People who eat plenty of whole grains have higher quality diets overall, new research shows; the problem is that, in the U.S. at least, these people are few and far between.
Less than 5 percent of the 19- to 50-year-old Americans surveyed in 1999-2004 said they ate at least three servings of whole grain daily, according to the report in the October issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.
During this period, there were no specific guidelines on how much whole grain people should be eating, study author Dr. Carol E. O'Neil of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge noted; people were simply told to consume "several servings."
But in 2005, new Dietary Guidelines for Americans specified three servings of whole grains daily as the optimal amount.
There is ample evidence that consuming whole grains-meaning the outer portion of the kernel has not been removed-is associated with a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and even certain types of cancer, although the mechanism behind their beneficial effects is not clear, O'Neil and her team note in their report.
O'Neil and her colleagues looked at the survey data to assess the relationship between whole grain intake and diet quality. Their analysis included 7,039 men and women between 19 and 50 years old and another 6,237 people 51 and older.
The younger group ate less than two-thirds of a serving of whole grains daily, on average, while the older people ate just over three-quarters of a serving, the researchers found. But the fraction of people who ate the most whole grain also consumed more fiber, healthy fats, and vitamins and minerals, while eating less sugar, unhealthy fat, and cholesterol.
Because the study looked at only one point in time, it cannot assess the health effects of the subjects' eating habits. "We can only say that consumption of whole grain is associated with improved nutrient intake or diet quality," O'Neil said. "We know from previous studies that consumption of whole grains is associated with a generally healthier lifestyle."
Even though Americans now have specific advice on how much whole grain they should be eating, it's unlikely that the percentage of people eating enough whole grain has changed much since the survey was done, according to O'Neil. "People just don't eat whole grains, although an increasing number of whole grain foods are available."
Also, many people don't know what exactly whole grains are, what types of foods contain them, and why they're good for you, O'Neil said. For more information, she recommends checking out the MyPyramid Web site and the Whole Grains Council .
"I also think that people are a little afraid of whole grains-that they won't like them or that their children won't like them," she added. "To these people, I would recommend that they find out more about them and try them-after all, popcorn is a whole grain, many cereals are whole grains, and a wide variety of whole grain breads and pastas are available."