Wholegrain Foods


Foods considered “grains” are defined as the edible seeds of plants which belong to the grass family, and include wheat, oats, rye, barley, rice and maize. Though they do not fit the specific definition, buckwheat and flax are also generally considered grain foods. Grain foods generally contribute the highest portion of “complex” carbohydrates to the average diet. This food group also referred to as “cereals”, are well known to make up the largest portion of most food pyramids, largely because they are rich sources of carbohydrate, the body’s preferred fuel source. Unfortunately however, many people may fail to realise that the recommended high intake of cereal foods proposed by the healthy eating pyramids, refers to that of wholegrain foods, as apposed to refined grains. [1]

The anatomy of the grain consists of an outer layer referred to as the “bran”, a middle layer called the “endosperm” which makes up the majority of the grains mass, and a small inner portion called the “germ”. Wholegrain foods/cereals are made using the entire grain. Such foods include wholemeal bread, brown pasta, brown rice etc. (Oats and Rye are generally always made using the “whole-grain”) During the milling process, the outer “bran” layer is stripped, leaving only the inner layers. This happens in the production of “refined grain” foods/cereals, such as white bread, white rice, white pasta etc. Unfortunately however, the bran is a very rich source of a plethora of vitamins, minerals, fibres, sterols, phytates, lignans, antioxidant phenolic compounds and other beneficial phytochemicals such as avenanthramides and avenalumic acid. [2]

The endosperm however contains relatively poor levels of these substances, instead being rich in starch (complex carbohydrate). Consequently, foods made from refined grains have an overall higher carbohydrate content and lower levels of the beneficial substances lost during the refining process. Furthermore, they have a higher Glycemic Index (GI) and Glycemic Load; references which describe the rate at which carbohydrates are broken down into sugars and released into the blood stream. [3,4]

As a result, population-based studies have found that the risk of developing diabetes and cardiovascular disease (heart disease and stroke) [5] among people with higher intakes of refined grains is significantly increased. Additionally, studies have also revealed significantly lower risks of developing these diseases [6,7] as well as various cancers [8] and other chronic health problems [9] among people whose wholegrain intakes are higher (generally about 3 serves per day). Unfortunately, whilst the average daily cereal/grain intake among adults is estimated to be approx 6-7 serves per day, the average daily wholegrain intake is no greater than 1 serve per day, [10,11] and even less in children and teenagers. [12]

This article reviews and discusses the results of population based studies which have examined the correlation between wholegrain intake and chronic disease, as well as briefly outlining some of the mechanisms thought to be responsible for these effects.

Sub Headings:

* Wholegrain Foods and Cancer: Epidemiology

* Chemo-protective mechanisms of wholegrain foods

* Wholegrain foods and cardiovascular disease: Epidemiology

* Cardio-protective mechanisms of wholegrain foods

*Wholegrain foods and Diabetes: Epidemiology

* What is Diabetes, insulin and the Glycaemic Index (G.I.)

* Wholegrains, G.I, G.L and insulin resistance

* References

Wholegrain Foods and Cancer: Epidemiology

It has been suspected that wholegrain / cereal fibre consumption may prevent colon cancer since it was identified as the only protective food among men in 38 countries in a study published in 1984. [13] More recent evidence has supported this theory as well, however new evidence suggests a protective effect on various cancers.

In 1995, professor of epidemiology at the University of Minnesota , Dr David Jacobs and his colleagues reviewed 14 case-control and prospective studies which examined the association between wholegrain intake and the risk of digestive cancers. [14] They reported that these studies found:

“…… a striking consistency in reduced risk for colorectal and gastric cancers associated with intake of whole grain, also found in isolated studies of endometrial cancer and coronary heart disease 

In 1998, Prof Jacobs and colleagues expanded their review to investigate the association between wholegrain consumption and the risk of other cancers not included in the previous paper. They reviewed 40 case-control studies of 20 different cancers, nearly all of which reported a protective association. Together, these studies compared the diets of over fourteen and a half thousand cancer patients (cases), with over 35 thousand cancer-free people (controls). When the results were pooled together, they showed that compared with lower intakes, higher consumption of wholegrain foods decreased the risk of all cancers by an average of 31%. When they removed several unreliable studies with design or reporting flaws, the results found a 34% protection among all cancers. Specifically, the results found that preference for wholemeal bread over white bread reduced the risk of cancer by 33%, that more frequent intake of whole grains reduced the risk by 49%, and that even consuming 1 wholegrain serving per day reduced the risk by 22%. [14]

