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updated 3/4/2005 10:17:56 AM ET 2005-03-04T15:17:56

For a long time, we've heard that whole grains like whole-wheat bread are good for us.

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Many Americans, however, still look upon them suspiciously as "health foods" that real people seldom eat. That attitude should soon change because the latest edition of the USDA's Dietary Guidelines for Americans clearly states that all adults should eat at least three servings of whole grains every day.

A greater whole-grain consumption than Americans currently have is linked in several studies with lower death rates from both heart disease and cancer. Even after adjusting for the generally healthier weight, exercise and other habits of whole-grain eaters, whole grain consumption can result in 17 to 35 percent fewer deaths from these two diseases.

The protection against heart disease may stem from whole grains' antioxidant vitamins and phytochemicals, fiber, or trace minerals. Apparently, by improving insulin sensitivity and decreasing the disordered insulin function people experience with metabolic syndrome, whole grains also help prevent diabetes. Some researchers suggest that these improvements in metabolic syndrome may be another protection against heart disease.

High antioxidant levels
The same substances in whole grains that protect against heart disease also seem to help prevent several kinds of cancer.

Fiber and certain starches in whole grains ferment in the colon and form substances that may block the cancer-promoting effects of bile acids. New research presented at the most recent American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) conference also shows that these foods contain much higher levels of antioxidant phytochemicals called phenols than previously thought.

These and other antioxidants in whole grains can ward off, and sometimes even repair, damage to cells that can occur from highly reactive molecules called free radicals. In addition, scientists believe that other substances in whole grains may affect hormone levels and possibly lower the risk of hormone-related cancers like breast cancer.

Weight control is an added advantage to eating whole grains. In one study, women who ate more whole-grain foods weighed less and gained less weight during 12 years than those who consumed less whole grains.

By moderating levels of the hormone insulin, whole grains seem to deter fat storage. Whole grains seem to cause less elevation in the hormone insulin, which promotes fat storage. Whole grains also seem to satisfy hunger for longer periods than do refined grains, allowing people to eat less.

For years, guidelines from AICR have urged people to eat grain products mostly made from whole grains. With the release of the federal government's dietary guidelines, last issued in 2000, people may at last realize the health advantages of whole grains compared to refined grain products. Hopefully, the average of less than one whole grain serving a day will rise and meet the USDA recommended minimum of three.

Check the label
Food companies are responding to the research, public interest and USDA guidelines, and whole-grain cereal choices will soon be multiplying. For your breakfast or a snack, choose cereals that list a whole grain like whole wheat or oats as the first ingredient.

To reach three servings each day, look for other whole-grain products like whole-grain frozen waffles, English muffins, bagels, tortillas and crackers. Make whole-grain bread an automatic choice.

To make sure it's whole-grain bread, check the label, not the color. The term "multi-grain" does not mean it's a whole grain. For other serving ideas, cook whole-wheat pasta and brown rice.

If you need a gradual transition to the heavier texture of whole-grain pasta, look for half whole-wheat and half white-flour pasta. For a great grain snack you won't have to develop a taste for, try popping your own popcorn in a bit of oil.

Nutrition Notes is provided by the American Institute for Cancer Research in Washington, D.C.

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