Eating whole grains may help dodge serious disease

Barley, bulgur, whole wheat and brown rice have been linked to a lower risk of several illnesses, including type 2 diabetes.

Dave Yasvinski 4 minute read October 26, 2021
diabetes whole grain foods

While cutting out grains is trendy, whole grains actually have a lot of health benefits, including a decrease in diabetes risk. (Getty)

A steady diet of whole grain foods can significantly decrease the prevalence of type 2 diabetes and reduce the economic burden of patient care, according to a Finnish study.

The work, published in the journal Nutrients, builds on previous research linking consumption of whole grain foods — such as barley, bulgur, whole wheat and brown rice — to a lower risk of several diseases and highlights the economic and health benefits associated with a nutritious diet. “Our study shows that one serving of full grains as part of the daily diet reduces the incidence of type 2 diabetes at the population level and, consequently, the direct diabetes-related costs, when compared to people who do not eat whole grain foods on a daily basis,” said Janne Martikainen, one of the authors of the study from the University of Eastern Finland.

“Over the next 10 years, society’s potential to achieve cost savings would be from 300 million euros ($430 million) to almost one billion euros ($1.4 billion) in current value, depending on the presumed proportion of whole grain foods in the daily diet. On the level of individuals, this means more healthier years.”

Roughly 2.3 million Canadians were living with diabetes as of 2017, according to Statistics Canada. There are two main forms of the disease: Type 1 and Type 2. Type 1 is an autoimmune disease that usually develops in childhood in which the body attacks the pancreas, preventing it from producing its own insulin. Type 2 diabetes, which accounts for 90 to 95 per cent of cases, occurs when a patient’s body either does not produce enough insulin or is unable to properly use the insulin it does produce. This form of the disease usually manifests in adulthood and while it can be managed through diet and exercise, insulin therapy is often required.

There are more people living with diabetes in Ontario than anywhere else in Canada: the rates of both type 1 and type 2 have risen by 42 per cent in the province in just over a decade. In addition to increasing the risk of conditions such as heart disease, stroke and kidney disease, diabetes can also reduce quality of life through the daily management of symptoms. The national economic burden of treating the disease was $30-billion in 2019, an increase of $14-billion since 2009.

Healthy nutrition is one of the best ways to prevent or manage type 2 diabetes, with previous research touting the benefits of eating avocados and walnuts and steering clear of dietary programs that restrict whole grain intake, such as the always trendy keto diet. According to researchers, tackling type 2 diabetes — one of the fastest-growing diseases in the world — is a lot easier when you’re eating the right foods, no matter how unappealing they may seem to some.

“According to nutrition recommendations, at least three to six servings of whole grain foods should be eaten daily, depending on an individual’s energy requirement,” said Jaana Lindstrom, another author of the work and a research manager at the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare. “One third of Finns do not eat even one dose of whole grains on a daily basis, and two-thirds have a too low fibre intake.”

The study arrived at its results by comparing national health data and dietary patterns in Finland to the prevalence of type 2 diabetes, laying bare the benefits of eating better on not just patients, but the population at large. “By combining population-level data on the incidence of type 2 diabetes and the costs of its treatment, as well as published evidence on the effects of how consumption of whole grain foods reduces the incidence of type 2 diabetes, we were able to assess the potential health and economic benefits from both social and individual viewpoints,” Martikainen said.

Dave Yasvinski is a writer with