Table 1: Results from Case-Control Studies Reviewed by Jacobs et al (1988) [14]

Colon Cancer

Reference, Year & CountryNumber of CasesNumber of ControlsFoodRisk: High vs Low Intake
[15] 1992, Italy123699Wholegrain Bread30% Reduced Risk
[16] 1988, Belgium4382,851Wholegrain Bread21% Reduced Risk
[17] 1988, Italy339778Wholegrain Bread & Pasta28% Reduced Risk
[18] 1997, USA1,9932,410Wholegrain Foods20% Reduced Risk

Rectal Cancer

Reference, Year & CountryNumber of CasesNumber of ControlsFoodRisk: High vs Low Intake
[15] 1992, Italy125699Wholegrain Bread70% Reduced Risk
[16] 1988, Belgium3652,851Wholegrain Bread22% Reduced Risk
[17] 1988, Italy236778Wholegrain Bread & Pasta12% Reduced RIsk

Colorectal Cancer

( Studies which did not distinguish between the two )

Reference, Year & CountryNumber of CasesNumber of ControlsFoodRisk: High vs Low Intake
[19] 1989, USA147147Wholegrain Bread32% Reduced Risk
[20] 1994, Italy119119Wholemeal Bread3% Increased Risk
[21] 1984, USA86176WholegrainsColon =48% IR, Rectal = 39% RR

Gastric Cancer

Reference, Year & CountryNumber of CasesNumber of ControlsFoodRisk: High vs Low Intake
[22] 1990, USA137137Wholegrain Bread56% Reduced Risk
[23] 1987, Italy206474Wholegrain Bread & Pasta60% Reduced Risk
[24] 1992, Belgium4493,524Wholemeal Bread38% Reduced Risk
[25] 1991, Germany143579Wholemeal Bread63% Reduced Risk
[26] 1993, Sweden338679Wholemeal Bread30% Reduced Risk
[27] 1991, Poland741741Non-White Bread38% Reduced Risk
[28] 1985, Greece110100Brown Bread69% Reduced Risk

Pancreatic Cancer

Reference, Year & CountryNumber of CasesNumber of ControlsFoodRisk: High vs Low Intake
[29] 1989, USA212220Whole wheat Bread56% Reduced Risk
[30] 1985, USA201402Wholegrain BreadNo Difference
[31]1986, USA490490Wholegrain Bread30% Reduced Risk
[32] 1991, Netherlands164480High Fibre Cereal Foods16% Reduced Risk

Breast Cancer

Reference, Year & CountryNumber of CasesNumber of ControlsFoodRisk: High vs Low Intake
[33] 1987, Italy1,1081,281Wholegrain Bread & Pasta10% Reduced Risk
[34] 1993, Switzerland107318Wholegrain Bread & Pasta40% Reduced Risk

Brain Cancer

Ref, Year & CountryNumber of CasesNumber of ControlsFoodRisk: High vs Low Intake
[35] 1994, Australia416406Wholegrain CerealsWholegrain BreadWholegrain Pasta14% IR (f) 34% RR (m)32% IR (f) 46% RR (m)49% IR (f) 40% RR (m)
[36] 1993, Germany206418Brown Bread40% Decreased Risk

Endometrial Cancer

Ref, Year & CountryNumber of CasesNumber of ControlsFoodRisk: High vs Low Intake
[37]1993, Switzerland274572Wholegrain Bread & Pasta57% Reduced Risk
[38] 1986, Italy206206Wholegrain Bread & Pasta39% Reduced Risk
[39] 1990, USA332511Wholegrain CerealsWholegrain Foods41% Reduced Risk35% Reduced Risk

