Rice has been a staple food for thousands of years, and almost every country has a love affair with rice. Italy has its risotto and arancini, paella in Spain, Jambalaya in Southern USA, steamed rice in China, Biryani in India, and even a delicious rice-based dessert in Belgium called the rijsttaart. And yet, it has fallen victim to the endless debate: will eating rice make me fat?
Has our eternally favourite staple food fallen from grace? Does it really deserve to be demonised and eliminated from our diets?
The world of rice is not simply brown and white. There is red rice and black rice too. When researching rice varieties, it felt like I was attending an auction – some sources say there are over 8,000 varieties, some say over 40,000, and one even stated there are over 100,000!
We will limit the discussion to white and brown varieties for argument. There are two significant differences between white rice and brown rice. A grain of rice has three parts – the bran, germ, and endosperm. Brown rice has all three layers; white rice has been polished to remove the bran and germ, leaving only the endosperm. When you remove the first two layers, the result is less nutrient-dense rice.
What do they have in common?
Regardless of the colour or variety of your rice, white and brown rice are gluten-free and contain no trans-fat or cholesterol.
What do we have when you break down the nutrients of the two types of rice into more nuanced categories?
According to the Cleveland Clinic, brown rice outpaces white rice in dietary fibre, manganese, magnesium, niacin, phosphorous, and vitamins b1 and b6. According to research done on the phytochemical profile of brown rice, brown rice contains many types of phenolic acids, which are well known for their antioxidant activities. These antioxidants can protect against oxidative damage and assist with the prevention of cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and obesity. Alternatively, because the nutrients are stripped from white rice during the milling process, white rice has to be enriched with vitamins and minerals, according to the TH Chan School of Public Health. Despite being enriched back in, it doesn’t compare to the nutrition that is originally in the whole grain.
One of the popular anti-white rice arguments is how it raises our blood sugar levels. Rice is a carbohydrate, and different carbohydrates break down into sugar at various rates. The faster it breaks down into sugar in your body is generally regarded as not ideal. You want to eat foods that have a slow release of sugar into your bloodstream. Low GI foods (high fibre foods) are under 55, and high is between 70-100. According to a Livestrong article titled Glycemic Index of Brown Rice vs White Rice, the average cup of brown rice registers at 68 and white rice at 73. This isn't a huge difference; however, it may be compelling enough to switch varieties if you have type 2 diabetes or an elevated health risk such as heart disease.
Brown rice outstrips white rice in terms of fibre content. The fibre content in one cup of white rice is approximately 0.56g, compared to brown, with about 3.23g of fibre.
Fibre is excellent for your health and your digestive system. However, it doesn't suit some people who, by various medical conditions such as diverticulitis, inflammatory bowel disease, and colorectal cancer, may need to consume a low-fibre diet. In this case, white rice is the better choice.
Brown rice, according to the American Heart Association (AHA), is better for those looking to reduce their high cholesterol, blood pressure, risk of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.
One drawback of consuming too much brown rice (besides the taste and texture) is that brown rice is more susceptible to having higher levels of inorganic arsenic. Before you start panicking, according to the FDA, arsenic is an element in the earth's crust and can be found in small amounts in water, soil, and air. Plants can absorb trace levels of arsenic as they grow. Because of this slightly elevated risk, the FDA has concluded that pregnant and lactating mothers should avoid brown rice varieties in favour of white rice to reduce their risk of exposure. White rice doesn't fall victim to elevated levels of arsenic because polishing away the germ and bran reduce the arsenic content. Pregnant and lactating mothers aside – will this risk impact anyone else? The agency's advice is to eat a "well-balanced diet that's not based on any one food…eating a variety of foods is more nutritious."
In terms of nutritional value alone, brown rice comes out the winner. However, the answer becomes less specific when weighing some less obvious but equally compelling data around tastes, preferences, and family and cultural eating habits. What is good for you isn't automatically the answer for someone else, and despite something being healthier for you, if you can’t handle the taste – you’ll be less likely to eat it. It’s for this reason I don’t tell my clients to automatically swap white rice for brown. Building your capacity for dietary change is a long process; perhaps white rice is the one thing you make your entire diet around.
As much as we want definitive answers and to demonise or exalt one food, the conversation is always more nuanced, and the question isn't always "is it bad"; it's "how much is bad"? Choosing to eat white rice isn't the automatic road to weight gain or poor health. It's how much you decide to eat, given your physical reality in your current stage in life.
How much is too much? I use hand-size portions with my clients, which allows them to make decisions about their food anywhere they go. When it comes to all carbohydrates in a meal (rice, dosa, chapati, etc.), I recommend that men start measuring their portion size with two cupped hands (cooked, final product), and for women, one cupped hand. How do your portion sizes add up?
Jen Thomas is Chennai-based weight loss coach