When the weather's cold, a big pot of soup simmering on the stove warms the heart as well as the hearth. Adding some whole grain barley to the pot will improve your health along with the flavor of whatever soup or stew you're cooking. In addition to its robust flavor, barley's claim to nutritional fame is based on its being a very good source of fiber and selenium, and a good source of phosphorus, copper and manganese.
Barley's Fiber for Regularity, Lower Cholesterol, & Intestinal Protection
Wish you were more regular? Let barley give your intestinal health a boost. In addition to providing bulk and decreasing the transit time of fecal matter, thus decreasing the risk of colon cancer and hemorrhoids, barley's dietary fiber also provides food for the "friendly" bacteria in the large intestine. When these helpful bacteria ferment barley's insoluble fiber, they produce a short-chain fatty acid called butyric acid, which serves as the primary fuel for the cells of the large intestine and helps maintain a healthy colon. These helpful bacteria also create two other short-chain fatty acids, propionic and acetic acid, which are used as fuel by the cells of the liver and muscles.
The propionic acid produced from barley's insoluble fiber may also be partly responsible for the cholesterol-lowering properties of fiber. In animal studies, propionic acid has been shown to inhibit HMG-CoA reductase, an enzyme involved in the production of cholesterol by the liver. By lowering the activity of this enzyme, propionic acid helps lower blood cholesterol levels.
In addition, barley's dietary fiber is high in beta glucan, which helps to lower cholesterol by binding to bile acids and removing them from the body via the feces. Bile acids are compounds used to digest fat that are manufactured by the liver from cholesterol. When they are excreted along with barley's fiber, the liver must manufacture new bile acids and uses up more cholesterol, thus lowering the amount of cholesterol in circulation. Soluble fiber may also reduce the amount of cholesterol manufactured by the liver. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests barley's fiber has multiple beneficial effects on cholesterol. In this study of 25 individuals with high cholesterol (postmenopausal women, premenopausal women, and men), adding barley to the American Heart Association Step 1 diet resulted in a significant lowering in total cholesterol in all subjects, plus their amount of large LDL and large and intermediate HDL fractions (which are considered less atherogenic) increased, and the smaller LDL and VLDL cholesterol (the most dangerous fractions) greatly decreased.
Lastly, when barley provides insoluble fibers that feed friendly bacteria in the digestive tract, this helps to maintain larger populations of friendly bacteria. In addition to producing the helpful short-chain fatty acids described above, friendly bacteria play an important protective role by crowding out pathogenic (disease-causing) bacteria and preventing them from surviving in the intestinal tract.
Barley's fiber can prevent or help with a number of different conditions. For example, when barley's fiber binds to and removes cholesterol-containing bile, this can be very beneficial for people struggling with heart disease since it forces the body to make more bile by breaking down cholesterol, thus lowering cholesterol levels. A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine confirms that eating high fiber foods, such as barley, helps prevent heart disease. Almost 10,000 American adults participated in this study and were followed for 19 years. People eating the most fiber, 21 grams per day, had 12% less coronary heart disease (CHD) and 11% less cardiovascular disease (CVD) compared to those eating the least, 5 grams daily. Those eating the most water-soluble dietary fiber fared even better with a 15% reduction in risk of CHD and a 10% risk reduction in CVD.
The fiber in barley can also help to prevent blood sugar levels from rising too high in people with diabetes.
Additional Protection Against Atherosclerosis
Yet another reason to increase your intake of barley is that, in addition to its fiber, barley is also a good source of niacin, a B vitamin that provides numerous protective actions against cardiovascular risk factors. Niacin can help reduce total cholesterol and lipoprotein (a) levels. (Lipoprotein (a) or Lp(a) is a molecule composed of protein and fat that is found in blood plasma and is very similar to LDL cholesterol, but is even more dangerous as it has an additional molecule of adhesive protein called apolioprotein (a), which renders Lp(a) more capable of attaching to blood vessel walls.)
Niacin may also help prevent free radicals from oxidizing LDL, which only becomes potentially harmful to blood vessel walls after oxidation. Lastly, niacin can help reduce platelet aggregation, the clumping together of platelets that can result in the formation of blood clots. One cup of barley will supply you with 14.2% of the daily value for niacin.
Significant Cardiovascular Benefits for Postmenopausal Women
Eating a serving of whole grains, such as barley, at least 6 times each week is a good idea, especially for postmenopausal women with high cholesterol, high blood pressure or other signs of cardiovascular disease (CVD).
