In a world where carbs are viewed as the enemy, you may be surprised to find they really aren’t “bad” at all. Grains, which are carbohydrates, are an important component of the diet and deliver valuable rewards for heart health. Keep in mind, not all grains are created equal and nutritional benefits vary depending on the type of grain. For instance, refined or processed grains are the ones to have in moderation as they have fewer nutritional benefits compared to whole grains, which are more nutrient dense. Processed grains are milled to a finer texture, which extends shelf life, but reduces the fiber, iron and B vitamins in the process. Whole grains contain all three parts of the original grain: the bran, the germ and the endosperm. These layers encompass a plant-based source of several vitamins, antioxidants, phytochemicals and heart healthy fats.
Whole grains are also packed with fiber. Fiber is a carbohydrate that the body cannot completely break down. Fiber helps to lower cholesterol levels and reduce chronic inflammation – two biomarkers directly linked to heart disease. Inflammation is a risk for high blood pressure and atherosclerosis (the hardening and narrowing of blood vessels). Studies have found that individuals who consumed at least four portions of whole grains every day had a decreased risk of heart disease.
Furthermore, whole grains contain heart healthy micronutrients such as zinc, magnesium, potassium and B vitamins. Zinc is a crucial component in preserving the cells in our bodies, which can help improve cardiac function. Intake of magnesium and/or potassium-rich foods has been shown to potentially help lower blood pressure (i.e. prevent or help treat hypertension). One particular B vitamin whole grains are rich in is niacin. Niacin has shown in several studies that it is an effective treatment for dyslipidemias (elevated lipids in blood), which lowers the risk of heart disease.
As you can see, whole grains have a diverse blend of health benefits. The USDA recommends about half our grain intake come from whole grains. Common grains you can cook with everyday include quinoa, brown rice, whole wheat and oats. Here are some additional heart healthy grains that you may be less familiar with:
Bulgur is also known as “cracked wheat” and is akin to rice or couscous but has a slightly different texture. Popular in Middle Eastern cuisine, bulgur can be used in salads (i.e. tabbouleh), pilafs, porridge, soups, stews and chili. It is low in fat and has been shown to lower inflammation, support healthy blood sugar control and improve gut health.
Millet (gluten-free) is a grain that has been consumed for thousands of years. It can be used to make porridge, soups, breads or stuffing, or it can be ground into flour. Millet is rich in polyphenols, an antioxidant that can protect cells against damage from free radicals and contribute to the prevention of certain chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Rye is a member of the wheat family and comes in several forms such as light, medium, dark, rye meal and pumpernickel. Opt for for dark rye meal and pumpernickel, which are whole grains. It can be ground into flour to make bread and baked goods or used as a breakfast cereal.
Buckwheat (gluten-free) is a "pseudocereal" because it is actually a seed but is used in similar ways to grain cereals. It has a deep, earthy and nutty flavor making it tasty in pancakes, noodles, granola, risotto or in a porridge. In just 3.5 ounces of raw buckwheat there are 13.3 grams of protein and 10 grams of fiber!
Spelt is an amazing grain that was a staple food in Ancient Rome. It is slightly sweeter and nuttier than wheat flour, so it is a good substitute in baked goods. It can also be a hearty addition to stuffing, soups, salads and pilafs. An added bonus – spelt is also helpful for bone health because it contains minerals such as zinc, magnesium, copper, phosphorus and selenium.
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Written by: Kristin Repella, Wellness Workdays Dietetic Intern.