Oral Cancers

Ref, Year & CountryNumber of CasesNumber of ControlsFoodRisk: High vs Low Intake
[40] 1992, Italy102 Tongue104 Mouth726Wholegrain Bread & Pasta90% Reduced Risk50% Reduced Risk
[41] 1988, USA871 oral/ pharynx979Whole-wheat Bread30% RR (m) 50% RR (f)
[42] 1984 USA227 oral/pharynx405Wholegrain Bread & Cereal30% Reduced Risk
[43] 1988, USA275 esophagus275Wholegrain Bread29% Reduced Risk
[44] 1999 Italy110 larynx843Whole-meal Bread & Pasta40% Reduced Risk
[45] 1987 Italy105 esophagus348Wholegrain Bread & Pasta80% Reduced Risk


Ref, Year & CountryNumber of CasesNumber of ControlsFoodRisk: High vs Low Intake
[46] 1989, Italy208 non-Hodgkins401Wholegrain Bread & Pasta56% Reduced Risk 
[47] 1997 Italy158 Hodgkins429 non-Hodgkins141 myelomas101 soft tissue1,157Wholegrain foods40% Reduced Risk60% Reduced Risk50% Reduced Risk80% Reduced Risk

Other Cancers

Ref, Year & CountryCancerNumber of CasesNumber of ControlsFoodRisk: High vs Low Intake
[48] 1991 ItalySoft Tissue Sarcoma88610Wholegrain Bread & Pasta60% Reduced Risk
[49] 1987 ItalyOvarian Cancer4551,385Wholegrain Bread & Pasta37% Reduced Risk
[50] 1988 ItalyLiver Cancer1511051Wholegrain Bread & Pasta42% Reduced Risk
[51] 1992 ItalyProstate271685Whole-meal Bread10% Reduced Risk
[52] 1991 ItalyThyroid385798Wholegrain Bread & Pasta40% Reduced Risk
[53] 1989 ItalyBladder163181Wholegrain Bread & Pasta54% Reduced Risk

Subsequent case-control studies have also reported significantly protective effects of wholegrain consumption against the risk of oral, oesophageal and laryngeal cancer. [54,55]

Several prospective cohort studies have also found that higher intakes of whole grain foods are protective against certain cancers. The results of a recent cohort study in Sweden which followed 61,433 women for nearly 15 years, found that higher intake (4.5 serves per day) of whole grain food reduced the risk of colon cancer by 33% compared with lower intakes (<1.5 serves per day). [56]

Wholegrain intake was also found to be protective against stomach cancer in the Cancer Prevention Study (CPS) II which followed 1.2 million American men and women over 14 years. After age adjustments, moderate and high wholegrain intake reduced the risk by 13 and 23% respectively in men, whilst in women, a higher intake reduced the risk by 17%; however these findings were less significant after multivariate adjustments. [57] No association between whole grains and stomach cancer was found in a smaller cohort called the 7 countries study in Europe, [58] however this study did find a strong inverse relationship with colorectal cancer and total dietary fibre, which wholegrain foods contributed to more that any other single food group. This study found that an increase of 10 grams of daily fibre intake was associated with a 33% lower 25-year colorectal-cancer mortality risk. [59]

The Cancer Prevention Study II Nutrition cohort also found that after age adjustment, 11 or more serves/per of week of wholegrain foods decreased the risk of colon cancer in men by 29%, and between 8-11 serves per week decreased the risk by 25% in women, however after multivariate adjustments, these findings were less significant. [60]

Wholegrain intake was shown to decrease the risk of endometrial cancer by 37% in a cohort following 23,014 women in Iowa for 12 years; however this association was only found among women who had never used Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) [61] This same cohort study found a 17% lower rate in all causes of death among women who consumed the most wholegrain fibre (4.7g/day).[62]

Chemo-protective Mechanisms of Wholegrain Foods

Wholegrain foods are especially rich sources of a plethora of important nutrients and beneficial anti-nutrients and non-nutrients such as B vitamins, vitamin E, Magnesium, selenium, soluble and insoluble fibre, plant sterols, lignans and other phytoestrogens, phytic acid, protease inhibitors, hemagglutinins, tannins, phenolic compounds and various other phytochemicals.

