Sarah Knapton By Sarah Knapton, Science Editor4:28PM GMT 05 Jan 2015
A small bowl of porridge each day could be the key to a long and healthy life, after a major study by Harvard University found that whole grains reduce the risk of dying from heart disease.
Although whole grains are widely believed to be beneficial for health it is the first research to look at whether they have a long-term impact on lifespan.
Researchers followed more than 100,000 people for more than 14 years monitoring their diets and health outcomes.
Everyone involved in the study was healthy in 1984 when they enrolled, but when they were followed up in 2010 more than 26,000 had died.
However those who ate the most whole grains, such as porridge, brown rice, corn and quinoa seemed protected from many illnesses and particularly heart disease.
Oats are already the breakfast of choice for many athletes and also for dieters, who find the high fibre levels give them energy for longer.
But scientists found that for each ounce (28g) of whole grains eaten a day – the equivalent of a small bowl of porridge – the risk of all death was reduced by five per cent and heart deaths by 9 per cent.
“These findings further support current dietary guidelines that recommend increasing whole-grain consumption,” said lead author Dr Hongyu Wu of Harvard School of Public Health.
“They also provide promising evidence that suggests a diet enriched with whole grains may confer benefits towards extended life expectancy.”
The findings remained even when allowing for different ages, smoking, body mass index and physical activity.
Whole grains, where the bran and germ remain, contain 25 per cent 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.
The new research suggests that if more people switched to whole grains, thousands of lives could be saved each year. Coronary heart disease is Britain’s biggest killer, responsible for around 73,000 deaths in the UK each year. Around 2.3 million people are living with the condition and one in six men and one in 10 women will die.