Promoting a diet rich in whole grains should play a crucial role in strategies designed to protect strained health care systems, experts stressed, emphasizing their role in the prevention of major non-communicable diseases.
The COVID-19 pandemic has sent global healthcare systems reeling – and between the rise of superbugs and an aging population, the pressure on the healthcare sector is unlikely to ease anytime soon.
This leaves a big question mark about how to ensure the economic viability of healthcare systems in the future.
For Janne Martikainen, a health economist and professor of pharmacoeconomics at the University of Eastern Finland, the key is to emphasize preventive measures more strongly.
“If we want to increase the resilience of health systems globally, we need to move from treatment to prevention, that much is clear,” he stressed at a recent event, defending the need to focus on a holistic approach that takes into account the real costs of care .
And according to experts, the answer to that may lie in part in our diet—specifically, in our consumption of whole grains.
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 multiple environmental and health benefits, the panelists said.
Despite strong evidence pointing to the health benefits of whole grains, their uptake in 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 fat continues to exceed recommendations, consumption of whole grains is “inadequate”.
“We need a solution to increase the resilience of health care systems, and whole grains are one solution for that,” Martikainen said, stressing that they hold “great potential for maintaining the resilience of the health care system.”
That’s because the rich nutritional value of whole grains has been found to help reduce the risk of major noncommunicable diseases, they explained.
“Based on the evidence we know, when we increase our intake of whole grains, we can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, type two diabetes and some cancers,” Martikainen said.
Similarly, Roberto Volpe, medical researcher and representative of the Italian Society for Cardiovascular Prevention (SIPREC) in the European Heart Network (EHN) pointed to a recent meta-analysis that concluded that just an additional 50 grams per 1000 kilocalories of whole grains per day is found to reduce cardiovascular disease mortality by up to 20% and cancer mortality by 12%, cancer mortality by about 12%.
“With just one spoonful of whole grains, we could fight so many diseases,” he stressed.
Meanwhile, Kelly LeBlanc, director of nutrition at the Whole Foods Council, added that because whole grains are more nutrient-dense, they give us “more nutritional value for our money.”
This is good news for both the environment and human health, she pointed out.
“So when we’re trying to decide how to maximize each plot of land for the best nutritional outcome, prioritizing whole grains is a no-brainer because they help us better meet our nutrient needs,” she concluded. .
And thanks to the relative cheapness of whole grains, it’s also a solution that works globally, according to Saskia De Pee, principal analyst for food science and nutrition at the World Food Program (WFP).
Noting that more than three billion people around the world cannot afford a healthy diet, De Pee stressed that fortification of staple foods can be a cost-effective and culturally appropriate way to ensure that the world’s poorest have access to healthy and varied diets.
“There are some really beautiful examples from around the world of whole grains,” she said, citing historical examples from India and Ethiopia and emphasizing the need to encourage communities to return to traditional eating patterns to increase consumption of whole grains.
[Edited by Gerardo Fortuna/Alice Taylor]