Calling all carb fans! Here's what you need to know.

Karla Walsh; Reviewed by Jessica Ball, M.S., RD
July 15, 2021
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File this news under "the best thing since sliced bread": Yes, you can eat carbs and be healthy. In fact, a specific kind might just be the best ingredient in the overall recipe for a heart-healthy diet.

Eating more whole grains is linked to lower risk for cardiovascular disease, and new research proves that people who consume more whole grains can also reduce heart health risk factors before they develop into more severe disease. (These risk factors and early signs include waist circumference, blood pressure, blood sugar, plus levels of fasting high-density lipoprotein "good" cholesterol and triglycerides, by the way. You can read more about that here.)

This is no small slice of news, considering heart disease is both the leading cause of death worldwide, per the World Health Organization (WHO), and the cause of one in every four deaths in the U.S. according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

To lower heart disease risk the CDC recommends to stop smoking (or ideally never start), maintain a weight near the "normal" for your height and keep active. What you eat plays a major role in your overall risk profile as well. A healthy diet loaded with fruit, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, fish, vegetable oil and poultry can reduce heart disease risk by one-third, according to a 2015 study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

But which of these foods are the best of the best for lowering the chances of developing heart disease in the first place?

That's what a new study in the Journal of Nutrition set out to determine. The researchers drew on data from the "Offspring Cohort" of the Framingham Heart Study, a long-term study conducted by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). This cohort shared medical history and shared physical exam reports about every four years from 1971 to 2014. Starting in 1991, they also offered diet-related details. After excluding those with diabetes at the start and anyone who didn't share nutrition info, the scientists were left to dive into data from 3,121 individuals.

Those who ate the least whole grains reported, on average, a 1-inch waist larger circumference every four years. Those who ate the most whole grains averaged about ½-inch increase, plus smaller increases in blood pressure and blood sugar.

"Our findings suggest that eating whole grain foods as part of a healthy diet delivers health benefits beyond just helping us lose or maintain weight as we age. In fact, these data suggest that people who eat more whole grains are better able to maintain their blood sugar and blood pressure over time. Managing these risk factors as we age may help to protect against heart disease," Nicola McKeown, Ph.D., senior and corresponding author of the study, and a scientist on the Nutritional Epidemiology Team at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University tells Medical News Today.

So what makes whole grains so stellar—and what makes them different from any ol' grain?

"The presence of dietary fiber in whole grains can have a satiating effect, and the magnesium, potassium and antioxidants may contribute to lowering blood pressure. Soluble fiber, in particular, may have a beneficial effect on post-meal blood sugar spikes," Caleigh Sawicki, Ph.D., M.P.H., who contributed to the study as part of her doctoral dissertation at Tufts adds in the Medical News Today recap. "Our research is contributing to the vast amount of observational data to show that higher intake of whole grains is linked to improved health. But there is still a lot we don't know about the mechanisms behind how whole grains may influence health...It might be the fiber in whole grain, or it might be one of many other nutrients or polyphenols—or all of them working together!"

The difference between whole grains and refined grains is that whole grains contain all three parts of the grain: the bran, the germ and the endosperm, explains Jessica Ball, M.S., RD, assistant nutrition editor for EatingWell.

"The bran is where most of the fiber comes from, the germ holds the majority of the nutrients and endosperm holds the simple carbs that help the plant have energy to grow. To make refined or 'white' grains, the bran and germ are removed, which leaves you with all of the simple, quick-burning carbs and not much of the nutrients or fiber. Fiber is crucial for everything from gut health to blood sugar control, heart health and more," Ball says. (ICYMI, here's a deeper dive into whole grains and why they're so important.)

Whole grains are also great sources of B vitamins, which help our cells metabolize energy and function at their best. The fiber and nutrients in whole grains team up to slow down their digestion so we can utilize as much energy as possible, unlike refined grains, which are quickly digested. This can lead to an energy spike and crash instead of sustained energy.

The MyPlate guidelines recommend making at least half of your grain intake from whole grains. This means that if you eat six servings of grains per day, at least three should be from whole grains. One serving of grain equates to:

  • 1 slice of bread
  • ½ cup of cooked grains or pasta
  • 3 cups of popcorn
  • ⅓ cup of crackers

A ½ cup of oatmeal in the morning, a mid-afternoon snack on 3 cups of popcorn and ½ cup of brown rice or whole grain pasta with dinner will get you to your goal, Ball says.

"The average American consumes about five servings of refined grains daily, much more than is recommended, so it is important to think about ways to replace refined grains with whole grains throughout your day. For example, you might consider a bowl of whole-grain cereal instead of a white flour bagel for breakfast and replacing refined grain snacks, entrées and side dishes with whole-grain options. Small incremental changes in your diet to increase whole grain intake will make a difference over time," Dr. McKeown adds.

To make those changes a reality, Ball suggests thinking about how these shifts can fit within your current meal plan.

"Try swapping whole grains into meals you already enjoy to help boost your intake. For example, serve brown rice on the side of a stir-fry or curry. Buy whole-grain pastas and breads instead of white bread or refined grain pasta when you are at the store," she says.

Get inspired to start tonight by whipping up one of these 27 low-calorie dinners with whole grains.