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Wholegrain-rich diet lifeline for struggling health systems, experts say –

The promotion of a diet rich in whole grains should play a crucial part in strategies designed to safeguard struggling healthcare systems, experts have stressed, emphasising their role in preventing major non-communicable diseases.

The COVID-19 pandemic left global healthcare systems reeling – and, between the rise of superbugs and ageing populations, pressures are unlikely to ease on the health sector any time soon.

This leaves a big question mark over ways to ensure the economic viability of healthcare systems in the future.

For Janne Martikainen, health economist and professor of pharmacoeconomics at the University of Eastern Finland, the key is to emphasise preventative measures more strongly.

“If we want to increase the sustainability of healthcare systems globally, we need to move from treatment to prevention, it’s quite clear,” he stressed in a recent event, championing the need to focus on a holistic approach which factors in the true costs of care.

And according to experts, the answer to this could partly lie in our diet – specifically, in the consumption of whole grains.

Whole grains ‘key part of a healthy diet’

In an interview with EURACTIV, Michaela Pichler, secretary-general of the International Association for Cereal Science and Technology (ICC), spoke about the importance of whole grains, but also about the lack of industry standards, labelling and promotion of whole grain foods.

Whole grains are any type of grain that has not been refined, and instead retains and includes the entire kernel. These types of grains are more nutrient-dense than refined grains and offer a host of environmental and health benefits, panellists said. 

Despite strong evidence pointing to the health benefits of whole grains, their uptake across the EU remains low. 

The EU’s flagship food policy, the Farm to Fork strategy, highlights that while consumption of red meat, sugars, salt and fats continues to exceed recommendations, consumption of whole-grain cereals is ‘insufficient’.

“We need a solution to increase the sustainability of healthcare systems, and whole grains are one solution for that,” Martikainen said, stressing that they hold “great potential to support the sustainability of the healthcare system”.

This is because the rich nutritional value of whole grains has been found to help lower the risk of major non-communicable diseases, they explained. 

“Based on the evidence that we know, when we increase the wholegrain intake, we are able to reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases, type two diabetes and certain types of cancers,” Martikainen said.

Likewise, Roberto Volpe, medical researcher and representative of the Italian Society for Cardiovascular Prevention (SIPREC) at the European Heart Network (EHN) pointed to a recent meta-analysis which concluded that only an additional 50 grams per 1000 kilocalories of whole grains per day were found to reduce cardiovascular mortality by up to 20% and cancer mortality by 12% cancer mortality around 12%.

“Just with a spoon of whole grain, we could fight so many diseases,” he stressed.

Meanwhile, Kelly LeBlanc, director of nutrition at the Whole Grains Council, added that because whole grains are more nutrient-dense, they give us a “bigger nutritional bang for our buck.”

This is good news both for environmental and human health, she pointed out.

“So when we’re trying to decide how to maximise every parcel of land for the greatest nutritional outcome, prioritising whole grains is a no-brainer, as they help us better meet our nutrient needs,” she concluded. 

And, thanks to the relative cheapness of whole grains, this is also a solution that works globally, according to Saskia De Pee, chief analytics for science for food and nutrition at the World Food Programme (WFP).

Pointing out that as many as three billion people worldwide cannot afford a healthy diet, De Pee stressed that fortifying staple foodstuffs can be a cost-effective and culturally appropriate way to ensure the worlds poorest have access to healthy and diverse diets.

“There are some really beautiful examples from around the world of whole grains,” she said, citing historical examples from India and Ethiopia and stressing the need to encourage communities to return to traditional eating patterns to increase the consumption of whole grains. 

[Edited by Gerardo Fortuna/Alice Taylor]

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