New Study Puts Refined Grains And Heart Health Belief Into Question

It's safe to say that many folks are probably trying to eat a little healthier. Per The Food Institute, 30% of U.S. consumers said they are regularly and deliberately choosing healthier food options this year than last year. When you think about incorporating a "healthy diet" like the other 30%, foods like avocados and almonds might come to mind. Refined grains, on the other hand, are probably closer to the bottom of the list.

According to the USDA, "refined grains" such as white flour, white rice, and white bread, are grains that have been milled. During the milling process, it says, the naturally-occurring bran and germ are stripped to extend the grain's shelf life and create a finer texture. But, in doing so, milling also strips the grain of its fibers, B vitamins, and iron. That sounds like a dietary no-no, right? Turns out... maybe not.

A 2019 study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association examined nearly 44,000 U.S. consumers from 1999 to 2016 and found that their scores on a "100-point Healthy Eating Index" improved during that time — and it specifically credited a large part of that success to "higher intakes of high-quality carbohydrates (such as whole grains)." But, now, according to one recent study, those refined grains we've been told to stay away from might not be so dangerous, after all. Think you know all about a heart-healthy diet? Think again. This new study puts refined grain and heart health beliefs into question.

Refined grains aren't to blame

Once linked to the development of multiple chronic diseases, a 2022 study in the journal "Trends in Cardiovascular Medicine," found "no association" between eating refined grains and an increased risk of type 2 diabetes (per Food Business News). The study reportedly only used data that had already been collected from existing research. Dr. Glenn Gaesser, the primary researcher behind the study and professor at the University of Arizona, explains the study look at existing research so that refined grain consumption could be examined as an isolated category and not as part of a broader diet. Ultimately, Dr. Gaesser concluded that it's not refined grain that's affecting people's health; it's the other stuff that comes with it. 

"Refined grains are included as part of an unhealthy, or Western, dietary pattern, which has been shown to be associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease," writes Gaesser. But, he says, refined grains themselves aren't to blame; accessory ingredients in the "Western" diet like excess butter, fats, or sugars might be the culprits here. Any increased perceived risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, or heart failure previously associated with eating refined grains is likely a confounding variable that should be attributed to other foods common in an "unhealthy" diet — of which refined grains are often a large part. So, just like having a healthy snack between meals, eating refined grains might be part of maintaining a healthy, sustainable, balanced diet.