Study warns that almost a fifth of us still not eating any whole grains

Experts at Newcastle University are calling for the introduction of guidelines around the amount of whole grains we should be eating after it was revealed almost one in five of us are not eating any at all.

The findings, published today in the British Journal of Nutrition, led by Professor Chris Seal and PhD student Kay Mann – are calling for the introduction of recommended daily amounts of whole grain similar to the US and Denmark show that 70 per cent of us are not eating the minimum recommended levels of whole grains – equivalent to three slices of wholemeal bread – for them to have a beneficial effect on our health. Higher whole grain intake has been linked to lower body weight, BMI and cholesterol levels and there is strong evidence they reduce the risk of several chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers.

Analysing data obtained through the National Diet and Nutrition Survey 2008-2011, the Newcastle University team show that people eating higher levels of whole grain also have a ‘less stressed’ immune system, with a lower white blood cell count and lower levels of C-reactive protein – or CRP – which is a marker of inflammation and ‘a body under stress’.

“The first UK public advice around the benefits of whole grains was published in 2007* but what our research shows is that since then very little has changed,” says Kay.

“The amount of whole grain we eat in the UK is still very low – an average of around 20g a day – compared with Denmark where the average daily intake is around 55g.

“In the UK, we tend to eat a lot of white bread, rice, pasta and cereals and lots of processed foods, all of which have no – or very little – whole grain in them and also tend to be higher in fat and sugar.  Also, because the refined foods are less filling we tend to eat more of them.

“So not only are we missing out on the benefits of the whole grains, the alternative is having an additional negative effect on our health.”

Chris Seal, Professor of Food and Human Nutrition, adds: “The key message here is that this doesn’t require a major lifestyle change.  Just small tweaks to the diet – such as replacing white rice and pasta for brown or eating porridge for breakfast – can have a major impact on your health.

“And we aren’t talking about huge amounts either – three slices of wholemeal bread is all you need to get your daily amount of whole grain and a large bowl of whole wheat pasta is equivalent to two days-worth.

“In Denmark levels of whole grain intake have risen by 72 per cent following a campaign promoting their recommended daily guidelines and we’d like to see a similar commitment here in the UK.”

How much whole grain do we need to eat?

Whole grains are defined as the ‘intact, ground, cracked or flaked kernel after the removal of the inedible parts such as the hull and husk’.

In the US, the recommended daily intake is defined as ‘at least 3-5 servings a day’, where a serving is 16g, and in Denmark they go further to suggest a ‘minimum intake of 75g a day’.

This is equivalent to:

  • 3 slices of wholemeal bread
  • A bowl of porridge or wholegrain breakfast cereal and a slice of wholemeal toast
  • A portion of whole grain rice/pasta/quinoa or other whole grains

Using data from the UK National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS), the team analysed the whole grain intake of 3,073 children, teenagers and adults. The findings show that only six per cent of children and 17 per cent of adults in the UK are eating the minimum recommended daily amounts of whole grains, which include oats, brown rice and whole wheat. They found the average intake was 20g per day for adults and only 13g per day for children and teenagers.  More than 40 per cent of adults and 60 per cent of children ate less than 16g a day, and many ate none at all. The study also showed lower levels of C-reactive protein (20 per cent less) and white blood cells (14 per cent less) in adults who ate the ‘recommended’ amount of whole grains. People who ate more whole grains were also eating up to 7g more dietary fibre per day and had a higher intake of key vitamins and minerals. They were also found to be eating less salt.

“People who eat a diet high in whole grains tend to have a healthier lifestyle overall and factors such as exercise, diet and smoking which all impact on an individual’s overall health and wellbeing,” says Professor Seal.

“However, the higher fibre and nutrient content of wholegrain foods compared with foods made from refined carbohydrates are significantly beneficial.”

Kay adds: “There’s still some confusion around whole grains and this is likely to be affecting the amount people eat. For example, some breads are coloured brown to make them appear more healthy, and seeded and malted loaves are often made from white flour with the bits added in afterwards.

“What we need is clearer information for consumers about what constitutes a whole grain and how much they need to be eating every day.”

Low whole grain intake in the UK: results from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey rolling programme 2008-2011. Mann, Pearce, McKevith, Thielecke and Seal

Read the full article: Whole grain intake and its association with intakes of other foods, nutrients and markers of health in the National Diet and Nutrition Survey rolling programme 2008-2011. Mann, Pearce,
McKevith, Thielecke and Seal until 21st May

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