Imagine if you could eat your way to a longer life? You can achieve a longer life and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease just by mixing in more whole grains into your diet. It may sound like the lead into an infomercial, but the researchers from Harvard School of Public Health aren’t selling any tricks or sales pitches in their new study published by JAMA Internal Medicine.

Researchers studied 74,341 women and 43,744 men in order to uncover the link between a diet rich in whole grains and the risk of death. The women’s health was documented between 1984 and 2010, while the men’s health was documented between 1986 and 2010. They recorded everything from age, smoking, body mass index, to their whole grain intake. Although there were 26,920 deaths by the end of the study, they found whole grains significantly lowered total mortality rate and cardiovascular disease.

In the past, studies have found eating whole grains over refined grains lower the risk of many chronic diseases, according to the Whole Grains Council. Benefits peak from consuming at least three servings a day, but just one daily serving has the power to reduce risk on its own. But researchers have now found whole grains lower risk of death by five percent and the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease by nine percent.

"These findings further support current dietary guidelines that recommend increasing whole grain consumption to facilitate primary and secondary prevention of chronic disease and also provide promising evidence that suggests a diet enriched with whole grains may confer benefits toward extended life expectancy," the study’s authors wrote.

Not All Grains Are Created Equal

Don’t just grab any old grain to get your heart-healthy benefits. Whole grains are unrefined, which means they haven’t had their bran or germ removed in a factory. Whole grains provide dietary fiber, B vitamins such as thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folate, and minerals such as iron, magnesium, and selenium, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Brown rice, barley, popcorn, buckwheat pancakes, and whole wheat bread are plentiful sources of whole grains.

Refined grains are milled and stripped of their bran and germ in order to extend their shelf life and give them a finer texture. Picture a piece of white Wonderbread, for example, and how soft and fluffy it is. It can sit on a shelf for much longer than a loaf of whole grain bread. Refined grains also make up white flour, white rice, and many cereals, crackers, pastries, and desserts, according to Mayo Clinic.

Enriched grains are a little bit better. They’ve lost some of their nutrients during processing, but are added back in later on. B vitamins are usually added back into the grain after it's processed, but natural fiber cannot be added back in. When foods, such as enriched grains, are fortified, nutrients are added that weren’t naturally there to begin with. Folic acid and iron, for example, are added into certain foods in order to create a nutrient-rich food it wasn’t otherwise.

Grains come in many different shapes and sizes, but when faced with the choice between whole grains and the others, choose whole grain to protect your heart and add more years to your life.

Source: Wu H, Flint AJ, QI Q, van Dam RM, Sampson LA, and Rimm EB, et al. Association Between Dietary Whole Grain Intake and Risk of Mortality. JAMA Internal Medicine. 2014.