With heart disease claiming a large majority of the total lives lost each year, there exists the need for constant awareness of how our lifestyle affects our hearts’ health. One of the most effective ways of making our hearts healthier is through our diet. A major contributor to the development of heart disease is the presence of refined grains in our diet.

What are refined grains?

Chances are if you regularly eat breakfast cereal or sandwiches, you’re taking in refined grains. According to the USDA, refined and processed grains are stripped of their healthy parts, called the germ and the bran. These are the parts that supply fiber, phytochemicals, and other healthy components. The fiber, especially, may help lower cholesterol and prevent heart disease, as well as help prevent diabetes and obesity. The part leftover after processing, called the endosperm, contains carbohydrates. Foods made with refined grains cause a large spike in blood sugar as opposed to foods made with whole grains. Refined and processed grains usually contained several added ingredients as well, such as sweeteners and preservatives, which can have negative impacts on your health.

brananatomyComponents of whole grain, at a glance.

The bran and germ of grain, which contain concentrated amounts of fiber, vitamins and minerals, are removed during the refining process of grain. During manufacturing, different nutrients are added back into to the refined grains, but not to the extent that the nutritional value is near what it originally was. Furthermore, fiber is generally not found in these “enriched” grains.

How do I know if my food is made from whole grains or refined grains?

Trying to decipher between all of the different options for grains can be confusing. Labels such as “whole wheat,” “multi-grain,” and “enriched,” all seem to indicate a healthy choice. But many of these labels you see are not regulated and can therefore be misleading. enrichednopeThe USDA recommends the best way to check if your bread or other grain product is made from whole grains is to read the ingredients list. If one of the first ingredients is a whole-grain, then the product is likely 100 percent whole grain. If one of the first ingredients has the word “enriched” or “refined,” it is made from processed grains. This is true for bread, cereals, tortillas, and most other grain-based products.

What if I am eating mostly refined grains?

The USDA recommends that at least half of all grains you consume be whole grains. A publication from Harvard medical school on heart health suggests that it would be preferable to eat no refined grains at all. If you discover that most of the grains you eat are not whole grain, it is not necessary or practical to make complete changes to your diet. It’s okay to enjoy a bowl of sugary cereal or a slice of pie once in a while. Instead of completely cutting out any refined or processed grains, try substituting one of your regularly consumed items made from refined grains with a whole-grain product. For example, if you pack a cold-cut sandwich for work every day and use white bread, consider switching to whole grain bread.

Adopting healthy eating habits is a relatively easy and quick way of making changes towards a healthier heart. Although changes of any sort come with an adjustment period, you will learn to appreciate your food and how it affects your body as you commit to taking better care of your heart.

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