The following table [click to enlarge] lists some of the beneficial effects from various components found in wholegrain foods. The table was taken from a paper published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition by Professor Joanne Slavin and her colleagues at the university of Minnesota . [63]

Although they are a particularly rich source of these substances, many of which have been found have anti-cancer effects in animal studies, [64-71] wholegrain foods seem to afford protection that has not been found by any of these individual, isolated ingredients.[63] Consequently, ensuring adequate wholegrain intake from a variety of sources would be far more protective than simply looking to identify specific “nutritional magic bullets” so to speak. [72]

There are several theories on why whole grains may protect against cancer, other than being rich sources of these beneficial substances. Because of their complex nature, it has been suggested that there may be many potential mechanisms responsible for the protective properties of whole grain foods, including their ability to bind carcinogens, thus limiting their absorption or contact with the intestinal lining. [73]

One prominent theory to explain their protective effect on colon cancer is due to their fibre content. High fibre foods tend to speed the passage of stools through the colon, thus decreasing the amount of time that any potentially carcinogenic substances would have to be exposed to the colon wall. This decrease in transit is especially true for insoluble fibre, such as that found in wheat bran. [74]

Another possible mechanism may be the effect that fermented fibre has on bile acids Fermented fibres tend to increase the acidity of the colon which inhibits primary bile acids from converting to secondary bile acids. This is thought to be significant because these secondary bile acids may promote cell proliferation, which would enhance the ability for mutations to occur and for tumour cells to replicate; thus allowing cancers to spread. Furthermore, a particular product of fermented fibre is a short chain fatty acid called butyrate, which has been found to protect against colon cancer in laboratory studies. [75]

An inverse association has been found between fibre intake, particularly from cereal/ grain foods, and the risk of colon cancer in population studies. One of the most evident associations was found in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC), which examined the incidence of bowel cancer among half a million Europeans, and found fibre, particularly cereal fibre to be protective. [76]

The Wheat Bran Fiber Study however found no difference in the reoccurrence of colon polyps in 1,429 men who were given either a high wheat bran fiber cereal supplement (13.5 grams of fiber in 2/3 cup cereal per day) or a low wheat bran fiber cereal supplement (2 grams of fiber in 2/3 cup cereal per day) for 3 years. [77]

There have been several criticisms of this study however. The first is that it examined colon polyps, not malignant cancer. Polyps may or may not become cancerous, but this study did not prove that wheat bran could not prevent cancer altogether. The second problem was that it involved men who were already at a high risk, as they had already been found to have colon polyps. Consequently, there may have still been some abnormal tissue remaining in their colon to begin with. Therefore, it does not prove that a more protective effect may have been found among people with healthy colon tissue to begin with. Thirdly, 13.5 grams of fiber may not have necessarily been adequate, as the results from population studies such as EPIC have found fibre intakes in excess of 30g/day to offer the most protection. Furthermore, the men in this trial were given “cups” of wheat bran. Presumably, this meant that the bran was finely ground; however finely ground wheat bran does not have the same stool-bulking effect that course wheat bran does, even at the same dosage, [78] which suggests that the particle size of the whole grain is an important factor in determining the physiologic effect. [79] Another problem was that it lasted only 3 years, whereas the protective effect seen in population studies has been consumption of high fibre diets over many years, between 6-12. Lastly, this study only examined one specific food (wheat bran) as apposed to a variety of fibrous foods. Although wheat bran has been shown to be the most protective fibre source in animal studies [80] the anti-cancer effect of whole grains may come from components other than that found solely in wheat bran.

Wholegrain Foods and Cardiovascular Disease: Epidemiology

Whole grains are among the foods most proven to decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease according to epidemiological investigations. Several large cohort studies have found that intakes of approximately 3 serves per day or more have a significantly protective effect.

Results from the Adventist Health Study revealed that among the 31 thousand adults involved, the risk of non fatal and fatal heart disease was 44% and 11% lower respectively among those who usually consumed whole wheat bread. [81] Similarly, every 10-g increase in cereal fiber per day decreased the risk of heart attacks in the U.S. Male health professionals study which followed 43,757 older men for 6 years.[82]

The Iowa Womens Health Study followed 34,492 postmenopausal women for 9 years after which time 438 had died from heart disease. Consuming 1.2 servings of wholegrain food per day was associated with a 29% reduced risk whilst 1.9 servings decreased the risk by 36%. [83] An inverse association between wholegrain intake and heart disease was also found in the Nurses Health Study which recorded 761 cases of CHD throughout the 10 years that 75,521 women were studied. The results demonstrated a 25% reduction in CHD risk among women who consumed 3 wholegrain servings per day.[84]

