Whole Grain Health Benefits

Whole grains are an important part of a healthy, balanced diet

Importance of whole grains

Dietary recommendations in many countries worldwide are to eat a diet that includes starchy carbohydrates, particularly those rich in whole grains.

Low-carbohydrate (low-carb) diets can be popular with people trying to lose weight, and may involve cutting out whole grain foods as a result. However carbohydrate contains fewer calories gram for gram than fat and whole grain starchy foods are a good source of fibre. Eating foods high in fibre may also help you to feel fuller for longer, which can help if you are trying to lose weight. There is strong evidence that fibre, found in whole grain versions of starchy foods, is good for our health. While we should reduce the amount of sugars (also a type of carbohydrate) in our diet, government advice is to base our meals on starchy foods, and choose whole grains, whenever possible.

Digestion

Whole grain varieties of starchy foods are good sources of fibre, important for maintaining a healthy digestive system. Dietary fibre has a beneficial effect on constipation, on decreasing intestinal transit times, so waste moves through the digestive tract more quickly and on increasing the bulk of stools. UK dietary guidelines recommend that adults aim to eat at least 30g of fibre each day; but currently only manage, on average, about 18g according to national diet and nutrition surveys. As well as the benefits for digestive health, fibre may help prevent heart disease, diabetes, weight gain and some cancers.

Colorectal (bowel) cancer

Eating whole grains such as whole-wheat bread or whole grain rice can reduce colorectal (bowel) cancer risk. Bowel cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the UK, after breast, prostate and lung cancers. A report by the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) and World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) found that eating around three servings (a total of 90g) of whole grains a day, such as brown rice or wholemeal bread, reduces the risk of colorectal cancer by 17%. This adds to the evidence that high fibre foods decreases the risk of this cancer.

Heart health and more

The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN), who advise government on dietary recommendations, found moderate evidence from population-based (observational) studies that people with a greater whole grain intake have a reduced risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes when compared with low whole grain consumers. Research also suggests a link between higher whole grain consumption and reduced incidence of colon cancer.

Plus, different whole grains have other nutritional benefits. For example, oats and barley are whole grains that contain beta-glucan, a soluble fibre that has been shown to reduce cholesterol levels in the blood, which may lower the risk of heart disease.

Weight management

Whole grains are typically low in fat. They also contain fibre and tend to have a low glycaemic index (GI). Low GI foods cause your blood sugar levels to rise and fall slowly. Low GI together with fibre content of whole grain foods may help you feel fuller for longer, which could help control your appetite – useful if you’re trying to lose weight.

What if I have an allergy or gluten intolerance?

Coeliac disease is an autoimmune condition that affects approximately 1 in every 100 people in the UK. It is caused by the immune system reacting to gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. The treatment is a gluten free diet. Grains which don’t contain gluten include rice, corn, buckwheat, millet and quinoa. People with coeliac disease may also be able to tolerate pure, uncontaminated oats, but many standard oats are produced in the same place as wheat, barley and rye, which makes them unsafe. Get support from a healthcare professional if you think you may be affected.

Wheat or gluten intolerance, or wheat allergy differs from coeliac disease. The prevalence of allergy to cereals, including wheat, is low and more common in young children. Wheat allergy in adults is rare. If you’re concerned that you have a wheat allergy or intolerance, speak to your GP as it’s important you are properly diagnosed before cutting out foods from your diet, as you may miss out on important nutrients.