Give Whole Grains a Chance

So if we eat the equivalent of about seven slices of bread a day, only about half a slice would be whole grain and the rest would be made with white flour

Rodale News

Whether “healthy” whole grains are truly healthy is a hotly debated issue, but there’s new evidence supporting the “pro-grains” camp: Whole grains and cereal fiber help reduce mortality risk, according to recent research published in BMC Medicine.

In a study of more than 367,000 participants, those with the highest intake of whole grains had a 17 percent lower risk of dying over a 14-year follow-up period. When the researchers looked at cereal-specific fiber (meaning fiber coming from both cold cereal and cooked cereal), those who ate foods with the most had a 19 percent lower risk of dying.

Furthermore, when broken down into disease-specific cause of death, the benefit of eating whole grains ranged from 11 percent reduced risk of death (respiratory disease) to 48 percent (diabetes). For cereal fiber, this ranged from 15 percent (cancer) to 34 percent (diabetes).

Given these findings, why are grains—wheat especially—so suspect? Thomas Campbell, MD, author of The Campbell Plan sheds some light on this debate. “I have some very serious concerns about wheat, but I think the blame it’s currently taking is excessive,” he says. “Too many people are blaming wheat for all their joint aches, fatigue, and abdominal discomfort. It lets them put the blame for how they feel on wheat and continue to feel good about all of their other bad habits.”

The truth is, different people likely require different wellness plans to feel better, and healthy whole grains (not refined grains) could play an important role.

Dr. Campbell points out that while we’re on average eating about the equivalent of seven slices of bread daily in grains, we Americans are generally failing when it comes to getting our whole grains. “So if we eat the equivalent of about seven slices of bread a day, only about half a slice would be whole grain and the rest would be made with white flour,” he explains.

Thus, the issue may be less about the grain and more about the refinement—the addition of oils, processed syrups, and sugar. “When you hear anecdotes about people feeling better after eliminating wheat from their diet, you realize that if they started out like the average American, they are eliminating pizza, bread, cookies, and pasta. When you cut these calorie-dense processed foods out of your diet, do you think you might lose weight and feel better? Of course!” For Dr. Campbell, the jury is still out on whether or not the wheat is the real root issue here.

“I do not mean to make wheat seem totally blameless,” he adds. “For some people, the adverse effects of wheat consumption are very real.” He points to issues like celiac disease and wheat allergies.

That being said, even non-wheat grains aren’t always ideal—even for those without wheat intolerances. William Davis, MD, author of Wheat Belly Total Healthexplains, saying, “Nonwheat grasses have their own unique issues.” For instance, Dr. Davis points out that some grains contain lectins—a type of naturally occurring toxin that serves to protect the plant against being eaten by insects—that can lead to inflammation when eaten. And some grains, such as corn, can besurprising blood-sugar spikers.

One reason experts can’t agree is that there may not be one right answer. What’s healthy for one person might be toxic for another, and the extent to which a food makes people sick isn’t always clear-cut. The best solution: Figure out for yourself what foods do or don’t make you sick. A safe place to start is with an elimination diet, which can help you take stock of your health symptoms in a controlled way.