace the refined grains in your diet.

High-fiber foods like whole grains also significantly improve your digestive health, though people with gluten intolerance must avoid wheat, barley, and rye.

For improved health and longevity, consider adding whole grains to your diet every day. Healthy, whole-grain breakfast cereals, such as steel-cut oatmeal, are a popular choice.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Healthline.

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Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.

Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.

Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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