We all know the basics of eating right — eat your fruits and vegetables and limit your intake of fat, salt and sugar. Beyond that it can get a little confusing.
There are low-fat, fat-free, low-calorie and sugar-free options, but just because something is marketed this way doesn’t make it nutritious. In fact, many of these foods are overly processed and have been stripped of nutrients. So while we may be taking in fewer calories or grams of fat, we are simultaneously depriving ourselves of the vitamins and minerals necessary for a longer, healthier life.
Perhaps you’ve heard of something called the Mediterranean diet. As opposed to the standard American-style diet, which consists of lots of red meat, blood-clotting fats/oils, blood pressure raising sugars/salts, and few fruits and veggies, a Mediterranean-style diet focuses on:
- Whole grain breads, pastas and cereals
- Olive oil
- Fresh vegetables and fruits
- Nuts and seeds
- Fish and seafood
- Red wine
Not only has a Mediterranean diet been associated with a smaller waist size, it has been shown to prevent a wide variety of health conditions, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and some types of cancer, and even to reduce your risk of death.
Despite all of these obvious health benefits, it can be extremely difficult to change years’ worth of bad habits. What’s more, if you completely overhaul your diet, you may wind up feeling deprived and throw in the towel. So rather than radically changing your diet, a more realistic plan may be to begin by substituting Mediterranean staples into your daily meals where possible.
Where should you start? How about with a simple change that could lower your risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes by 20 percent to 30 percent, while also lowering your risk for certain types of cancers?
Whole grains are the answer, according to a review of fundamental studies looking at the connection between whole grains and the risk of chronic diseases.
Whole Grains and Cardiovascular Disease
Studies show that people who eat three or more portions of whole grain foods a day have a 20 percent to 30 percent lower risk of cardiovascular disease than those who eat low quantities of whole grain.
Some studies attribute this to a greater consumption of cereal fiber as opposed to other sources of soluble fiber such as pectin and guar gum, while others point to the bran or rye content. But whatever the reason, the level of protection is substantial. In fact, whole grains may do even more to protect your heart than fruits and vegetables.
The Nurses’ Health Study tracked 68,782 U.S. women (ages 37-64) for 10 years who had no prior diagnosis of angina, heart attack, stroke, cancer, high cholesterol or diabetes at the start of the study. After controlling for age, cardiovascular risk factors, dietary factors and the use of multivitamin supplements, the authors found that among the different sources of dietary fiber — cereal, vegetables and fruit — only cereal fiber was strongly associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.
Whole Grains and Diabetes
When it came to whole grains and diabetes, the good news was the same. The studies reviewed also showed a 20 percent to 30 percent reduction in the risk of type 2 diabetes with a high intake of whole grains. And again, research showed this relationship for cereal fiber but not for the fiber from fruits and vegetables.
Another study showed that people who ate mainly refined cereals and little whole grain cereals had a 57 percent greater risk of diabetes than those who ate higher quantities of whole grains.
But what about people who already have high blood sugar? Because the main carbohydrate in bread is gelatinized starch, it increases insulin response and therefore usually gives rise to high glycemic responses. However, whole grain breads have a lower glycemic load and lower glycemic index (GI) values due to their high fiber content and resistant starches.
And evidence from observational and interventional studies indicates eating whole grains improves plasma glucose levels, as well as insulinemia (too much insulin in the blood), reducing tissue resistance to insulin.
Finally, studies have shown a connection between whole grains and a reduced risk of some types of gastrointestinal cancers, including colorectal, pancreatic, stomach, mouth/throat and endometrial cancers.
Make the Switch
With the explosion of the Atkins and South Beach diet fads, carbs got a pretty bad rap. But as you can see, not all carbs are evil. The problem is that many of the breads, pastas and cereals we consume have had the outer layers of grains stripped from them when processed, removing much of the nutritional content. That’s why it’s so important for you to separate the whole wheat from the refined chaff.
When you’re buying bread, look for “100% whole wheat” on the label. But don’t stop there. Trade in your regular pasta and breakfast cereals for whole grain varieties, and start eating brown rice instead of white. These simple changes can make a world of difference when it comes to your health.
 Romaguera, D et al. Adherence to the Mediterranean diet is associated with lower abdominal adiposity in European men and women. J Nutr. 2009;139:1,728-37.
 Sofi, F et al. Accruing evidence about benefits of adherence to the Mediterranean diet on health: an updated systematic review and meta-analysis. Am J Clin Nutr. 2010;92:1,189-96.
 Buckland, G et al. Adherence to the Mediterranean diet reduces mortality in the Spanish cohort of the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC-Spain). Br J Nutr. 2001 May 17:1-11. [Epub ahead of print]
 Gil A, et al. Wholegrain cereals and bread: a duet of the Mediterranean diet for the prevention of chronic diseases. Public Health Nutrition. 2011;14:2,316-22.
 Liu SM, Stampfer MJ, Hu FB et al. Wholegrain consumption and risk of coronary heart disease: results from the Nurses’ Health Study. Am J Clin Nutr. 1999;70:412–429.
 Meyer KA, Kushi LH, Jacobs DR Jr et al. Carbohydrates, dietary fiber, and incident type 2 diabetes in older women. Am J Clin Nutr. 2000;71:921–930.