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Fitness Glossary


Cereals And Wholegrain Foods

Humans have been enjoying grain foods for at least the past 10,000 years. Grain foods, which include cereals, are dietary staples for many cultures around the world. Current research around the world is discovering the many and varied health benefits that cereal foods can offer, particularly in reducing the risk of diseases such as coronary heart disease and breast or colon cancers. Common cereal foods include bread, breakfast cereals, cereal grains (such as oats, rice and barley), crackers, flours and pasta.

Nutritional content of cereals
Cereals provide a rich source of many essential vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals. The typical cereal food is:

  • Low in fat
  • Cholesterol free
  • High in both soluble and insoluble fibre
  • An excellent source of carbohydrates
  • A significant source of protein
  • A good source of vitamins E and B-complex
  • A good source of many minerals - such as iron, magnesium, phosphorus and zinc.

    A host of protective chemicals
    Wholegrain cereals contain many different phytochemicals that researchers have linked to significant health benefits. These phytochemicals include:

  • Lignans - a phytoestrogen that can lower the risk of coronary heart disease, and regress or slow cancers in animals.
  • Phytic acid - reduces the glycaemic index of food, which is important for people with diabetes, and helps protect against the development of cancer cells in the colon
  • Saponins, phytosterols, squalene, oryzanol and tocotrienols - have been found to lower blood cholesterol.
  • Phenolic compounds - have antioxidant effects.

    Coronary heart disease
    Cereal fibre offers greater protection against the risk of heart attack than the fibre from fruits and vegetables. A heart attack is almost always preceded by a condition called coronary heart disease. Over the years, fatty deposits or 'plaques' build up inside one or both of the coronary arteries (atherosclerosis). This constant silting narrows the artery, until a blood clot blocks the passage of blood altogether. Too much blood cholesterol contributes to atherosclerosis. Regularly eating cereals that are rich in soluble fibre, such as oats and psyllium, has been found to significantly reduce the amount of cholesterol circulating in the bloodstream. Eating just 3gm of soluble fibre from oatbran lowers the blood cholesterol by as much as two per cent.

    There is evidence that eating foods that are slowly digested and high in soluble fibre might reduce the risk of developing non-insulin dependent diabetes, by reducing the need for large quantities of insulin to be released into the bloodstream. Cereal fibre has been shown to be particularly protective against this condition. It is preferable for diabetics to consume wholegrain cereal products rather than refined cereals, due to the higher glycaemic index of refined cereal products.

    People who are obese tend to have energy-dense diets. High fibre foods, such as wholegrain breads and cereals, can be an effective part of any weight loss program. They take longer to digest and create a feeling of fullness, which discourages overeating. They also help to lower the energy density of the diet. Cereals are also naturally low in fat.

    Constipation and diverticular disease
    High fibre foods, such as wholegrain cereal products, increase movement of food through the digestive tract. The result is increased stool bulk, softer, larger stools and more frequent bowel action. This increased bowel action provides a good environment for beneficial bacteria, while at the same time decreasing levels of destructive bacteria. A high fibre diet including both soluble and insoluble fibre has been associated with decreased risk of colon cancer and diverticular disease.

    Other health benefits
    There are many health benefits that have been linked to a diet high in grain foods, for example:

  • A reduced risk of many different types of cancers, including those of the colon, stomach and breast.
  • A strengthened immune system, because wholegrain cereals are high in vitamin E, zinc and certain phytochemicals.
  • A reduction in the incidence of rectal polyps, particularly if oatbran is eaten regularly.
  • Protection against the development of diverticular disease, which is characterised by herniated pockets in the intestines.

    Too many refined cereals pose health risks
    When a cereal is processed to remove the bran and wheat germ, many of the vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals are lost. The refined cereal, such as white flour, generally has a higher glycaemic index than its wholegrain counterpart. This means that consuming refined cereals causes a sharp rise in blood sugars, demanding a strong response from the pancreas.

    A diet full of high glycaemic index foods has been linked to the development of diabetes. Studies have also found that people who eat large amounts of refined cereals do so at the expense of more nutritious foods like fruits and vegetables. This increases the risk of certain diseases, such as some types of cancer.

    Things to remember:
    Cereals and wholegrain foods can reduce the risk of developing certain diseases, including coronary heart disease, colon cancer, diabetes and diverticular disease.

    A high intake of refined cereals has been linked to diabetes and some types of cancer.

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