It’s Time This Healthy Alternative Got Down Off Its Pedestal

Rice has taken a bashing in recent years with the whole low carb mantra.

So you may be wondering if it’s ever okay to eat, and specifically if brown rice is any better than white.

In some circles, the belief that all grains are to be avoided has resulted in rice being lumped together with other foods like bread, oats and pasta.

But, will eating rice really damage your health?

The short answer is, nope!

The more convoluted answer is, it depends!

I’m going to tell you everything you need to know about white rice vs brown rice

I have to confess, I absolutely love white rice. Brown is okay, but white rice ticks all the boxes for me.

Perfect, fluffy, soft, deeelicious, white rice!

An amazingly comforting food, but one I don’t normally eat because we should all be eating wholegrain foods instead, right?

As a result, white rice has become somewhat of a ‘treat’ in our home, restricted to very rare occasions.

A sad tale, but true!

So, I wanted to do a little research on this topic, and I must admit I thought this would be a straightforward piece, where I tell you that white rice is super bad, and brown rice is the rockstar of the grain world!

Well, that was not to be. Indeed, it is much more complicated than that. But don’t worry, I intend to break it all down into digestible chunks.

You may say, “Why bother, it’s only rice!” I say,

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So, let’s discuss this…

What is Rice?

Rice /rīs/ A swamp grass (Oryza sativa) that is widely cultivated as a source of food, esp. in Asia.

Rice is actually a cereal grain — the seed of the monocot plants Oryza sativa (Asian rice), or Oryza glaberrima (African rice) — if anyone’s interested!

It is a widely consumed staple for a large part of the world’s population, being the grain with the second highest worldwide production, after maize (corn).

In Asia, it accounts for a massive 50 to 80 percent of people’s daily intake.

The milling process

After the seeds of the rice plant are harvested, they are milled using a rice huller, which removes the outer husks of the grain.

The result from this process is brown rice.

Brown rice
2889140143_b99fd8dd4c_mBrown rice consists of three parts:

  1. The outer layer is called the bran. This has the high concentration of fiber and nutrients.
  2. You also have the germ, which has a small concentration of vitamins, folate, essential fatty acids, and other nutrients.
  3. The remainder of the grain is the endosperm, which doesn’t contain a lot of nutrients, and is mostly starch.

If the milling process continues you end up with white rice.

White rice
With white rice the bran and the germ have been removed, leaving only the endosperm.

At this point you may be wondering why anyone would want to eat white rice over brown rice, if they value their health, considering the fact that most of the beneficial components have been removed.

Yet, while the bran and the germ contain the majority of the nutrients, brown rice isn’t exactly a powerhouse food either.

In fact, most vegetables or fruit make brown rice pale in comparison in terms of their nutrient content.

Okay, so rice isn’t all that nutritious, but what about Asians? They eat a lot of rice and are reported to be very healthy with it…

The “Asian Paradox?”

This is another huge topic, and deserves a blog post in it’s own right. But, here are some brief thoughts on the matter.

Activity levels

Firstly, Asians have traditionally been much more physical activity then the more sedentary western populations.

So, even if most Asians aren’t out there lifting weights and running sprints, their average daily activity levels are much higher than most in the US etc.

That means a diet high in rice is much more acceptable, because their intake meets their activity levels.

Varied diet

On top of this, rice is just one factor in their diet.

It’s impossible to take just one aspect in a populations diet and say that just because they eat lots of X, Y or Z, we should be doing the same.

There is so much about the Asian diet that differs from ours.

Most of us rarely eat the foods Asian people eat. When was the last time you had bone broths, seaweed, or fermented foods?

Many of you will be saying, NEVER!

They may eat a lot of rice, but they also eat loads of vegetables, and their diets are pretty low in refined sugar, too.

So why do we think we can take one aspect of the Asian diet (rice), and say that we should be able to eat it in large quantities as well, with no consequence on our health?

So, like each paradox before it, the Asian paradox falls flat on its face.

Why Brown Rice Isn’t That Healthy

Many people think white rice is the most unhealthy option, because it is a fast source of energy, and therefore spikes our blood sugars.

But, filling your diet with either brown or white rice could be problematic.

