A new Harvard-led study has concluded that over time, eating whole grain foods such as whole wheat bread and oatmeal, may be the secret to success and may even add years to your life. The findings published online in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine found that whole grains are so healthy that a person's risk of an early death drops with every serving added to a daily diet. 

"We saw clear evidence that the more whole grain intake, the lower the mortality rate is," an assistant professor of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health involved with the study, Dr. Qi Sun says. "When we looked at risk of death from heart disease, there was an even stronger association."

Researchers have estimated that every one-ounce serving of whole grains reduces a person's overall risk of early death by five percent, and a person's heart disease risk was lowered by an impressive nine percent.  However, eating whole grains did not affect a person's risk of death from cancer.

Sun's findings are based on data from two long-term studies, dating back to the mid-1980s involving over 118,000 nurses and health professionals.  As part of the study, participants had to fill out food and diet questionnaires every two to four years, which included questions about what whole grains were a part of what they eat.

Over the 26 years there were approximately 27,000 deaths among the people participating in the study.  Investigators found that one-third fewer people died among the group that ate the most whole grains per day, compared with those that ate the lowest amount of whole grains.

Researchers adjusted for other factors that could affect a person's risk of death like age and weight, and whether they were smokers or not.  Whole grain eaters did "have much healthier habits than non-whole grain eaters, but our model controls for that," Sun noted.

So, why are whole grains so good for us?  They are rich in fiber, and that fiber helps slow digestion and prevents harmful blood sugar level spikes, according to Sun.  Joan Salge Blake, a registered dietitian and clinical associate professor of nutrition at Boston University, also added that they are rich in vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin E and magnesium, as well as rich in antioxidants. 

Studies also have shown that people feel more full after eating whole grains, "so that could help with our waistlines," said Blake, who also is a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "The consensus thus far is it's probably not one thing, but a number of wonderful things that work together in whole grains synergistically for health benefits."

Current guidelines in the United States call for people to get half their daily grains from whole grain sources, which translates to about three servings.

Blake recommends that people include whole grains in all their meals and even their snacks.  After the results of this latest study, it seems whole grains could be the key to a much longer and healthier life for everyone.