Promoting a diet rich in whole grains should play a crucial role in strategies designed to protect struggling health care systems, experts have stressed, stressing their role in preventing major non-communicable diseases.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken global healthcare systems – and between the rise of superbugs and aging populations, pressure on the health sector is unlikely to ease anytime soon.
This leaves a big question mark about ways to ensure the economic viability of health care systems in the future.
For Janne Martikainen, 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 sustainability of health care systems worldwide, we have to move from treatment to prevention, this is very clear,” he emphasized in a recent event, emphasizing the need to focus on a holistic approach that addresses the real costs of care.
And according to experts, the answer to this may partly lie in our diet – specifically in the consumption of whole grains.
Whole grain is 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, panelists said.
Despite strong evidence pointing to the health benefits of whole grains, uptake remains low in the EU.
The EU’s flagship food policy, the Farm to Fork Strategy, highlights that while consumption of red meat, sugars, salt and fats still exceeds recommendations, consumption of whole grains is ‘inadequate’.
“We need a solution to increase the sustainability of healthcare systems, and whole grains are one solution for that,” said Martikainen, stressing that they have “great potential to support the sustainability of the healthcare system”.
That’s because the rich nutritional value of whole grains has been found to help lower the risk of major noncommunicable diseases, they explained.
“Based on the evidence we know, when we increase whole grain intake, we are able to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, type two diabetes and certain types of cancers,” Martikainen said.
Similarly, 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 that concluded that only an additional 50 grams per 1000 kilocalories of whole grains per day have been found to reduce cardiovascular mortality by up to 20% and cancer mortality by 12% cancer mortality by approximately 12%.
“Just with a spoonful of whole grains we can fight so many diseases,” he stressed.
Meanwhile, Kelly LeBlanc, director of nutrition at the Whole Grain Council, added that because whole grains are more nutrient dense, they give us a “greater nutritional bang for our buck.”
This is good news for both the environment and human health, she pointed out.
“So when trying to decide how to maximize each piece of land for the greatest nutritional outcome, prioritizing whole grains is a no-brainer as it helps us better meet our nutritional 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, lead analyst for science for food and nutrition at the World Food Program (WFP).
Pointing out that as many as three billion people worldwide cannot afford a healthy diet, De Pee emphasized that fortifying staple foods could be a cost-effective and culturally appropriate way to ensure that the world’s poorest have access to healthy and have diverse diets.
“There are some very 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 reduce the consumption of increase whole grains.
[Edited by Gerardo Fortuna/Alice Taylor]