Is Rice Healthy For Me? Does White vs Brown Rice Matter?

I wanted to know the exact answer to the age old question, “What’s the meaning of life?”

But I couldn’t find an answer for that. So instead I set my sights on rice:

  • Is it good for us? Bad for us?
  • How do different types of rice affect me?
  • What wins, brown rice vs white rice?
  • Did Mitch Hedberg ever make it onto a Rice Krispies box? RIP.

After all, we get questions about rice ALL the time:

“Steve I’m Paleo but I hear rice isn’t that bad for you, help?”

“Why do you eat white rice at Chipotle? I hear white rice is way worse for you than brown rice. Just like white vs wheat bread!”

“Is it okay to eat rice and not anger the Paleo Gods?”

Let’s unlock this mystery of the universe.

Is Rice Healthy For Me?

rice

Depending on how you want to feel about rice, you can point to either of the following studies:

People that live in Okinawa (home to Mr. Miyagi!), the highest life expectancy on the planet, eat a lot of rice. Rice HAS to be good for you then. Team Rice!

People of the Marshall Islands, home to one of the highest rates of Type 2 diabetes (pdf) on the planet, eat a lot of rice. Rice is the devil! Team No Rice!

Feel free to pick one of the above studies to show that you’re right and superior compared to the other team. It’s like opposing political parties (rice vs no rice) that staunchly follow party lines.

Now, if you have’t made up your mind on rice (you’re an independent!), or you’ve been avoiding it because, Paleo, keep reading. Or maybe you’re up for, gasp, changing parties!

Let’s dig into this election! Feel free to listen to “Hail to the Chief (but just the part you know)” while reading the rest of this.

Rice is technically is a seed of the grass species. It comes in many varieties, it’s a grain that doesn’t contain gluten (unlike some other grains), and its macronutrient breakdown is generally something like (in 1 cup of cooked rice):

  • 200ish calories
  • 0-1 gram of fat
  • 45ish g of carbohydrates
  • 4-5 grams of protein

Now, depending on how you currently view your diet, you might have a few key thoughts looking at that list above. “45 grams of carbs! That’s bad! Carbs are bad because I read it somewhere! Rice? Ah!”

The reality is this: carbs are neither inherently good nor bad. Kind of like The Force in Star Wars; the Force can be used for good or evil purposes, but it’s inherently neutral: quantity and quality matter.

Rice can be part of a bad (unhealthy) or good (healthy) diet completely dependent upon your goals and lifestyle:

  • Are you in the process of building muscle and getting bigger? Rice is a cheap source of high calorie, high-carbohydrate food, easily digestible and helpful in running a caloric surplus.
  • Trying to lose weight? You might be trying to lose weight and find that eating a lot of rice is putting you over your calorie and carb goals for the day, so you may choose to eat less or avoid the food entirely.

At the end of the day, consuming more calories than you burn will add weight to your frame in the long term, and vice versa: this is Food Science 101, and it will be on your midterm exam.

Now, obviously it’s not the whole story (quality and type of calories are important too). There’s a lot going on behind the scenes with rice.

What’s the Difference Between Brown Rice and White Rice?

white vs brown rice

“Does getting white rice at Chipotle instead of brown rice make me a bad person? Everybody tells me brown rice is better!”

There’s a prevailing thought in society that eating the brown option of a food is better than the white option: “eat wheat bread instead of white bread, whole wheat pasta instead of regular pasta, eat brown rice instead of white rice.”

Like most things, this sentiment has been oversimplified to the point of being unhelpful. What you really want to know is this:

If this was a rice presidential election – a Rice-idential election, if you will, who should I vote for?

Let’s start here: what makes white rice white and brown rice brown, other than color? It all depends on the milling process. You can see here highlighted by Riceland, which is less fun than Disneyland but probably safer than Zombieland:

rice-inside
In milling, brown rice loses only a bit of the top layer above; the non-edible hull goes, but the bran and germ remain. White rice removes it all; the hull, awn, bran and berm are all gone, leaving behind the endosperm.

So let’s take a look at our two candidates for the Rice-idency: On one side of the ballot, we have 1 cup of cooked enriched white rice, and on the other side we have 1 cup of cooked brown rice.

