The consumption of millets can reduce total cholesterol, triacylglycerols (commonly known as triglycerides), Cardiovascular Disease and BMI according to a new study analysing the data of 19 studies with nearly 900 people. The study was undertaken by five organisations and led by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT).
The results, published in Frontiers in Nutrition, brings critically needed scientific backing to the efforts to popularise and return millets to diets, especially as staples, to combat the growing prevalence of obesity and being overweight in children, adolescents and adults.
The study showed that consuming millets reduced total cholesterol by 8%, lowering it from high to normal levels in the people studied. There was nearly a 10% decrease in low and very low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (commonly viewed as ‘bad cholesterol) and triacylglycerol levels in the blood. Through these reductions, the levels went from above normal to normal range. In addition, consuming millets decreased blood pressure with the diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number in the BP reading) decreasing by 5%.
Dr S Anitha, the study’s lead author and Senior Nutritionist at ICRISAT, explained, “We were very surprised how many studies on humans had already been undertaken on the impact of millets on elements that impact cardiovascular diseases, and this is the very first time anyone has collated all these studies and analysed their data to test the significance of the impact. We used a meta-analysis, and results came out very strongly to show a significant positive impact on risk factors for cardiovascular disease.”
The study also showed that consuming millets reduced BMI by 7% in people who were overweight and obese (from 28.5 ± 2.4 to 26.7 ± 1.8 kg/m2), showing the possibility of returning to a normal BMI (<25 kg/m2). All results are based on consumption of 50 to 200 gm of millets per day for a duration ranging from 21 days to four months.
These findings are influenced by comparisons that show that millets are much higher in unsaturated fatty acids, with two to 10 times higher levels than refined wheat and milled rice as well as being much higher than whole grain wheat.
Speaking on the study, Dr. Hemalatha R, Director, National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) said, “Unhealthy diet is a major contributor to the rising incidence of diseases, like cardiovascular disease and diabetes. The results of this study along with our recent study that showed that the consumption of millets reduced the risk of developing type-2 diabetes and helped manage type-2 diabetes, highlights a critical need to look carefully at how to most appropriately bring millets back into the diets in India and ensure this reaches the majority.”
“Obesity and being overweight are increasing globally in both wealthy and poorer countries, so the need for solutions based on healthier diets is critical. This new information on the health benefits of millets further supports the need to invest more in the grain, including its whole value chain from better varieties for farmers through to agribusiness developments,” said Dr. Jacqueline Hughes, Director General, ICRISAT.
The study identified a number of priority future research areas including the need to study all different types of millets, understand any differences by variety alongside the different types of cooking and processing of millets and their impact on cardiovascular health. Given the positive indicators to date, a more detailed analysis on the impact of millets on weight management is also recommended. All relevant parameters are also recommended to be assessed to gain a deeper understanding of the impacts of millets consumption on hyperlipidemia and cardiovascular disease.
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Medical Doctor and co-author of the study, Dr Raj Kumar Bhandari, noted that “As a doctor, I have seen first-hand a significant rise over the years in patients with serious coronary problems from high cholesterol and being overweight. Based on the evidence in this study we can help reduce hypertension and hardening and narrowing of arteries and manage weight with appropriate diet changes including millets. However, it is important to consume a millet-based and healthy diet regularly and make it a habit.”
“It is also recommended to have nutrition scientists design millet-based meals, especially where weight management and atherosclerotic cardiovascular diseases are potentially high risks. Doing this in culturally acceptable ways and ensuring tasty meals is important,” emphasised Dr Ananthan Rajendran, study co-author and scientist at NIN.
“A key recommendation from the study is for government and industry to support efforts to diversify staples with millets, especially across Asia and Africa. Given that millets are hardy and climate-smart, returning to this traditional staple makes a lot of sense and is a critical solution that could be the turning point of some major health issues,” highlighted Joanna Kane-Potaka, a co-author and Executive Director of the Smart Food initiative, ICRISAT.
“This latest review further emphasises the potential of millets as a staple crop that has many health benefits. It also strengthens the evidence that eating millet can contribute to better cardiovascular health by reducing unhealthy cholesterol levels and increasing the levels of whole grains and unsaturated fats in the diet,” said Professor Ian Givens, a co-author of the study and Director at the University of Reading’s Institute of Food, Nutrition and Health (IFNH) in the UK.
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