After following 16,933 men and 16,915 women for over 11 years, The Norwegian County Study recorded a 25% reduction in the risk of heart disease among those who consumed 9 slices (5.4 servings) of wholegrain bread per day compared with those who consumed only 1 or less sliced pre day. [85]

Compared with those who rarely or never consumed whole-grain cereal, men whose intake was greater than or equal to 1 serving per day, had a 17% lower risk of death from all causes and a 20% lower risk of death from Cardiovascular Disease (Both CHD and Stroke) in a 5 and a half year long cohort study of 86,190 US male physicians aged between 40 – 84 years. [86] In fact, wholegrain intake has also been found to decrease the risk of ischemic stroke in several population-based studies.

Among the 15, 792 adults followed for 11 years in the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) cohort, those whose daily wholegrain intake was 1.5 servings had an 11%, 27% and 13% lower risk of ischemic stroke, coronary artery disease and all cause mortality respectively, whilst 3 serves per day decreased the risk by 28%, 25% and 23% respectively. [87] In the Nurses Health Study, an average daily intake of 3 servings of whole grains reduced the risk of ischemic stroke by 31% among the 75,521 US women aged 38 to 63 years studied for 12 years. [88] In a similar cohort of over 71,768 women, compared with the typical “Western” diet high in red and processed meats, refined grains and desserts, diets characterized by higher intakes of fruits, vegetables, legumes, fish, and whole grains reduced the risk of all strokes by 22% and ischemic strokes by 26%.[89]

A daily cereal fibre intake of 6.3g or more decreased the risk of cardiovascular disease by 21% in an 8-year long cohort that studied 3,588 American men and women aged 65 years. [90] The authors also noted that

“… higher cereal fiber intake was associated with lower risk of total stroke and ischemic stroke and a trend toward lower risk of ischemic heart disease death .”

Cardio-protective Mechanisms of Wholegrain Foods

It is not entirely certain how wholegrain foods exert their protective effect on the cardiovascular system, however there are several theories which include the fact that they are a rich source of beneficial nutrients and non-nutrient substances such as Folate, tocotrienols (a form of Vitamin E), Magnesium, Potassium, Selenium, and certain phenolic phytochemicals, all of which are associated with a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease. [91]

Whole grains such as wheat bran also possess significant antioxidant activity, due to their considerable phenolic content. In the colon, bacterial enzymes release these phenolic acids thus allowing them to be absorbed, offering antioxidant protection. [92] Plant sterols such as beta-sitosterol are another component of whole grains, which are known to be able to lower serum cholesterol levels by inhibiting cholesterol absorption in the gut. [93,94]

Oats in particular, can improve gastro-intestinal function, improve glucose metabolism, [95] and are rich in a substance called beta-glucan, which reduces serum cholesterol levels. [96] Consumption of barley was also found to reduce total cholesterol, LDL-Cholesterol and triglyceride levels as well as increase HLD “good” cholesterol levels, in a recent trial conducted by researchers at the United States Department of Agriculture. [97]

Furthermore, whole grains are especially high in dietary fibre, resistant starches and oligosaccharides, which are fermented by bacteria in the gut to produce short chain fatty acids which are also known to lower cholesterol synthesis in the liver, [98] thus improving serum cholesterol levels. [99]

Other than their antioxidant and hypocholesterolaemic characteristics, wholegrain foods provide a good source of both macronutrients (such as carbohydrate and protein) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) with a relatively low Glycemic Index (GI) and a low Glycaemic Load ( which is [the GI of a food multiplied by the amount of carbohydrate] ÷ 100), thus improving insulin function. Diets with a low GL are associated with a reduction in the risk of heart disease and diabetes. [100]

Wholegrain foods and Diabetes: Epidemiology

In 2000, researchers from the University of Minnesota published the results of the Iowa Women’s Health Study; a prospective cohort which studied the diets of nearly 36 thousand women between 55 and 69 years old, all of whom were initially free of diabetes. Throughout a 6 year follow up, 1,141 of these women had been diagnosed with diabetes. After studying their dietary intakes, it was found that wholegrain intake was inversely related to the risk of diabetes; that is, the greater the wholegrain intake, the lower the risk. There were 21% fewer cases of diabetes among those who consumed the most wholegrain foods (3 serves or more per day) compared to those who consumed the least. This study also found that total dietary fibre as well as dietary magnesium had a protective association. [101]