They both are running on the platform of “Make carbs great again!” but they have some distinguishing characteristics that make their campaigns slightly different:

  • Brown rice has 43 more calories per cup than white rice.
  • Brown rice has 7g more carbohydrates per cup than white rice.
  • Brown rice has more micronutrients: magnesium (79mg vs 19mg), more phosphorus (208mg vs 68gm), and more potassium (174mg vs 55). It also has a lot of manganese, selenium, and copper.
  • Brown rice has a lower glycemic index than white rice, meaning it is broken down by your body slower – and causes a lower insulin response.

Now, you’re looking at those things above and probably thinking: “Okay so brown rice has more calories and carbs, that’s bad and I don’t want to vote for that candidate! Wait, it has more micronutrients, and a lower glycemic index. I think that’s good and I should vote for that candidate.”

And then your head explodes.

Like any election, there are positives and negatives to either candidate, and as you’ll see soon enough – neither one is an angel. In this election, the differences in nutritional terms is negligible from the highest macro-level (aka the big policy points). So from a purely caloric and macro-nutrition standpoint, we recommend simply letting your tastebuds decide if you choose to vote:

  • If you like the taste of brown rice more than white rice, eat that.
  • If you like the taste of white rice more than brown rice, eat that.

Done. I’m going on break (for those counting at home, that’s 2 Mitch references in an article on rice).

That’s the simplified way of looking at it. If one digs into the nitty-gritty of both campaigns, we’ll discover that there’s more than meets the eye.

Like Transformers.

White vs Brown Rice: our Recommendation

brown rice

For those wanting to nerd out, welcome to the full coverage of the 2016 Rice-idential elections!

Our candidate Brown Rice is running on a platform of more micronutrients for every citizen, something White Rice can’t claim.

However, like any campaign, the whole truth isn’t being represented. In fact, my research led me to believe that there are two key problems with Brown Rice that keep me from casting my vote for Brown.

You see, brown rice contains something called Phytate, an anti-nutrient that minimizes our body’s ability to absorb the beneficial nutrients. Phytate (phytic acid) is found in most seeds, legumes, nuts, and grains…including rice.

Phytic acid is contained in the part that’s removed from white rice. So brown rice has it, and white rice doesn’t. This is when White Rice comes in to say “I don’t have any of this stuff, vote for me!”

On top of that, because White Rice is enriched, it closes a lot of the gap between micronutrients, and because there’s no phytates around, these nutrients can be fully absorbed by the body. In the end, White Rice has a pretty good argument that it’s stronger on the “micronutrient issue.”

As this study over in PubMed explains, results show that despite higher nutrients contents of brown rice compared to white rice, experimental data does not provide evidence that the brown rice diet is better than the diet based on white rice.”

Or, as Alan Argon summarizes: “White rice actually has an equal or better nutritional yield & also has a better nitrogen-retentive effect than brown rice. This is because the fiber & phytate content of brown rice act as antinutrients, reducing the bioavailability of the micronutrients it contains.”

So, does this mean we should proudly cast our ballot for White Rice?

In our hours and hours of research, chats, hangouts, and debates that went into creating this article, we stumbled across some troubling news for both candidates’ campaigns for the Rice-idency: a history of arsenic and a possible diabetes scandal!

(feel free to audibly gasp at this point; we encourage it)

Rice, Arsenic, and Diabetes

question mark

We head out to the debate in which the candidates are fielding questions from regular folks (with totally not staged questions).

Mike, a retired teacher and single parent from Vermont asks, “I heard about rice and arsenic – should I be concerned?”

Arsenic is a metalloid, and extremely small qualities of “organic arsenic” is essential as a dietary element. However, inorganic arsenic (from rocks and soil) is a different thing – and this is the stuff that causes poisoning in large enough quantities. Typically we’re only concerned with this if the exposure is a lot over a short term, or a little over a long term. So with rice, it starts to become more and more relevant if you are eating rice “every day for years and years.”

The catch is, for millions around the globe, this situation is a reality.

As Authority Nutrition points out, in the long term, taking in too much (inorganic) arsenic has been linked to all sorts of problems: cancer [2] [3] [4], vascular disease, high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes. In short, over time (if we’re consuming a moderate amounts regularly), arsenic can act like a slow poison to our bodies.

AND here comes White Rice to respond with a vicious attack:

Consumer Reports found that Brown Rice has 80% more arsenic on average than white rice of the same type!”

Our moderators are telling us this is a crucial turning point towards a White Rice victory.