A 3-year prospective study of over 220 postmenopausal women with CVD, published in the American Heart Journal, shows that those eating at least 6 servings of whole grains each week experienced both:
- Slowed progression of atherosclerosis, the build-up of plaque that narrows the vessels through which blood flows, and
- Less progression in stenosis, the narrowing of the diameter of arterial passageways.
The women's intake of fiber from fruits, vegetables and refined grains was not associated with a lessening in CVD progression.
The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends at least 3 servings of whole-grain foods each day, but experts say most Americans eat less than a single serving. Don't be part of this majority! For delicious ideas that can help you enjoy whole grains as a daily part of your "Healthiest Way of Eating," see the "How to Enjoy" section below and take a look at the other World's Healthiest Foods ideas for whole grains by clicking buckwheat, corn, millet, quinoa, brown rice, rye, spelt, whole wheat.
Barley and Other Whole Grains Substantially Lower Risk of Type 2 Diabetes
Barley and other whole grains are a rich source of magnesium, a mineral that acts as a co-factor for more than 300 enzymes, including enzymes involved in the body's use of glucose and insulin secretion.
The FDA permits foods that contain at least 51% whole grains by weight (and are also low in fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol) to display a health claim stating consumption is linked to lower risk of heart disease and certain cancers. Now, research suggests regular consumption of whole grains also reduces risk of type 2 diabetes. (van Dam RM, Hu FB, Diabetes Care).
In this 8-year trial, involving 41,186 particpants of the Black Women's Health Study, research data confirmed inverse associations between magnesium, calcium and major food sources in relation to type 2 diabetes that had already been reported in predominantly white populations.
Risk of type 2 diabetes was 31% lower in black women who frequently ate whole grains compared to those eating the least of these magnesium-rich foods. When the women's dietary intake of magnesium intake was considered by itself, a beneficial, but lesser- 19%- reduction in risk of type 2 diabetes was found, indicating that whole grains offer special benefits in promoting healthy blood sugar control. Daily consumption of low-fat dairy foods was also helpful, lowering risk of type 2 diabetes by 13%. So, if you'd like to enjoy a hot bowl of barley for breakfast (an especially good idea-see immediately below), serve topped with low-fat milk.
A Better Breakfast Choice for Persons with Type 2 Diabetes
Barley may be an even better breakfast choice than oats for persons with Type 2 diabetes. In a study conducted by the Agricultural Research Service at the Diet and Human Performance Laboratory in Beltsville, MD, barley was much more effective in reducing both glucose and insulin responses than oats.
In this study, which involved 10 overweight women (mean age: 50 years, body mass index: 30), subjects ate a controlled diet for 2 days and were then given, in rotation, glucose alone and then 4 test meals in which 2/3 of the carbohydrate came first from oat flour then oatmeal, barley flour or barley flakes.
Glucose responses were reduced after test meals by both oats and barley, although more by barley (29-36% by oats and 59-65% by barley). Insulin responses after test meals were significantly reduced only by barley (44-56%). Interestingly, whether the oats or barley was consumed in the form of meal, flakes or flour had little effect. What seems to have been responsible for barley's significantly greater effectiveness in reducing both glucose and insulin responses is barley's soluble fiber content. The barley used in the study (a cultivar called Prowashonupana) contains more than 4 times the soluble fiber of common oats.
Barley Can Help Prevent Gallstones
Eating foods high in insoluble fiber, such as barley, can help women avoid gallstones, shows a study published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology.
Studying the overall fiber intake and types of fiber consumed over a 16 year period by almost 70,000 women in the Nurses Health Study, researchers found that those consuming the most fiber overall (both soluble and insoluble) had a 13% lower risk of developing gallstones compared to women consuming the fewest fiber-rich foods.
Those eating the most foods rich in insoluble fiber gained even more protection against gallstones: a 17% lower risk compared to women eating the least. And the protection was dose-related; a 5-gram increase in insoluble fiber intake dropped risk dropped 10%.
How do foods rich in insoluble fiber help prevent gallstones? Researchers think insoluble fiber not only speeds intestinal transit time (how quickly food moves through the intestines), but reduces the secretion of bile acids (excessive amounts contribute to gallstone formation), increases insulin sensitivity and lowers triglycerides (blood fats). Abundant in all whole grains, insoluble fiber is also found in nuts and the edible skin of fruits and vegetables including tomatoes, cucumbers, many squash, apples, berries, and pears. In addition, beans provide insoluble as well as soluble fiber.