In the same year, researchers at the Harvard Medical School published the results of another cohort study which followed 75,521 women for 10 years, after which time 1,879 cases of diabetes were reported. Once again, wholegrain consumption decreased the risk of diabetes. Compared to those who had the least wholegrain intake, a higher intake reduced the risk by 38%. This study also found that a high intake of refined-grain cereals increased the risk by 31%. Moreover, those who had the highest ratio of refined grain to wholegrain intake had a 57% greater risk. These associations were particularly strong among overweight women. This study found no protective association between total fibre, magnesium or vitamin E intake. [102]

Similar results were obtained in a more recently published cohort study which followed both men and women for 10 years, after which time a 35% reduction in the risk of diabetes was observed among those with a higher wholegrain intake. [103]

A higher whole-grain intake was associated with a 42% reduced risk of diabetes in the Health Professionals follow-up study, which had followed almost 43 thousand men, 1,197 of whom were diagnosed as diabetic throughout the 12 years they were studied. [104]

What is Diabetes, Insulin and the Glycaemic Index?

Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancrease which allows glucose in the blood to be taken up by the bodies’ cells and used for energy, as well as preventing blood glucose levels from rising too high. The most common form of diabetes, accounting for approximately 85% of all cases, [105] is Type II, also known as “late” or “adult onset diabetes”. In Type II diabetes, the pancreas produces insulin, however the insulin does not function properly. This leads to excessively high levels of glucose in the blood, which, over a long period of time, can lead to a multitude of serious health problems such as an increase in the risk of heart disease, stroke, glaucoma & blindness, as well as amputations [106] and even a reduced lifespan. [107] The risk increases progressively with age, in fact it is thought that in excess of 20% of the population aged over 60 have type II diabetes [108].

When we eat, depending on what we eat, our blood glucose levels will rise over a period of 1-2 hours, before falling again back to normal levels. In diabetics, glucose levels are abnormally high to begin with (fasting levels), rise way too far upon food consumption, and take longer than normal to return to fasting levels again. [109]

High fasting glucose levels are often an indicator of diabetes, however a more accurate diagnosis can be made by monitoring the rise of glucose after a high glucose meal/drink, and then monitoring how long it takes to return to fasting levels; a test known as a “ glucose tolerance test ”.

If we consumed a food high in pure glucose, our blood glucose levels would rise very sharply, peak, and then plummet very rapidly. The rise and fall of blood glucose levels that occurs after a specific reference glucose intake, was given a score of 100 on the “glycaemic index”. [110] The glycaemic index values of other foods, were then given a number that correspond to how similar their effect is on blood glucose by comparison with this reference intake. [111]

For example, certain foods such as white bread, potatoes and a lot of “junk foods” cause our blood insulin to rise sharply, similar to the way in which the glucose reference value does, because once they are in our gut, we absorb their sugars very quickly. These foods are said to have a high Glycaemic Index, or high “GI”. [112]

Other foods such as nuts, legumes and oats, release their energy very slowly, so that our blood glucose rise slowly, and fall slowly. These foods are said to have a low GI. Foods with a GI value of about 70 or higher, are generally considered high. Those with a GI of around 40 or lower are generally considered low, whilst those in between are considered moderate. More importantly however is the GI of the entire meal. For example, if you combined a high GI food such as white rice, with a low GI foods such as legumes, the GI of the entire meal would be somewhere in between.

Additionally, another important issue is the “Glycaemic Load” (GL), which is an indicator of glucose response or insulin demand that is induced by total carbohydrate intake. It is calculated by multiplying the GI of a food/meal, by the total number of carbohydrates, and then dividing that number by 100. [113]

The problem with high GI foods is not only that they provide only very short lasting energy followed by rapid declines, but they put a lot of strain so to speak, on our insulin. When our glucose levels “spike”, or rise very rapidly, our insulin has to work extra hard to try to modulate blood levels. If this happens constantly, it is thought that our insulin can start to become resistant. This decline in the ability of insulin to function properly may lead to type II diabetes.

