Foods made from whole grains, the hard, dry seeds of plants, have been a nutritional staple for thousands of years. They provide a wealth of heart-healthy nutrients, including fiber, vitamins, minerals, good fats, enzymes, antioxidants, and phytonutrients, according to the April 2015 Harvard Heart Letter.
Eating whole grains instead of highly processed grains has a wide range of health benefits, such as lowering blood pressure, blood sugar, and blood cholesterol, and reducing chronic inflammation. “It is likely that all the components of whole grains work in concert to confer these benefits,” says Dr. Frank Hu, professor of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
In two long-running studies, Dr. Hu and colleagues found that people who ate about two-and-a-half servings of whole grains a day were about 5% less likely to die of any cause than those who ate smaller amounts. (In this study, one serving of whole grains was one ounce, or 28 grams.) For each additional daily serving, people were about 9% less likely to die of heart disease. The researchers also found that replacing refined grains and red meats in your daily diet with an equal amount of whole grains can potentially lengthen life by 8% to 20%.
The typical American diet is loaded with highly refined grains that have been stripped of many of their nutrients and milled into a fine-textured carbohydrate. These low-quality carbohydrates, which include white rice, white bread, pastries, and other products made from white flour, are easier to cook and store than whole grains. But they lack the nutritional clout of their whole-grain cousins, even when they have been fortified with added vitamins and minerals.
Refined grains also lack dietary fiber, the part of plant foods that the body cannot digest. As fiber moves through the digestive system, it absorbs water and helps the body eliminate food waste more quickly. Fiber helps lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar. It’s also filling, which helps people eat less and perhaps lose weight, which also carries cardiovascular benefits.