(There are all sorts of differences in arsenic amounts among brands, types of grains, and even how you prepare your food. If this is important to you, be sure to click on over and read more.)

Suzy, a happily-married steel worker from Ohio asks, “What about diabetes, I heard that is an issue with rice!”

It’s here that Brown Rice steps up and starts slinging some mud as well. The candidate proudly proclaims, “ignore that negative nonsense about my arsenic count, White Rice gives you diabetes! ISN’T THAT RIGHT WHITE RICE!?”

Oh snap. 

This meta analysis found that “higher white rice intake is associated with a significantly elevated risk of type 2 diabetes, especially among Asian populations… In addition, the dose-response relations indicate that even for Western populations with typically low intake levels, relatively high white rice consumption may still modestly increase risk of diabetes.”

Now if you’re watching this debate at home, you’re probably asking, “I’m in the “at risk for type-2 diabetes” group, would swapping out white rice for brown rice improve my future?”

Researchers found in an observational study that people who consumed five or more servings of white rice per week had a 17% increased risk of diabetes, compared to people who ate less than one serving per month. But eating two or more servings of brown rice per week was associated with an 11% reduced risk of developing type 2 diabetes, compared to eating less than one serving of brown rice per month. Fitness Skeptics, be sure to look closely at this one.

Either way, in true election fashion, we now have two imperfect candidates.

So, who the heck do you vote for!?

Steve, Just tell Me Who to Vote FOr.

rice landscape

This is Steve Kamb, reporting live from Nerd Fitness News, and we feel confident enough to make our endorsement in the Race for the Rice-idency.

This campaign has been ugly as hell; both candidates are running on a very similar “Rice is great” platform, which we have no problem with (in moderation). Let’s break it down for voters out there:

Again, our official recommendation is to vote for whatever candidate you think tastes better (okay, our metaphor might be breaking down at this point). But for those of you at home who want to make the most informed decision as possible or are concerned about a specific health issue, here’s our detailed recap:

Here’s our official recommendation:

  • Rice can be a healthy part of a diet, but it’s the rest of it that will determine if you’re healthy or not. Plus, rice is great if you’re really hungry and want to eat two thousand of something. Boom. Hat-trick! (Thanks Steven!)
  • Not eating rice is fine too, provided you’re eating some sort of healthy starch/carb source (we love veggies!).
  • We feel that for most people, you should pick what you like best and eat it. Done! If we had to pick one generalization in our nerdy, non-doctor opinion, we would guestimate that white rice is (only slightly) better option for most people, due to the phytate and arsenic levels in brown rice.
  • If you are eating lots of rice or other arsenic containing foods regularly over a long period of time, consider white rice, looking at specific brands, and preparation methods to mitigate these risks.
  • If you are struggling with weight and or a sedentary lifestyle and thus concerned with diabetes, consider brown rice in moderation over other unhealthy foods. Don’t delude yourself into thinking you’re being healthy by eating buckets of brown rice though. Clyde Wilson, Ph.D, a nutrition professor in the Stanford University and University of California, San Francisco schools of medicine, puts it succinctly: “The reality is that eating too much of any carbohydrate, including brown rice, can lead to diabetes.”

No matter what candidate you vote for, we urge you not to get WHITE RICE or BROWN RICE tattooed on your forehead, giving yourself a green light to eat 1,000s of calories of it (rice, fruit, anything!). Moderation, as always, is a boring lesson that we urge voters to be mindful of.

TL;DR #50 – Eat rice in moderation if you choose to eat it. If you are bulking up intentionally, rice can be a great part of your diet. Trying to lose weight? Consider minimizing rice consumption. If you’re gonna eat rice regularly, white rice is probably healthy for you in the long run. If you are a type-2 diabetic (or at risk), minimize consumption of grains and carbs, but IF you do eat rice, go for brown rice.

Tune in after this commercial break where we’ll answer the question: is the monster under your bed trying to kill you? The answer may shock you!

-Steve

###

photo: Colin Kinner: Question Mark, Arria Belli: Brown Rice, Al Case: Rice Field

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  • William Bettes

    I absolutely cannot find the first Mitch Hedberg reference. But I do agree that rice has a good purpose, when you’re hungry and want to eat a thousand of something.

  • Kerri Culbert Calder

    Did Mitch Hedberg ever make it onto a Rice Krispies box? RIP.

  • William Bettes

    Can’t believe I missed that!

