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Cindy Explains the Oldways View on Refined Grains

April 24, 2009

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Alison’s Edit: This picture is semi-irrelevant to this post, but look how awesome it is!

Here at Oldways, one of the most popular questions we receive is Why does Oldways, the parent company of The Whole Grains Council, advise people to eat ‘mostly whole grains’? Why not tell people to eat “ONLY whole grains”? It’s a great question, and Cynthia Harriman (Director of Food and Nutrition Strategies) is here to explain the Oldways view:


We’re big proponents of whole grains here — I personally spend most of my time running the Whole Grains Council, and my own diet is 98% whole grains (100% in theory, but then there’s always that cupcake at a friend’s birthday, etc.).

However, the Med Diet Pyramid is based on scientific evidence, not just our gut convictions about what is healthy! So, let me digress with a bit of history.

When research first started on the Mediterranean Diet after WWII, with Ancel Keys’ 7 Country Study, the positive health outcomes were based on people eating a traditional diet that included some mid-20th-century foods like refined pasta. So the message was : “Here’s what’s in the diet, here’s what we’ve found about health outcomes of people who eat this way as compared to people who eat other ways.”

The Med Diet has usually been studied as a totality, as above. So we can’t take out one element (such as grains) and say, “Yeah, but wouldn’t these people be even HEALTHIER if they ate a Med diet and switched out the refined grains for whole grains?” Logic tells us this might be true, but we can’t just say it, unless there’s research that demonstrates it.

In recent years, several scientists have done just that — included “whole grain” as one of the elements in several Med Diet studies, and found that those who ate more whole grain along with the other elements of a Mediterranean Diet did enjoy better health outcomes. It was on the basis of this research that our scientific advisory committee recommended making a stronger stand on whole grains in the new pyramid. Why didn’t they (and we!) specify all whole grain? Because there is as yet no one who’s done research showing outcomes of people who make all their grains whole.

I asked Walter Willett, at the Harvard School of Public Health, this very question a few years ago: “What do we know about the health of people who don’t eat any refined grains?” And he told me, “We don’t know anything about them. There are never enough of them in any study to be statistically valid.”

I hope this helps to explain our decision to say “grains (mostly whole)” in the new Med Pyramid.  Always feel free to ask us questions, and let us know if you would like some references to the recent studies that included whole grains in their overall assessments of Med Diet health outcomes.

– Cindy

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