Recent study shows why you should exclude foods like white rice and bread from your meals

If you are a lover of jollof rice or white bread, here is some news you may not like: Refined grains and their derivatives are not good for your heart health. Eating plenty of them is as bad as eating lots of sweet candies. 

Refined white rice and bread

Key takeaways:

  • Refined grains are grains that have been milled such that their key parts, including their brans, endosperm, and germ, have been lost.
  • Refined grains are not the healthiest food choices as they have been stripped of some nutrients and fibers. It is best to consume whole grains instead.
  • A recent study found that eating too many refined grains is bad for cardiovascular health.

Your food choices, including your choice of grains, can impact your health. Grains can be consumed whole or refined; however, many people do not know the difference between either grain types. 

“Refined grains are generally milled to remove the germ and bran. This method gives them the fine texture we feel and, in turn, makes them last longer,” Casandra Ayodele, a health coach, and nutrition expert, tells SemicHealth.

“During this refining process, the major nutrients are removed, most importantly fiber."

But whole grains are healthier because they still have all three parts intact: the bran, endosperm, and germ. They are also high in nutrients like phosphorus, magnesium, iron, selenium, and manganese. 

Refined grains increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases

A new study published in October 2022 found that higher consumption of refined grains was linked with a higher risk of premature coronary artery disease (PCAD), while consuming whole grains reduced the risk.

Premature coronary artery disease is a term used when a younger person develops coronary artery disease (CAD). The cut-off age for PCAD varies in different studies, with some defining it as CAD before 45 years in people assigned male at birth or CAD before 55 years in people assigned female at birth.

But this research, which looked at the link between refined grains and heart diseases, says that PCAD is the narrowing of coronary arteries in people with penises younger than 55 years old or vaginas younger than 65 years old. This is similar to the cut-off age specified by the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

CAD is an artery disease that occurs when the heart does not get sufficient oxygen-rich blood. This is usually caused by inflammation or blockage of the coronary arteries by the accumulation of cholesterol deposits on the arterial walls (also called plaques). 

Premature coronary artery disease usually doesn't cause any symptoms in the early stages and has a high rate of premature death and ischemic recurrences. Genetics is one of the risk factors for PCAD. However, it has modifiable traditional risk factors, such as smoking, the use of opium, and dyslipidemia.

The study, which recruited about 2,099 Iranians, studied their eating habits to assess the link between the consumption of whole and refined grains and the risk of developing PCAD.

The researchers found that people who ate more refined grains were at higher risk of developing PCAD while consuming whole grains reduced the risk. 

There are healthier food alternatives to refined grains

Examples of refined grains and foods made from refined grains include:

  • Pastries
  • White bread
  • corn grits
  • White rice
  • Pizza dough
  • Sweet desserts
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Pasta

These are common meals prepared in many homes today. But science has shown that we should rather limit their intake. “It is best to choose healthier food alternatives like brown rice, millet, oatmeal, whole-wheat bread, quinoa, barley, and buckwheat," Ayodele says. 

People tend to consume more of refined grains than whole grains

Unsurprisingly, refined grains tend to find their way more often into our diets, despite their potential to negatively impact health. 

There are a number of reasons people may consume refined grains more than whole grains.  “The mentality and cultural practice over the years have stripped people of the knowledge that whole grains are better. It is a shock that one of the reasons most people prefer refined grains is because they believe it is more "prestigious,” says Ayodele.

“This ideology is weird and funny because refined grains are still made from whole grains. Also, most people see it as a better and more tasty way of eating grains."

People should consume more of whole grains

Since several studies have linked cardiovascular diseases and other health conditions with a high intake of refined foods, it is best to limit their intake and eat more of natural, whole-food alternatives.

Speaking with Adeseye Akintunde, a consultant cardiologist and associate professor at Ladoke Akintola University of Technology, he says, “The relationship (between grains and heart diseases) showed that high intake of refined grains, such as those taking up to 350g of refined grains, are at increased risk of cardiovascular death than those in the lowermost quartile.”

“The reason for refined grains affecting cardiovascular health is possibly due to their low content in fiber, vitamins, antioxidants, and minerals, many of which are tampered with in the process of refining."

Akintunde further explains that the risk is likely continuous and cumulative. The higher the intake, the higher the chance of cardiovascular risks, among many other associated comorbidities.

“What is advised is that whole grains should be taken in higher quantities as this reduces cardiovascular risk," he says. 

Different factors determine the number of grains you should consume

Because grains are a major part of diets, it can be hard to tell when you have eaten too much of them, especially if you are trying to lose weight or are on a low-carb diet. Consider working with a dietitian to help you make the right meal choices.

Regarding the number of grains or grain-based foods you should consume, Akintunde says that would depend on several factors, including your age, sex, and level of physical activity.

“For people assigned females at birth who are aged 19 and above, 5 to 6-ounce equivalents is ideal, while for people assigned males at birth who are up to 19 years, 6 to 8-ounce equivalents per day is recommended,"  Akintunde says.

“A one-ounce equivalent of grains is considered to be about one serving of a grain food, such as one slice of bread or one cup of cereal,” he adds.

The body metabolizes refined grains and whole grains differently

Another reason you should choose whole grains is that the way the body breaks down and processes them is different from how it processes refined grains.

“Refined grains are quickly digested into simple sugars and absorbed into your bloodstream. This can cause blood sugar levels to spike and then quickly crash. These rapid swings in blood sugar can drain your energy and leave you feeling moody and tired,” Gift Awakessien, a clinical nutritionist and CEO of Ediwellness, tells SemicHealth.

“On the other hand, high-quality carbohydrates such as whole grains are rich in fiber, which helps regulate blood sugars by slowing the absorption of sugar into your bloodstream after meals. They provide long-lasting energy that will keep you fueled for hours,” Awakessien explains further. 

We can reduce the cardiovascular disease burden in Nigeria

“Cardiovascular health issues are common in Nigeria and other low- and middle-income countries. Hypertension, diabetes, stroke, coronary artery disease, and chronic kidney disease are all on the rise. And these are major causes of deaths and impairment,” Akintunde laments.

Fortunately, there are things individuals, societies, and governments can do to reduce the prevalence of health conditions like cardiovascular diseases.

“A concerted effort at increasing awareness, improving health care access and financing, improving health insurance, infrastructural development to aid diagnosis, population-oriented health education, and provision of needed treatment are some of the ways to reduce the cardiovascular disease burden in Nigeria,” Akintunde suggests.

In the area of individual efforts, Awakessien says we can “encourage people to make more heart-healthy food choices by educating them on what these foods are and their benefits to heart health." 

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