  • erik scott

    You know PubMed (and PubMed Central) are just repositories for journal articles, and they don’t actually fund or do any research, right? Comes from the National Library of Medicine, part of NIH. Also, “data” is already plural.

    It is called *nerd* fitness, so you know this pedantry is fair game, right? 🙂 🙂

  • mikyatope

    Great great article! My only criticism as a geneticist working in health related topics, is that each claim regarding higher or lower risks of somethings must be accompanied by the baseline risk. It really make thinks clearer when there is a “double the risk”, for example, very different for a baseline of 0.05% than 50% (this happened recently with the apocaliptic claim of the WHO and the baccon… )

  • Taylor

    Actually – thanks 🙂 – we revised/clarified both cases.

    Anytime we spend hours and hours of research and discussion on an article, we don’t want these details (while pedantic) to detract or distract from the main point: the substance and recommendation of the article. So, I totally agree – fair game – and helpful!

  • Taylor

    This is a great point, and actually might merit a whole article from us discussing the difference between absolute and relative risk. Explaining these concepts within an already complicated article is always a judgement call, but addressing them in some some respect is, as you mention, crucial to clarifying what is really going on.

  • Sarah

    Psstt… It’s 42.

  • http://www.untilextinction.com Satan’s Undershorts

    I immediately thought that at the “meaning of life” bit.

  • http://www.untilextinction.com Satan’s Undershorts

    I’ll probably just go on not eating it. Bamboo works well in Asian foods instead of rice to bulk it up a bit and add texture.

  • Soni Pitts

    Have you considered looking into how retrogradation by chilling (aka cooling cooked starches overnight to reduce digestibility of starches) or changing cooking methods figures in? I know it can lower the glycemic index of many grain-based starches quite a bit. But I’m not sure how it affects other aspects (vitamin uptake, etc).

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Retrogradation_(starch)

    http://www.rsc.org/chemistryworld/2015/03/low-calorie-healthy-rice-resistant-starch

  • gson1192

    Excellent information! I feel much better about eating rice now. I’ve tried to keep it out of my “diet plan” (I really have no diet plan), but enjoy eating it sometimes once a week. That shouldn’t hurt…. as long as I get my steps in I should be good to go. LOL

  • http://blog.andrewshell.org/ Andrew Shell

    I was thinking the same thing. There is a whole article about that on the Bulletproof Exec blog. Dave also recommends cooking it with coconut oil to help convert the digestible starch to resistant starch.

    https://www.bulletproofexec.com/low-carb-carbs-hack-your-rice-with-coconut-oil-recipe/

  • Gina Wilp

    But where does wild rice fit into all this? (Vote third party!)

  • Canis Lupus

    And now from the rest of the world: So white rice is enriched in the U.S. (usually)… What about everyone else? It doesn’t say anything in that regard on my rice boxes, so I’d assume there’s no additives in there. I think I’ll stick to “which ever I feel like at the moment” in the white rice vs. brown rice debate. (Vote both parties! Why make a choice? ;-))

  • Laura

    Anyone know anything about the write-in candidate, black rice?

  • Athena L

    What about sprouted brown rice?

  • Olga

    I quit eating rice long ago for i couldn’t decide for myself whether it was good for me or bad and simply stopped eating rice. But yet there has always been kind of doubt within me about the worth of this food. Now I’m not in two minds any more! Rice is not “my idol”! Thanks for awesome investigation,

  • http://ispiraldown.blogspot.jp/ jimjamjeniko

    I hate having IBS normally, but it does (in my case) help to clear up some of these dilemmas, as eating anything that is labelled as multigrain or brown is pretty likely to upset my digestive system, so eating white rice, white pasta and white bread is a pretty obvious choice for me. Thanks, IBS!

    Seeing as I live in Japan, I’m pretty sure that okinawa having long life expectancies has nothing to do with eating rice, but much more to do with other dietary factors (eating oily fish, etc), and lifestyle (okinawa is much more chilled out than the rest of Japan) than it is to do with the rice. If it was to do with rice, then it would affect all of Japan as most people here eat rice at least once a day (if not with every meal).

  • Kim

    This article is a thing of beauty. #TeamWhiteRice

  • bryan

    I noticed there was no mention of pre soaking the brown rice to remove phytates, like I’ve read in so many articles regarding anti nutrients. Not saying it will turn the tide on this election but all arguments should be heard. That being said I prefer white rice but have always tried to choose the brown based purely on the lore.