One of the most prominent causes of insulin resistance is having excess body fat, which is why obesity is the most serious risk factor for developing diabetes. [114] Furthermore, obese type II diabetics who lose weight and maintain a healthy body weight can generally gain far better control over their condition, and expect a decrease in the risk of many of the more severe complications associated with the disease. [115]

Other than obesity, is the most strongly correlated risk factor for developing insulin resistance is a diet with a relatively high GI and more importantly, a high GL. [116] The importance of the GL is the ability to obtain adequate carbohydrate without having a high GI. For example, foods such as lean meat may have a low GI, but we need adequate sources of carbohydrate as well, which meat does not provide. Refined grain foods such as white bread are a good source of carbohydrate; however they have a very high GI. Foods such as whole grains however also provide a good source of carbohydrate, but do so without the high GI; thus they have a favourable GL. Therefore, obtaining our primary source of carbohydrates through whole grains (which provide excellent sources of other nutrients as well) ensures adequate intake without the high GI. This is important because low GL diets are associated with a decreased risk of heart disease and type II diabetes, as a low GL diet provides enough energy without causing insulin resistance. Several important studies have confirmed that whole-grain intake may prevent diabetes by protection against insulin resistance. [117]

Whole grains, GI, GL & Insulin Resistance

In a randomized crossover trial conducted by the Harvard Medical School in 2002, insulin levels were significantly improved in overweight insulin resistant adults who consumed a wholegrain rich diet compared to those receiving a refined-grain rich diet, even though both contained the same percentage of fat and carbohydrate. [118]

These findings were supported by the results of the Framingham Offspring study, which revealed that wholegrain intake was inversely associated with fasting insulin levels among 2, 941 people. Furthermore, wholegrain intake was also inversely associated with body mass index (BMI), waist-to-hip ratio, Total Cholesterol (TC) and LDL “bad” cholesterol – all factors known to increase the risk of diabetes, as well as heart disease. These results shed further insight into the mechanisms by which wholegrain intake protects against diabetes. [119]

In 1997, researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health published the results of a prospective study which followed 42,759 men aged 40-75 years who were free of diabetes of cardiovascular disease to begin with. During 6-years of follow-up, 523 of these men had been diagnosed with type II diabetes. An analysis of their diets revealed that even after multivariate adjustments, compared to lower GI diets, those with the highest GI diets had a 37% greater risk of diabetes. Moreover, those with the greatest cereal fibre intake had 30% reduction in risk. [120]

The same researchers published the results of another prospective cohort study which followed 65, 173 US women, 915 of which were diagnosed with diabetes throughout the 6 year follow up. Once again, high GI diets increased the risk by 37%. Moreover, high GL diets increased the risk by 47%, whilst higher cereal fibre intakes decreased the risk by 28%. Most importantly, the combination of a high GL and a low cereal fiber intake increased the risk by a massive 150%. [121] More recently, the results of a cohort study following 91, 249 younger women for 8 years found a 59% greater risk for developing diabetes among those with a higher GI diet, whereas higher intakes of cereal fibre decreased the risk by 36%. [122]

The most recent study to support these findings found a 32% greater risk among the 31,641 men and women followed for 4 years who had the highest GI diets, despite greater intakes of total carbohydrates having a decreased risk. Higher intakes of white bread and other starchy foods however increased the risk by 37% and 47% respectively. [123]

It is commonly thought that foods containing “complex” carbohydrates or starches, are good and produce slow burning energy, whilst food with “simple carbohydrates” or sugars, have the opposite effect and increase the risk of diabetes. This is often not the case, as we can see in the case of foods such refined grains which have a very high GI, despite being high in complex carbohydrates. [124] Conversely, some foods high in sugars such as fruit and fruit juices, actually have a relatively low GI as they contain soluble fibres that delay the release of sugar into the blood.

This is a table which compares the GI and GL values of a variety of common Australian foods, particularly those which may cause confusion due their relatively high carbohydrate levels. Full list of the International Table of Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load Values can be downloaded here: http://www.ajcn.org/cgi/content/full/76/1/5/T1

Table derived from: http://www.biohealthinfo.com/html/resources/articles/article_archive/fatbelly.html

I’d like to thank the following people who contributed towards helping me write this article by supplying input and or data. Your assistance is much appreciated.

Dr David Jacobs – Professor of Epidemiology: University of Minnesota

Dr Joanne Slavin – Professor of Nutrition: University of Minnesota


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