- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Break out the oatmeal and whole-wheat crackers: Eating between two and three servings of whole grains per day lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease by 21 percent, according to research released yesterday by the Wake Forest University School of Medicine.

This does not mean choking down massive amounts of something unappetizing and seedy.

A serving, also known as an “ounce-equivalent,” consists of one slice of whole-wheat bread, 1/2 cup of cooked brown rice, one cup of ready-to-eat whole-grain cereal or three cups of popcorn. The right muffins, pastas and even pancakes can help out the heart.

“Consuming an average of 2.5 servings of whole grains each day is associated with a 21 percent lower risk of cardiovascular disease,” said lead author Dr. Phillip Mellen, an assistant professor of internal medicine at the Winston-Salem, N.C., school.

He based his analysis on data from 285,000 people whose diet, lifestyle habits and health factors were tracked from 1966 to 2006.

“These findings suggest that we should redouble our efforts to encourage patients to include more of these foods in their diets,” Dr. Mellen said.

Easier said than done. Only 8 percent of American adults now manage to consume three or more servings of whole grains every day, while 42 percent eat no whole grains — ever. Overall consumption of whole grains has declined by more than half in the last century.

Consumers and health professionals themselves are unaware of the health benefits of whole grains, Dr. Mellen said.

There is considerable confusion about what constitutes “whole” grain. The whole-grain seed must be retained — bran, germ and the endosperm — preserving fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and healthy fats. In recent years, clever marketers have added such evocative phrases as “stone ground” or “multigrain” to enhance the packaging, but such promising mottos do not usually indicate whole grain, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Dr. Mellen advises canny consumers to look for “100 percent whole grain” on food labels and check the listing of ingredients. Whole wheat, rye, oats, corn and other grains should be listed first. Other examples of whole-grain foods include wild rice, pastas, barley, wheat berries and whole-wheat flours. Recently introduced whole white wheat products — milder in taste and lighter in color — may appeal to those accustomed to refined flour.

People who are intolerant to gluten can consider amaranth, buckwheat, corn, millet and quinoa.

“Greater whole-grain intake is associated with less obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol — major factors that increase the risk for heart disease and stroke,” Dr. Mellen said.

Cereal itself got accolades in March from an analysis by Harvard University Medical School. The study examined the habits of 10,469 physicians between 1982 and 2006 and found that 79 percent ate whole-grain cereals. Those who managed a bowl every morning — more than a third of the doctors — lowered their risk of heart failure by 28 percent.

The nation’s whole-grain consciousness is growing, however. According to the Boston-based Whole Grains Council, an industry group, introductions of whole-grain products on grocery shelves are up by 801 percent since 2000.

American tastes are telling, however. The best-selling product is whole-grain cookies: Sales were up by 1,364 percent in the last year.

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