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A large bowl of porridge each day may protect against death from cancer, the biggest ever analysis of the benefits of whole grains has shown.
Oats have long been considered a super-food, staving off illnesses like diabetes and heart disease.
But now a major review by Harvard University has found that whole grains also seem to prevent early death and lower the chance of dying from cancer.
A meta-analysis of 12 studies involving nearly 800,000 people found that eating 70 grams of whole grains a day – the equivalent of a large bowl of porridge – lowers the risk of all-cause death by 22 percent and death from cancer by 20 percent.
It also reduces the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease by 20 percent.
Scientists believe that whole grains help lower cholesterol and help regulate blood sugar, as well as keeping people full for longer, meaning they don't snack on unhealthy foods. The same effect could be gained eating bran, quinoa or a mix of grains.
Whole grains, where the bran and germ remain, contain 25 percent more protein than refined grains, such as those that make white flour, pasta and white rice.
Previous studies have shown that whole grains can boost bone mineral density, lower blood pressure, promote healthy gut bacteria and reduce the risk of diabetes.
One particular fibre found only in oats – called beta-glucan – has been found to lower cholesterol which can help to protect against heart disease. A bioactive compound called avenanthramide is also thought to stop fat forming in the arteries, preventing heart attacks and strokes.
Whole grains are also widely recommended in many dietary guidelines because they contain high levels of nutrients like zinc, copper, manganese, iron and thiamine. They are also believed to boost levels of antioxidants which combat free-radicals which are linked to cancer.
The new research suggests that if more people switched to whole grains, thousands of lives could be saved each year. Cancer kills around 160,000 people a year while coronary heart disease is responsible for around 73,000 deaths in the UK each year.
Health experts said the study proved that whole grains were essential for good health.
The researchers recommend that people choose foods that are high in whole grain ingredients—such as bran, oatmeal, and quinoa—that have at least 16 grams per serving, while reducing consumption of unhealthy refined carbohydrates. Each 16 gram serving lowered the risk of total death by seven percent, and cancer by 5 percent.