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A Guide to Heart-Healthy Grains


A diet rich in whole grains can lower high cholesterol

By: Laura Flynn McCarthy

Reviewed By: Kerry Prewitt, M.D., FACC

health anxiety Want an easy way to lower your heart disease risk? Start eating more whole-grain breads, cereals, pastas and other foods. Studies show that people who eat diets rich in whole grains may reduce their risk for coronary heart disease by up to 26 percent. Whole grains, which are rich in heart-healthy fats, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and fiber may help decrease your blood levels of low-density lipoproteins (LDL, or “bad” cholesterol) and triglycerides, as well as lower your risks for high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity.

The Whole Grains Council defines “whole grains” as the entire seed (or kernel) of a plant, including:

  • Bran. The outer skin, rich in antioxidants, B vitamins and fiber.
  • Germ. The embryo, which contains B vitamins, protein, minerals and healthy fats.
  • Endosperm. The largest portion of the kernel, which contains starchy carbohydrates, proteins and small amounts of vitamins and minerals.

The bran and the germ are stripped from refined grains, such as white rice and white bread, as is much of the fiber and nutrients that help lower cholesterol and triglycerides. Since health benefits vary slightly from grain to grain, you can help your heart the most and please your palate by eating a variety of whole grains. Here, from the Whole Grains Council, are five top choices:

Oats contain a special kind of fiber called beta-glucan, found to be especially effective in lowering cholesterol, and providing antioxidants that help protect blood vessels from the damaging effects of LDL cholesterol. Oats rarely have their bran and germ removed in processing. Steel-cut oats, sometimes called Scottish or Irish oats, have a nutty flavor, and consist of the entire oat kernel (similar in look to a grain of rice). The oats are sliced once or twice into smaller pieces to help water penetrate and cook the grain.

Barley may lower cholesterol even more effectively than oat fiber, according to some research. A 2009 analysis of studies from the University of Connecticut shows that people who eat barley regularly have reduced levels of LDL, total cholesterol and triglycerides, but not high-density lipoproteins (HDL, or “good” cholesterol), compared to people who do not eat barley. Hulled barley, available at health food stores, is higher in whole-grain nutrients but is very slow-cooking. New varieties of hull-less barley are becoming available. Lightly pearled barley is partially refined, missing small amounts of the bran, but still rich in fiber.

Buckwheat, often used in pancakes, Japanese soba noodles and kasha cereal, contains high levels of an antioxidant called rutin, which improves circulation and prevents LDL cholesterol from blocking blood vessels. Buckwheat is actually not wheat at all, or even a grain, but a cousin of rhubarb.

Bulgur (wheat kernels that are boiled, dried and cracked) cooks quickly, has a mild flavor and contains more fiber than oats, millet, buckwheat or corn. It’s often used in the Middle Eastern dish tabbouleh.

Rye promotes a rapid feeling of fullness, helpful for people trying to lose weight. Rye may be especially healthy for people with diabetes because of its low glycemic index (a measure of how much a carbohydrate-containing food raises blood sugar compared to glucose or white bread).

 

 

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