Old Story – Evidence Ever Stronger

January 13, 2015 in Foodland, Health, Health Claims, Nutrition, Uncategorized, Whole Grains by Joyce Bunderson

There is neither a single food nor single group of foods that can be consumed that offer optimal health. Balance and variety are an important aspect of diet. If we want not only to be healthy, but also to enjoy our meals, then we should remember balance and variety. We should be very mindful of not deleting entire types of healthy foods from our diet.

I’ve spent considerable time and effort trying to help the public realize that eating whole grains is a benefit to health, including posting on this site since 2009.  The messages given are based upon substantial evidence; it’s not just a personal preference; in fact, I truly like and would prefer eating some unhealthy foods like bacon, but must only do so on rare and special occasions. One food category with substantial evidence behind its benefits to us is whole grains. But the public has not moved very quickly toward adopting whole grains, and many would prefer to avoid them, as a part of the new gluten free craze, or because of preferences for white flour products. So I must share that it sometimes feels like wasting my time (which I really dislike.) The evidence continues to mount, however. The latest comes from one of my favorite public health universities – Harvard. It is published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine (JAMA Internal Medicine). They found that both overall death risk and cardiovascular disease-related risk are reduced in those who consume whole grains.

We already knew that whole grains help in weight management, diabetes control, and digestive health; and now in cardiovascular disease and overall death risk – just plain staying alive. I suggest, that if you are not consuming whole grains, you should consider making changes that include more whole grains. The Harvard School of Public Health recommends that we get one-quarter of our daily calories from whole grains. So if your total daily calorie intake is 1600 calories, that’s about 400 calories from whole grains. Even if you’ve adopted the gluten-free eating style; you can have balance, variety and accomplish the goal to eat whole grains by eating other whole grains like quinoa, uncontaminated oats, corn, millet, brown rice, or one of the other whole grains.

One tiny bit of info for those of you who enjoy a little statistical substance in the mix: the researchers in the new Harvard study controlled for quite a few factors, such as age, smoking, body mass index, physical activity and overall diet excluding whole grains. It’s always reassuring to learn that the researchers control for other possible influencing factors. They looked at data collected over a 25-year period; a nice long retrospective study. They found that for each serving of whole grains (28 grams – an ounce) the overall death risk dropped by 5% and by 9% for cardiovascular disease-related death.

Before you begin thinking that a good solution to changing your habit of eating refined grains would be by sprinkling some fiber on your Coco Puffs, or letting the food processors do that for you – they found no benefit from adding fiber to processed grains. There seems to be some synergistic benefit from consuming the entire grain.

One of the most dramatic results of the research is that those who swapped out just one serving of red meat for whole grains lowered their risk by a whopping 20%. That’s impressive. Of course, for those who are interested in healthy eating, this new research helps us realize that the Paleo and gluten-free craze are probably not healthy choices, unless you have a medical reason to adhere to these eating styles.

Not only might you improve your chance of a longer life, but also in addition, you may do something positive for the planet. I’ll share a few words on learning from history or being doomed to repeat it.  When I read a nice concise 2003 article written by the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel: the Fates of Human Societies (a book that I greatly enjoyed) by Jared Diamond, it touched my awareness of the health of our environment and our physical health. Jared Diamond is a professor of geography and environmental health sciences at UCLA, my public health alma mater. If you don’t have time or the desire to read Guns Germs and Steel or What Went Wrong?: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East by Bernard Lewis, another book about factors involved in a civilization’s decline from former heights, you may want to just read the article The Erosion of Civilization – The Fertile Crescent’s fall holds a message for today’s troubled spots. It’s great food for thought. Included in the writings noted in this paragraph is the fact that the early peoples of the Fertile Crescent domesticated animals for food. That domestication helped lead to the desert that now exists where the Fertile Crescent used to produce the world’s premier food supply. Maybe we should learn from this huge environmental experiment on earth.

While writing about whole grains and remembering the Fertile Crescent and the writings of Jared Diamond, I became interested in a TED Talk that he gave in February 2003 – Why Societies Collapse. As nutrition is complex, so is the collapse of societies – there is no single factor to pin it on. I embrace Jared Diamond’s hypothesis that our present course is non-sustainable. He says that we will resolve our non-sustainable habits in pleasant ways, or unpleasant ways – we have the choice. He further suggests that we need not be pessimistic, that the major threats are solvable. Eating whole grains is one small, but important issue favoring the attainment of health of both body and earth. But it’s not so small that we should ignore its benefits (to both health and environment). Eating plant foods is much easier on fertile agricultural land than consuming large amounts of animal foods. We may want to consider eating meat sparingly and including whole grains in our food choices. Yes, you’ve heard this story before; but the evidence for it is ever growing in strength.