The results, published in Frontiers in Nutrition, brings critically-needed scientific backing to the efforts to popularise and return millets to diets, especially as staple, to combat the growing prevalence of obesity and overweight in children, adolescents and adults.
The study showed that consuming millets reduced total cholesterol by 8 per cent, lowering it from high to normal levels in the people included in the studies. There was nearly a 10 per cent 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 per cent.
Dr S Anitha, the study’s lead author and Senior Nutritionist at ICRISAT, explained: “We were very surprised how many studies on humans has 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 significant positive impact on risk factors for cardiovascular disease.”
The study also showed that consuming millets reduced BMI by 7 percent 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 grams of millets per day for a duration ranging from 21 days to four months.
These findings were influenced by comparisons that show that millets are much higher in unsaturated fatty acids, with 2 to 10 times higher levels than refined wheat and milled rice as well as being much higher than whole grain wheat.
Dr Hemalatha, Director, National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) underlined the importance, stating: “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 is 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, 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 millets consumption on hyperlipidemia and cardiovascular disease.
“It is also recommended to have nutrition scientists to design millet-based meals especially where weight management and atherosclerotic cardiovascular diseases are potential high risks. Doing this in culturally acceptable ways and ensuring tasty meals is important,” emphasized 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 study is part of a special edition and theme section in the Frontiers journal – Smart Food for Healthy, Sustainable and Resilient Food System. This study is also part of a series that has been worked on for the last four years under the Smart Food initiative and will be progressively released in 2021, including systematic reviews on the impacts of millets on diabetes, cardiovascular health, iron deficiency anaemia, calcium deficiencies and requirements.