While many people vaguely understand that whole grains are healthier than refined grains, they may not be aware of how many different parts of our bodies benefit from whole grains – from head to toe – and why.

Brain health. It appears that a “grain brain” may be protective against Alzheimer’s disease. In a 2015 study, seniors who ate a diet including whole grains, greens, berries, nuts, olive oil, and fish cut their risk for Alzheimer’s by more than half. In contrast, refined grains may be bad for brain health: Scientists in New York found that both refined grains and added sugars were linked with a higher risk for depression.

Asthma. The Dutch National Institute of Public Health found that children who ate whole grains were 54% less likely to develop asthma than children who did not eat whole grains, while scientists in Finland found that kids introduced early to oats were less likely to develop persistent asthma.

Heart and blood pressure. Scores of studies show the link between whole grains and heart health. One study, for example, found that eating an average of 2.5 servings of whole grains per day can lower your risk of cardiovascular disease by almost one quarter. One reason could be that whole grains – especially oats, barley and rye – lower cholesterol; it could also be because whole grains reduce blood pressure.

Blood sugar. Want to keep your blood sugar from spiking and reduce your risk of diabetes? Turn to whole grains, especially “intact grains” – whole kernels, instead of flour. In an Italian study comparing a group that ate whole grains with another group eating refined grains, the whole grain group had post-meal insulin levels 29% lower. High anti-oxidant levels in whole grains may also help keep diabetes and other inflammatory diseases at bay.

Weight management. New research shows that eating whole grains gives you healthier gut microbes – a factor linked to lower risk of obesity. And in Denmark, a clinical trial comparing whole grains to refined grains found that the group eating whole grains lost more weight and more body fat than those eating refined grains.

Longer life. Several recent studies show that your whole body benefits from whole grains, resulting in longer life overall. Scientists in Scandinavia studied the diets of 120,000 people and found that those who ate the most whole grains had significantly lower risk of death from all causes. In another study, each one-ounce serving of whole grains was associated with a 5% lower total risk of death (and a 9% lower risk of death from heart disease).So how many servings of whole grains do you need to eat to get these head-to-toe benefits? Improvements in health start to kick in when you switch any amount of refined grains to whole grains, but for even more benefits, make at least half your grains whole. -- by Cynthia Harriman / Director of Food & Nutrition Strategies

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