The importance of eating at least three servings of whole grains is becoming clearer and more widely publicized. Research shows that whole grains do much more than help clean the digestive tract. Yet surveys suggest that Americans still eat no more than a single serving a day. Consumers seem unaware of the range of benefits whole grains offer and may have difficulty identifying them in stores. Price, familiarity and perceived palatability may also deter shoppers.

A recently discovered benefit should help win wide acceptance. Research now points to whole grains as a part of sensible weight control. Women who ate more whole-grain foods weighed less and gained less weight over the course of a recent 12-year study than those who consumed less whole grains. Another study found that the average annual increase in waist measurements of "white bread" eaters was more than three times higher than that of "healthy" eaters, who ate more whole grains and other healthful foods. Whole grains may aid weight control by causing less elevation in the hormone insulin, which promotes fat storage. Furthermore, whole grains satisfy hunger for longer periods than refined grains do.

The benefits extend far beyond weight control. Whole grains may improve your overall health. During a recent 11-year study, greater whole-grain consumption was linked with lower death and heart disease rates. In Norway, whole-grain consumption led to a 25 to 35 percent lower mortality rate, even after adjusting for the better eating and lifestyle habits of whole-grain eaters. In the U.S., men who ate one or more servings of whole-grain breakfast cereal had 17 percent fewer deaths than those who rarely or never ate them. The influence of weight, tobacco avoidance, exercise and other healthy habits was taken into consideration. Eating refined-grain cereals did not reduce risk.

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The death rate reduction associated with greater consumption of whole grains apparently comes from decreases in both heart disease and cancer rates. The protection against heart disease may stem from whole grains� antioxidant vitamins and phytochemicals, fiber, trace minerals or other kinds of phytochemicals. The cancer protection may derive from the fermentation of fiber and certain starches inside whole grains in the colon. The fermented substances may block the cancer-promoting effects of bile acids. Other substances in whole grains may affect hormone levels and the risk of hormonally-related cancers. While there is no strong impact on breast cancer risk, whole grains are linked to 10 to 60 percent drops in endometrial (uterine) cancer and 37 to 40 percent drops in ovarian cancer.

Unfortunately, many consumers don�t seem aware of the significant differences between whole grains and refined grains. People looking for a whole-grain eating adventure can add bulgur, quinoa, kasha and other uncommon whole grains to their diet. But switching to higher-fiber whole grain cereals for breakfast or snacks is an easy, great idea. Whole grain pasta and quick-cooking brown rice are other good choices, readily available. Picking up whole-grain bread should be an automatic choice. Just remember to check the label, not the color of the bread.