Are whole grains the secret to living longer?

by Nick Rose, M.S.

This article was originally published in December 2016

Hands forming heart shape in front of whole grain bread

People who eat whole grains regularly are some of the healthiest and longest living people on the planet. Whether it’s choosing oats for breakfast, popcorn for snack or kasha for dinner, eating more whole grain foods seems to lead to better health and longevity. What is it about whole grains that makes people live longer? Is it the complex array of nutrients they provide? Or the overly processed foods they replace? Or is it the overall healthy lifestyle of people who consume them?

New research

Whole grains pack an impressive package of nutrients into an economical, versatile, low-calorie food. They have fiber to support digestive health, lower cholesterol, help control appetite, prevent diabetes, and support the microbiome. They have essential vitamins and minerals such as magnesium, zinc and copper — often lacking in today’s processed-food diets. They even have antioxidants similar to the most colorful fruits and vegetables that reduce inflammation, a trigger for many health problems.

Yet many PCC shoppers were surprised in 2016 when an assortment of new studies found that eating whole grains led to a multitude of health benefits. Harvard researchers examining the diets of close to a million people around the world found that the more servings of whole grains consumed, the lower the risk of early death from heart disease and cancer. The authors published in the journal Circulation that their findings “support the recommendation of increasing whole-grain intake to improve public health.”

A second large analysis published in the British Medical Journal found that regularly eating whole grains reduced the risk of numerous chronic diseases ranging from cancer to diabetes to respiratory disease. Just two to three whole grain servings daily significantly improved health outcomes, but the researchers concluded that “even moderate increases in whole grain intake could reduce the risk of premature mortality.”

Whole grain lifestyle

The health benefits of whole grains can be explained in part by the many nutrients found in whole grains, but another major health benefit is that whole grains displace processed foods. Each serving of whole grain pasta, bread, rice or crackers means one less serving of refined grain. Replacing refined grains with whole grains means we can avoid problems associated with refined carbs, including elevated blood sugar levels and less satiation.

People who choose whole grains also make other healthy lifestyle choices: research shows they eat more veggies, get regular exercise, and are less likely to be regular smokers or heavy drinkers. Choosing whole grains is just one of many healthy habits, so it’s reasonable to assume that the reduced risk of disease in whole grain lovers is due not only to the nutritional properties of the grains, but also to lifestyle choices.

Blue Zones

Whole grains, legumes, nuts and fish regularly are on the menu in places like Sardinia, Greece, Okinawa, Costa Rica and California. These “Blue Zones” are the pockets of the world with the largest concentration of centurions — people living to 100.

Dan Buettner describes his search for the secrets of longevity in his book “The Blue Zones: lessons for living longer from the people who’ve lived the longest.” “I guess you could say that our quest was for a true fountain of youth, though this fountain does not spring from the ground but comes to us through centuries of trial and error.”

Diet surveys from the Blue Zones find that these centurions eat a plant-based diet (95 percent plants), emphasizing whole foods with limited amounts of meat and dairy. The bread eaten most frequently in the Blue Zones is fermented sourdough and they don’t overdo it — just one to two slices each day. Other whole grains common in the Blue Zones include brown rice (Japan), barley (Italy), oatmeal (California) and corn (Costa Rica). Refined flour and added sugars are consumed rarely.

People living in these Blue Zones don’t just eat well, they also have strong social connections, feel like they are part of a community and get regular exercise.

What to eat?

Today we have so many choices of what to eat and we’re not limited to what foods grow in our geographical region, so we have to choose between whole grain oats or sugar-sweetened breakfast flakes. And the most popular nonorganic grains consumed in the United States — wheat, oats and corn — are sprayed routinely with the herbicide glyphosate, making organic grains a superior choice.

Our recommended three servings of whole grains each day can be met easily with an oatmeal breakfast, a quinoa salad and a slice of whole grain bread. But don’t forget that it’s not just about eating three servings of whole grain foods a day — let those grains fuel your active lifestyle and enjoy your meals with family and friends.

Nick Rose is a nutrition educator at PCC Natural Markets.

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