1. Displaces Important Nutrients

One of the main issues I have with eating too much rice is the risk that healthier ingredients will be displaced in the diet by eating too much rice as a ‘filler.’

If you think about the proportion of the macronutrients on your plate, what tends to be the biggest?

It is fat, carbs or protein?

For most people, carbs take up the biggest part, and that’s where the problem comes, particularly if you need to lose a few pounds, or you are pretty inactive.

Foods like rice and pasta can very easily replace other more nutritious foods, like vegetables, for example, and that needs to be moderated.

But let’s focus specifically on brown rice for a while…

2. Contains Anti-Nutrients

You may have heard the term ‘anti-nutrients’ before. It is often cited in Paleo circles as a big reason to avoid certain foods, such as grains and legumes etc.

Here are some of the main issues cited as problematic:

Phytate

Phytic acid can be found in grains, nuts, seeds and beans, etc. and some believe it represents a serious problem to our health.

So, is there any proof that this is indeed the case?

First, let me explain why phytic acid is problematic.

Phytic acid grabs on to (or chelates) important minerals, such as calcium, magnesium, iron and zinc making them unavailable to the body.

Some people deal with this problem by soaking the rice for 24 hours before it is needed. And, there is some research to suggest this practice significantly reduces the levels of phytate in the rice.

I suppose this is a possibility if you so desire, but it would certainly require a bit of forethought to remember to do this in time for each meal.

Phytate and vitamin C

As I researched this, I came across interesting research suggesting phytate may not be such a major issue, though.

One study found that when foods rich in vitamin C were eaten alongside those high in phytate, it cancelled out the negative effects of phytate on mineral absorption.

The researchers found that various doses of phytate reduced iron absorption by 10 to 50 percent, but by adding 50 mg of vitamin C this counteracted the phytate.

Adding 150 mg of vitamin C increased the iron absorption to almost 30 percent.

A Practical approach to phytates

It’s important to realize that it is not necessary (or practical) to completely eliminate all phytic acid from the diet, but it may be best to keep it within reasonable levels.

For you, this may include preparing phytate-rich foods in a way that reduces at least a portion of the phytic acid, for example soaking them first.

I think a sensible approach is to limit your intake of phytate-rich foods somewhat.

Basically, not eating too many foods like wheat bran, soy beans, oats, brown rice, almonds, walnuts, lentils, peanuts, and corn all in the same day.

Also, make sure you are eating some fruits and vegetables with foods that supply phytate, so that you get a healthy dose of vitamin C into your body.

Foods like citrus fruits, strawberries, green leafy vegetables (broccoli, kale, collards, Swiss chard, Brussels sprouts), bell peppers and cauliflower are great sources.

Trypsin Inhibitor

Brown rice also contains a trypsin inhibitor, which is often cited as another reason to avoid eating brown rice.

However, it is thought cooking negates this issue.

One study in beans suggested that cooking (above 100 degrees C) inactivates the trypsin inhibitor. This is likely the case with brown rice, too.

As a side note, the trypsin inhibitor is mostly found in the outer embryo of the rice seed, with a smaller bit in the bran. That means white rice has no trypsin inhibitor.

Haemagglutinin-lectin

Another issue is that of haemagglutinin-lectin.

This is a lectin that binds to certain carbohydrate receptor sites in the cells of the gut lining, therefore blocking the absorption of nutrients.

Again, it is found in the rice bran only. But, when it is cooked above 100 degrees C, it loses its ability to bind.

These are certainly issues worth knowing about, but I think as long as your diet is varied overall and you moderate your intake, I don’t believe you need to be overly worried about eating brown rice from time to time.

When is it Okay to Eat Rice?

Whether you choose to make rice a regular option, or not, should depend on a few things:

1. Consider your activity levels

Starchy carbs give you fast energy. That’s a fact.

Are you sedentary?
So, you need to look at your lifestyle and ask yourself, “Am I eating more carbs than I need given my current activity level?

If you are largely sedentary, you don’t need a lot of starch in your diet, otherwise you’ll end up gaining weight.

Are you active?
However, if you are pretty active, for example you follow a tight weight training schedule, you can afford to be more liberal with your carb intake.

