What’s the big deal about whole grains?

Weekly Trust - - Health - Judd-Leonard Okafor, with We­bMD

Some be­hav­iours are im­por­tant: drink enough wa­ter, get enough sleep, eat fresh fruits and veg­eta­bles. We un­der­stand why these three may be. But there is a fourth that’s less un­der­stood: eat whole grains.

Stud­ies have demon­strated a raft of ben­e­fits as­so­ci­ated with con­sum­ing higher lev­els of whole grains; they seem to pro­tect against chronic dis­eases and re­duce the risk of all-cause mor­tal­ity.

Di­ets that are rich in whole grains have also been shown to re­duce risk fac­tors re­lated to dis­eases of the heart and blood ves­sels and help main­tain a healthy weight.

Sci­en­tists at Univer­sity of Eastern Fin­land in Kuo­pio are get­ting to the bot­tom of the molec­u­lar mech­a­nisms be­hind whole grains’ health ben­e­fits.

“Whole grains are one of the health­i­est foods there is. For in­stance, we know that a high in­take of whole grains pro­tects against type 2 di­a­betes and car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­eases,” says prin­ci­pal in­ves­ti­ga­tor Dr. Kati Han­hineva.

“Up un­til now, how­ever, we haven’t un­der­stood the cel­lu­lar mech­a­nisms through which a whole grain-rich diet im­pacts our body.”

The re­cent study looked at the ef­fects of a grain-heavy diet on both mice and hu­mans, and the new find­ings were pub­lished re­cently in The Amer­i­can Jour­nal of Clin­i­cal Nutri­tion.

Af­ter par­tic­i­pants had eaten higher lev­els of whole grains for 12 weeks, the re­searchers car­ried out a metabolomics anal­y­sis. Metabolomics is the study of chem­i­cal pro­cesses in­volv­ing me­tab­o­lites, which are small mol­e­cules formed by and dur­ing meta­bolic pro­cesses.

The re­searchers were par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in be­taine, a group of com­pounds that has a range of bi­o­log­i­cal func­tions. Whole grains are an im­por­tant di­etary source of be­taine com­pounds, and the re­searchers had a hunch that they might help ex­plain whole grains’ health­ful ben­e­fits.

As ex­pected, their anal­y­sis demon­strated a sig­nif­i­cant in­crease in be­taine com­pounds fol­low­ing the 12-week whole grain diet; this boost in lev­els was mea­sured in both mice and hu­mans. Ac­cord­ing to Dr. Han­hineva, “This is the first time many of these be­taine com­pounds were ob­served in the hu­man body in the first place.”

The in­ves­ti­ga­tors dis­cov­ered a cor­re­la­tion be­tween higher be­taine com­pound lev­els and im­proved glu­cose me­tab­o­lism. Some of these com­pounds seemed to be more heav­ily in­volved than oth­ers.

“Pipecolic acid be­taine, for ex­am­ple, is par­tic­u­larly in­ter­est­ing. In­creased lev­els of pipecolic acid be­taine af­ter the con­sump­tion of whole grains was, among other things, as­so­ci­ated with lower post-meal glu­cose lev­els,” ex­plains Han­hineva.

In a fol­low-up ex­per­i­ment, the team tested cer­tain be­taine com­pounds on cells in the lab­o­ra­tory. In par­tic­u­lar, they were in­ter­ested in 5-amino­va­leric acid be­taine (5-AVAB), which is known to ac­cu­mu­late in par­tic­u­larly ac­tive tis­sues, such as cardiac tis­sue.

The find­ings from this part of the study might also prove use­ful for car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease re­search.

“We ob­served that 5-AVAB re­duces car­diomy­ocytes’ use of fatty acids as a source of en­ergy by in­hibit­ing the func­tion of a cer­tain cell mem­brane pro­tein.”

This is in­ter­est­ing be­cause some cardiac drugs have a sim­i­lar ef­fect. How­ever, the team is cau­tious to avoid draw­ing con­clu­sions be­fore fur­ther stud­ies are car­ried out in an­i­mals.

But it is im­por­tant to note the re­search hasn’t pro­ceeded be­yond cell-level ex­per­i­ments yet.

Over­all, the find­ings sig­nif­i­cantly in­crease our un­der­stand­ing of the mech­a­nisms in­volved in whole grains’ health ben­e­fits. They also open up new ques­tions that will need an­swers.

“In the fu­ture, we seek to an­a­lyze in greater de­tail the mul­ti­tude of ef­fects these new com­pounds can have on the hu­man body,” ex­plains Han­hineva, “we will also look into how in­testi­nal mi­crobes pos­si­bly con­trib­ute to the for­ma­tion of these com­pounds.”

Un­rav­el­ing the in­ter­ac­tions in­volved in any meta­bolic path­way is in­cred­i­bly chal­leng­ing. It is there­fore likely to be some time be­fore we have a clear pic­ture of the im­pact that be­taine com­pounds have on or­gans, sys­tems, and dis­eases.

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