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Diet That Helps the Heart Includes Whole Grains

July 01, 2002|AMANDA URSELL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

By now, most people know that reducing saturated fat and cholesterol-rich foods can reduce the risk of heart disease. But scientists are now convinced that eating more whole grain foods could also protect our arteries.

For centuries, grains such as wheat, corn, oats and rye have been the mainstay of the human diet. From pasta in Italy to rice in China, the variety of grain products eaten throughout the world is nothing short of amazing. Yet today, the majority of grain is eaten in refined form. This means that the dark outer parts of the grain--the germ and the bran--have been removed through the milling process, leaving just the starchy white endosperm for our consumption.

In the case of wheat, for example, this endosperm can be ground into refined white flour and used to make white bread. But milling and refining do not just change the color of our cereal-based foods. Milling results in major losses of vitamins, minerals and protective plant nutrients, all of which are present in highest quantities in the germ and bran.

These include vitamin E, the vitamin B complex, and minerals like zinc, selenium, iron, copper, magnesium and phosphorous. Proteins and fibrous carbohydrates along with plant estrogens called lignans are also lost. It is these nutrients and supernutrients that appear to work together to help protect the heart.

Researchers believe this action comes from the substances' combined antioxidant action, which helps reduce damage to artery walls and the buildup of cholesterol at such damaged sites. Studies have shown that eating almost three servings of whole-grain foods a day lowers the risk of heart disease by almost a third.

The protective effects of whole grains also extend to cancer. In the colon, for instance, they appear to counter the effects of cancer-causing substances, increase fecal bulk and bind potential carcinogens, speedily removing them from the bowel before they have time to cause disease.

In recognition of these properties, the Food and Drug Administration allows some food labels to tout the benefits of whole-grain foods in reducing the risk of heart disease and some cancers.

That said, it is important not to become too carried away with the idea of the benefits of bran. Whole-grain cereals also contain special types of fiber called phytates, which reduce the body's absorption of minerals such as calcium (crucial for strong bones). This effect is particularly strong when the grains are eaten in an uncooked form, such as in unprocessed bran that is added to foods.

Overall, however, it's a good idea to swap refined breakfast cereals for whole-grain versions, white bread for whole wheat and white rice and pasta for brown. Not only will you be helping your heart, the fiber will make you feel fuller for longer. And they taste great too.

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Amanda Ursell, a dietitian and nutritionist, is a London-based freelance journalist. Her column appears on the first Monday of the month. She can be reached at amanda@ursell.com.

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