If these healthy foods are part of your breakfast, you could lose years of your life

Grains, once thought to be a healthy breakfast staple, may actually be taking years off your life. In a new paper published in The British Medical Journal, an international team of researchers determined that regularly consuming refined grains can dramatically increase one’s risk of developing heart disease, experiencing a stroke, and even early death.

More broadly, the authors set out to assess the association shared between refined grains, whole grains, and white rice with cardiovascular disease, total mortality, blood lipids, and blood pressure by analyzing participants previously logged in the Prospective Urban and Rural Epidemiology (PURE) study.

The (PURE) report was derived from different diets that frequently appear among low, middle, and high-income nations. Following more than 16 years of research, (which included 130,000 participants and 21 countries) it became clear that intake of refined grains and added sugars has been steadily surging around the world. 

Participants who consumed more than seven servings of refined grains a day raised their risk of early death by 27%. This value was associated with a 33% risk increase for developing heart disease and a 47% risk increase for suffering a stroke.

“Diet may influence the development and progression of chronic diseases. Globally, over the past few decades, the consumption of refined grains and added sugars has increased. Positive associations between higher consumption of refined carbohydrates with high glycaemic load and risk factors for cardiovascular disease have been reported,” the authors wrote in the new paper.

“Previous studies have been conducted mostly in North America and Europe, with limited information from other parts of the world where the amount and types of carbohydrates consumed in the diet vary, as do their contribution to overall calories. Studies in single geographical regions provide information on associations across a relatively limited range of intake. The Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology (PURE) study has the distinct advantage of examining diets from diverse populations in low, middle, and high-income countries in multiple regions across the world.”

Refine grains are grain products that have been augmented from their natural form. This can be achieved in a number of different ways but the most common involves the removal of bran and germ via grinding or selective sifting. Important vitamins are typically added back to the product after it has been processed.  Think white flour, degermed cornmeal, white bread, pasta and noodles, cereals, crackers, bakery pastries, and white rice.

Whole grains are the way you want to go. Foods like barley, brown rice, buckwheat, and oatmeal. These are sometimes pricier options but not much is lost by way of taste.

“Our study from 21 countries showed that higher intake of refined grains was associated with higher risk of total mortality and major cardiovascular events. We observed no significant association between intake of whole grains or white rice and clinical outcomes. Intakes of a combination of cereal grains with a lower intake of refined wheat products should be encouraged while promoting a higher intake of whole grains. Reduction in quantity and improvement in quality of carbohydrate is essential for better health outcomes,” the authors concluded. 

Recently the Mayo Clinic published detailed guidance on how ways to regularly incorporate whole grain into your diet:

  • Enjoy breakfasts that include whole-grain cereals, such as whole-wheat bran flakes (some bran flakes may just have the bran, not the whole grain), shredded wheat or oatmeal.
  • Substitute whole-wheat toast or whole-grain bagels for plain bagels. Substitute low-fat muffins made with whole-grain cereals, such as oatmeal or others, for pastries.
  • Make sandwiches using whole-grain bread or rolls. Swap out white-flour tortillas with whole-wheat versions.
  • Replace white rice with quinoa, brown rice, wild rice, barley, or bulgur.
  • Feature wild rice or barley in soups, stews, casseroles and salads.
  • Add whole grains, such as cooked brown rice or whole-grain bread crumbs, to ground meat or poultry for extra bulk.
  • Use rolled oats or crushed whole-wheat bran cereal in recipes instead of dry bread crumbs.

Meaningfully distinguishing between sources within food groups is a crowning token of modern diet science. It seems a minor thing, but it isn’t enough to make room for nutrients on your table. You also have to be up to speed on the varieties that contribute the most to overall health. This is especially true of controversial staples like grains.