Enjoy a bowl of Cheerios, plump strawberries and skim milk for breakfast. At lunch, have turkey breast on rye. Come dinner, try brown rice and vegetables as your main course. Do all that, and you may well be treating your cardiovascular system as well as your palate. The “secret” ingredient? Hearty whole grains.
More and more research is pointing to whole grain as a powerful nutrient package that can help fend off heart disease. Here’s a look at some of the findings:
- In one study, women ages 55 to 65 who ate at least eight servings of whole grain a week had a 15 percent lower incidence of death from heart disease. (For the record, one serving of whole grain equals one slice of bread or 1/2 cup of cooked grain.)
- Researchers in Finland found that men between ages 50 and 69 who ate three slices of whole-grain rye bread (not the refined, processed kind found in most grocery stores) a day lowered their risk of death from heart disease by 17 percent.
- In a U.S. study of more than 43,000 male health professionals, fiber from grains—as opposed to the fiber found in fruits and vegetables—was most strongly associated with a lower risk of heart disease. (Of course, that’s no reason to bypass the produce aisle!)
The fiber found in whole grains helps the heart by reducing the amount of blood cholesterol in the body. This, in turn, discourages plaque buildup on artery walls, lowering the risk of heart disease or heart attack.
Chances are, you’re asking yourself that question right now. In short, whole grains are the seeds from which plants sprout. The life-giving vitamins and nutrients are stored in the three components of whole grain: the endosperm, the germ and the bran. However, when whole grain is processed into flour, the bran—where 86 percent of the niacin, 43 percent of the riboflavin, 66 percent of the nutrients and most of the fiber are found—and the germ are removed.
Because whole grains aren’t processed as much as refined grains, many of the nutrients and much of the fiber remain.
Shopping for whole grains can be confusing. Wheat bread is often made with white flour and molasses (for coloring), and high-fiber crackers may use peas, not whole grains, for extra fiber. What’s a heart-minded shopper to do? Read ingredients carefully.
Make sure “whole wheat” is the first ingredient in the wheat bread or crackers that you buy. Wheat flour and unbleached wheat flour are not whole grains.
Even if the front of the package says “made with whole wheat flour,” check the ingredients. “Made with” is a marketing phrase meaning that at one point the flour used in a particular product was whole wheat—but often that was before the refining process.
Oats in most forms—oat bran, rolled oats and so on—are almost always whole grains because neither the bran nor the germ is removed. However, oatmeal packets or oatmeal cookies should not be your preferred source of whole grains—the added sugar and fat offset any cholesterol-lowering benefits.