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Just about everyone is trying to eat more whole grains these days, but it can be confusing because food labels don’t list whole-grain content alongside carbohydrates, fat, and protein.

Should you choose whole-wheat bread or Wonder Whole-Grain White bread? Should we buy our kids a sugary cereal, like Count Chocula, “with whole grain guaranteed” on its label?

It is complicated, but that doesn’t mean we should abandon efforts to replace processed white bread, pasta, and bagels with barley, brown rice, and whole-wheat breads and pastas. In fact, a new Harvard School of Public Health study offers fresh reasons to stick with it. That project, which involved 118,000 health professionals, found that those who ate nearly two servings a day of whole grains had a 9 percent lower risk of dying from any cause and a 15 percent lower risk of dying from heart disease over 25 years compared with those who ate less than a serving.

“The current recommendation is that people eat three 28-gram servings a day of whole grains, and our study participants didn’t even eat that much and still had associated health benefits,” said study co-author Dr. Qi Sun, an assistant professor of medicine at the Harvard School of Public Health.

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Replacing foods made with refined white flour with fiber-rich whole-grain varieties likely confers health benefits because intact grains — that retain their bran, endosperm, and germ — have more nutrients and take the body longer to digest, which helps prevent unhealthy spikes in blood sugar levels.

Some nutrition experts, however, say advice to get more whole grains may be overly simplified. “The term whole grain is one of the most confusing areas in nutrition today,” said Dr. David Ludwig, director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Boston Children’s Hospital. “Are we talking about sugary breakfast cereals advertised as containing whole grains or traditional whole grains like brown rice, wheat berries and steel-cut oats?”

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In a 2013 study, Ludwig and his colleagues found that processed foods with a whole-grain stamp on the label tended to contain more fiber but also more calories and sugar than those without it.

While Ludwig won’t quibble with those who eat slow-cooked oatmeal for breakfast or make their sandwiches on dark rye, he said we could improve our health even more by substituting refined carbohydrates with fruits, vegetables, beans, and nuts, which tend to have even more nutrients than whole grains.

deborah kotz


Deborah Kotz can be reached at Deborah.Kotz@gmail.com