Very Well Feature: Choosing Whole Grains May Improve Your Cardiovascular Health

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Consuming whole grains, like whole grain bread, brown rice, and quinoa, instead of their refined counterparts may result in improved health outcomes, according to new data.1

Research has already established that consuming whole grains is linked to a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes and gastrointestinal cancers.1 For this November study, published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, researchers aimed to determine whether whole grain consumption improved cardiovascular outcomes compared to refined grains (like white bread and white rice) or placebo in adults.

From the data, researchers concluded that for adults with and without cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk factors, consuming certain whole grain as opposed to refined grain may improve:

  • Total cholesterol

  • Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol

  • Hemoglobin A1C (an indicator of blood glucose control)

  • C-reactive protein (a biomarker for inflammation)

Additionally, consuming whole grain rice (like brown rice) decreased triglycerides. Having elevated triglycerides can increase your risk of developing heart disease.2

Although these are all positive outcomes, it does not appear that consumption of whole grains can be recommended as a direct way to reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, according to these results.

Whole Grain Health Benefits

The term "whole grain" is tossed around a lot as a good-for-you choice on the internet and food packaging, but there can be some confusion as to what whole grains really are.

“A whole grain has three parts attached to it—the bran, endosperm, and germ,” Christina Brown, RDN, a registered dietitian based in New Jersey, tells Verywell. The bran and germ are nutrition powerhouses—containing nutrients like fiber, magnesium, selenium, and a slew of other beneficial properties.

While consuming whole grains may not reduce your risk of developing CVD, it may help reduce your risk of dying if you are diagnosed with CVD, according to data from 2016.

Specifically, the data suggests that for every 16-gram serving of whole grains (approximately one serving; equal to one slice of whole grain bread or half a cup of brown rice), cardiovascular-related deaths declined by 9%. And when 48 grams of whole grains were consumed (three servings) every day, rates of cardiovascular death declined by 25%.

This echoes results obtained from the Harvard-based Nurses’ Health Study, suggesting that women who ate two to three servings of whole grains each day were 30% less likely to have a heart attack or die from heart disease over a 10-year period than women who ate less than one serving of whole grains per week.

Should You Avoid Refined Grains?

While consumption of whole grains is linked to a slew of benefits, there may be unique benefits to including certain refined grains like rice and pasta in your diet as well.

"When considered on their own as opposed to part of an unhealthy eating plan, there is no evidence to link refined grains with type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stroke, or high blood pressure,”5 Elizabeth Ward, MS, RDN, a registered dietitian based in Boston, Massachusetts, and co-author of The Menopause Diet Plan: A Natural Guide to Managing Hormones, Health, and Happiness, tells Verywell. “Everyday staple foods [and refined grains], such as bread, cereal, and pasta, are significant sources of B vitamins—including folic acid, which helps prevent birth defects—and iron.”

Ward says that whole grains are not typically fortified with B vitamins and iron.

Because of this, experts don't suggest totally eliminating refined grains from your diet.

How to Include Whole Grains In a Healthy Diet

Consumption of whole grains remains low in the U.S. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020, the average intake of whole grains was far below recommended levels across all age-sex groups, while average intake of refined grains was well above recommended limits for most age-sex groups.

Examples of whole grain foods include:

  • Whole grain bread

  • Whole wheat

  • Stoneground whole grain crackers

  • Brown rice

  • Oats

  • Quinoa

To incorporate more whole grains into your diet, easy strategies include:

  • Snacking on air-popped popcorn

  • Making a sandwich on whole grain bread instead of white

  • Plating dinner on a small bed of brown rice instead of white

For those who follow a gluten-free lifestyle, including whole grains in the form of foods like quinoa, brown rice, and popcorn can be positive dietary additions while remaining compliant with dietary restrictions.