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“Whole grains can help fight the belly fat that’s linked to heart disease and diabetes, according to Tufts researchers, while refined grains like white bread and pasta can cancel out those benefits.” Tufts Health & Nutrition Letter (February, 2011)

Whole Grains Fight Abdominal Fat

Eat grains or don’t eat grains? That’s the question being discussed in some fitness forums. A new study by Nicola McKeown, PhD, and colleagues in the Nutritional Epidemiology Program at Tufts University may help settle the dispute. The more practical question may be what kind of grain to eat, rather than whether to eat it. For many people, perhaps most, grain in some form adds substantially to eating pleasure. (Think sandwich without bread or breakfast without cereal or beans without rice.)

Whole grains consist of intact, ground, cracked or flaked fruit of the grains, whose principal components—the starchy endosperm, germ and bran—are present in the same relative proportions as they exist in the intact grain, the Tufts researchers explained. Refined grains, on the other hand, have the outer bran and inner germ milled away; they are nutritionally inferior and calorie dense. White bread, pasta, pizza, pancakes, and processed breakfast cereal are examples of refined grains.

Earlier studies have shown that people tend to gain significantly less weight over time if they consume on average 3 or more serving of whole grains each day. Whole-grain eaters also generally have smaller waistlines. The distribution of the belly fat, however, has not been reported. “Few studies have considered how dietary modification may alter body composition independent of changes in overall weight,” McKeown’s team wrote. For example, are deep or surface pockets of fat altered?

McKeown and colleagues used computed tomography to examine the relationship of whole- and refined-grain consumption and abdominal fat distribution. This is important because the deep belly fat in and around internal organs is more toxic than surface fat. (Cosmetically speaking, both are problematic.)

Using data from the renowned Framingham Heart Study, the Tufts team analyzed food-frequency questionnaires and abdominal fat distribution for 2,834 men and women, ages 32 to 83. Comparing grain intake with subcutaneous abdominal fat (fat under the skin) and visceral fat (deep belly fat), they found that people who ate three or more daily serving of whole grains—and less than one serving of refined grains—averaged 10% less deep belly fat, compared with those eating almost no whole grains. Eating more whole grains was also associated with less subcutaneous abdominal fat, while people eating more refined grains accumulated more subcutaneous abdominal fat. (The association based on grain type is greater with deep visceral fat.)

Calories the Same

Importantly, the study adjusted for calorie intake. Calorie intake was leveled out for those eating whole and refined grains. The critical variable was the kind of grain consumed; calorie intake was the same. Participants who ate mostly whole grains had less abdominal fat (visceral and subcutaneous) than those eating refined grain. Being absorbed more slowly, whole grains are apparently less likely to be deposited as belly fat (especially visceral).

Some of the problems with refined grains (there may be more) are detailed in the report: “The properties of refined grains (for example, the high glycemic index and low dietary fiber) may alter adipose tissue physiology, influence fuel partitioning (favoring storage over oxidation), and increase appetite.” In short, refined grains are absorbed faster and are more likely to be stored (as deep fat) than burned. They are also less satisfying, leaving you hungry sooner. (Under normal circumstances, we are inclined to eat more refined grains. Refined grains make us fat in the wrong places--and in sum total.)

Substitution Key

The other key point is that consuming whole grains won’t reduce belly fat—unless you also cut back on refined grains. “This result implies that it is important to make substitutions in diet, rather than simply adding whole grain foods,” Dr. McKeown emphasized.

The precise mechanism or mechanisms by which whole- and refined-grains influence regional fat distribution require further study, the Tufts researchers concluded. We don’t have all the answers, but we’re getting there.

(The Tufts study appears in the November, 2010, issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.)

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To actually see your abs, of course, you must exercise and eat slightly less than you burn over time. Whole grains aid the process, while refined grains make it harder.

Intact grains do the job best. Oat groats, kamut, hulled barley and other intact grains form the cornerstone of my breakfast; they also illustrated my whole food eating philosophy. My favorite bread is another example. It's made with sprouted grains, no flour. For the nitty-gritty on this bread and shopping for bread, see The Art of Choosing Bread http://www.cbass.com/Bread.htm .

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