If that’s you, white rice could actually be a good choice of starch following a workout, because it is so fast acting, and will therefore replenish your body with the glucose it needs after working hard.

The resulting large insulin spike from eating high starch foods is beneficial to your growth and recovery.

2. Do you want to lose weight?

If you are looking to lose body fat, I’d suggest steering clear of rice, both white and brown.

Instead, go for foods that are nutrient-dense, and slightly lower in carbs, most of the time. Fruits, vegetables, lean meats, fish, eggs, etc., are a great place to start.

Concluding Thoughts

I don’t necessarily think white rice is the dangerous food it’s often made out to be.

However, it is a pretty low nutrient food. Really, it is a blank slate — nothing all that bad about it, but nothing all that great, either.

I also don’t think brown rice is as good as it’s made out to be, either.

Personally, I’m going to continue to watch my intake. But next time I feel like having a little, I won’t feel so guilty about eating a portion of white… as long as I’ve done a good workout that day!

Oh, and my recipe for cauliflower ‘rice’ really hits the spot the rest of the time. Try it out, you’ll be pleasantly surprised! :-)

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About Melanie
Melanie is a Registered Dietitian who started Dietriffic in March 2007. Her aim is to make good health attainable and sustainable, without guilt and torture, making her approach popular with those who desire a level-headed approach to good health. Have you got your copy of her free book yet?


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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Michelle Crawford May 29, 2013 at 11:28 pm

Love the article Melanie! I would definitely add that what you couple your rice with makes a considerable amount of difference too. Creamy Thai Curries are very yummy but not the best choice! Or worse! The culture back at home (Ireland) – frying rice!!!

Reply

Melanie May 31, 2013 at 3:13 pm

lol Michelle, yes fried rice is a nice treat!!! You’re totally right, if you’re just eating a huge bowl of rice on it’s own it’s not a great choice, but with lots of veg and a healthy protein source, it’s less of a problem.

Reply

Heidi May 30, 2013 at 1:16 am

Thanks for the article. I was wondering if you would mention arsenic as a problem with rice – especially brown rice. I have come across this as an issue in certain circles that I’ve mingled with.

Reply

Melanie May 31, 2013 at 3:22 pm

Hi Heidi, That is another big topic I may address in another post soon. As far as I know, research indicates that boiling brown rice in a lot of water lower the amount of arsenic by 30 to 40 percent. This doesn’t work for white rice, though, since it doesn’t doesn’t hold up well to that kind of cooking. With white rice, rinsing it really well before cooking helps a bit.

See here for the study.

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Cathy in NZ May 30, 2013 at 4:06 am

I had often wondered about rice -thanks for the tips on it all…

There are a lot of other dietary ingredients used by Asians that make rice all right to eat. They don’t necessarily have a lot of meat or even other products from the land because land/populace fight to have enough for all kinds of exported products including our beloved “rice” :-)

Reply

Melanie May 31, 2013 at 3:26 pm

Thanks for your comments Cathy.

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Elle May 30, 2013 at 3:17 pm

Melanie, wow this is a lot of information. Thank you!

This is wonderful. You have done all of the research for us and broke it down in to manageable sections.

I have wondered several times about the choice between brown and white rice. I admit that I like both. I’ve actually many times mixed the two of them so that I can have the benefits of both.

I agree with you that a lot of the decision factor should come from your activity level and your goals. The only way to lose weight is to burn more than you consume.

That being said, I love to have a little bit of rice to go with my stir-fry vegetables. Maybe I will use the short energy burst to get in an extra walk!

Reply

Melanie May 31, 2013 at 3:27 pm

Hi Elle, I have mixed the two in the past also, although is it usually because I run out of one and needed to make up the serving lol but it is a nice way to eat rice too. I like the mix of textures it gives.

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Steven May 31, 2013 at 1:40 pm

What an interesting article (I never knew rice was so complex)! Despite all the sources out there claiming the benefits of rice, I hardly ever eat it (less than once per month). I always felt that rice had little to no health benefits – and now my suspicions are justified – thank you!

Reply

Melanie May 31, 2013 at 3:28 pm

You’re welcome Steven. Thanks for your comments :)

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