Think about how many servings of whole grains you ate today. If you're like most Americans, you had just one, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). After nearly a decade of sounding the call to eat more fruits and vegetables, the government is now making a push to boost whole-grain consumption to at least three one-ounce servings daily (or half your total grain servings). Experts say it may be the smartest thing you can do for your heart, not to mention your waistline.
In a 2004 meta-analysis, which compiles data from several studies, researchers concluded that whole-grain consumption not only made heart disease less likely, but less serious if it does occur. Other research from Tufts University in Boston found that three or more servings of whole grains daily could significantly reduce the risk of insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome, two precursors to type 2 diabetes. They may also cut your risk of colon cancer by almost a third, according to a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Also, consider the findings of Harvard's Nurses' Health Study, an ongoing research effort that tracks the health of thousands of nurses: Women who consume more whole grains weigh less than those who don't.
Just 10 percent of the population currently meets the new national guidelines, according to the USDA. If you think you're part of that group because you eat lots of wheat bread, pasta, and cereal, consider that while some of the products may claim they're made with whole-grain products, not all are made with 100% whole grains or may contain high amounts of sugar and fat.
Shopping Toward the Goal
Quick tips to keep in mind when reading labels to find products made with whole grains:
1. Watch the wording on packaging. According to a research review published in the Journal of Nutrition, many people are unable to correctly identify whole-grain foods in the supermarket because terms like multigrain or nine-grain are so misleading. Knowing what to look for is key. If a product is made from a whole grain, it will say so explicitly in the ingredient list. For example, a true whole wheat bread will have 100 percent whole wheat flour as its first ingredient.
2. Scan for seals. Two new, easy-to-spot clues include a Food and Drug Administration-approved health claim linking the consumption of whole grains to a reduced risk of heart disease and certain cancers. The other is one of three yellow and black Whole Grain Stamps, which were developed by the Whole Grains Council, a subsidiary of the Oldways Preservation Trust, a nonprofit organization that advocates healthful eating.
Change Your Menu
The smartest way to boost your whole-grain intake is to cook them from scratch. "It's a really great way to be sure that you're getting all the fiber and disease-fighting nutrients that grains offer," Sass says.
Brown rice is the first whole grain most people add to round out a menu. Natural-foods stores and high-end supermarkets offer a wider variety of grains. For more on whole grains, read Cooking Light's All About Grains feature.