  • Jonathan Angelilli

    Great post, super thorough.

    One other thought – soaking brown rice overnight (or any other nuts/legumes that have phytic acid) and then rinsing them in the morning will get rid of most of the phytates and make the food more bio-available.

    Dang, water is powerful!

  • Mohammad AlQotob

    Lovely article! I got this into my email and I do love me some grain studies.

  • Marriah

    Having made an informed enough (LOL) decision re: rice several years ago, I nearly didn’t open the e-mail since I didn’t think it would be pertinent to me. However, I did open it. And I loved it. Knew lots
    of it already, didn’t change my mind, but loved this post. 😀

  • Morgan

    get the heck out of here! I was literally just about to google if rice was healthy! You are a wizard of black magic steve and always know what my health questions are

  • http://www.heroform.com HeroForm

    Terrific article about the differences between white rice and brow rice.

  • astra

    Rice is eaten by half the world population.
    1.5 plus Chinese and 1.5 billion plus subcontinent al Indians eat rice.

    I eat rice simply because it’s something I can tolerate and let me tell you I don’t bloat or crave anything weird. What type?
    Depends how I feel although I don’t like jasmine.

    I tried a low carb or no carb diet and Paelo and I’m going to say they don’t work for me. At all.

    I’m with the 3 billion who eat it 3 times a day.
    It’s the amount you have to keep an eye on. One third cup is all you need.

  • SpecialSundae

    I eat a LOT of rice (probably 5 days a week) and almost always go for basmati over standard long grain. Not only is it tastier, but I find it a lot easier to cook. I usually go for white because it’s a lot quicker, but there’s something glorious about brown basmati rice when I’m not trying to get dinner on the table after getting in from the gym at 10pm!
    I’m also a fan of lentils, though. 😉

  • Anna M Porredon

    This was very fun to read! I’ll take the advice of eating the kind that tastes better for me, which is white rice BTW.

  • Owain Blackwood

    Excellent article. I’m a student doctor; normally I wince when I read any health advice related to diet as it’s almost always bad, oversimplified and misleading. This was much better- witty, thoughtful and analytical without being dull. Nicely done!

  • Loveyoumore

    Can you survive eating just brown rice? I know someone who does that but is it really full of energy? Have someone here have eaten just rice

  • Trish Vidal

    It would have been interesting to read about converted (parboiled) rice also. It has a lower glycemic index (38) than brown rice (50) or white rice (89). When rice is parboiled, some of the vitamins and minerals in the bran are absorbed into the kernel, so not all the nutrition of the whole grain is lost during the rest of the processing. This is also what gives parboiled rice a slightly yellow color.

  • MrsWTT

    As an Asian growing up on Jasmine rice and recently being diagnosed with pre-diabetes, this article was very helpful! I think I’m just going to try and stick to as little rice as I can until I can get my AC1s back up to normal. #AsianPeopleProblem #ImCravingJasmineRice #ButILoveBrownRice #CantAllRiceJustGetAlong

  • Ben Stark

    I think rice can be healthy and as far as a grain goes, it’s really maybe the healthiest or perhaps the least unhealthy of the bunch. However, I personally avoid it and all grains as much as possible. It’s quite possible to live very healthy avoiding grains and sugars and perform very, very, very well as an athlete in many sports.

  • http://activelygemma.com Gemma

    This was super helpful! I’ve been extremely down on myself for falling off eating brown rice, but considering the fact I’m not trying to lose weight and that I eat rice regularly, I’m glad I’m making the right choice. Thanks for sharing and informing!!

    Gemma | http://activelygemma.com

  • simon

    Great article. Love it 🙂

  • Andy Laughlin

    Hi Steve,
    Really good article and much better researched than some of the misinformation out there on the web :). Definitely a good read!

    Although there is a lot of great information in the article I think the key take-home is really the last paragraph. I follow a 80% paleo diet and white rice is really the only strictly non-paleo food that I eat regularly – its essentially my carb source. I find that moderating my intake depending on training days and training volume makes a massive difference to body composition.

    Personally I found that brown rice did cause some gastric issues and bloating yet I find absolutely no issues with white rice whatsoever – even when eating copious amounts after training (one of life’s little pleasures!).

    I think for many people (at least those I’ve trained/coached) the issue is less whether they choose brown or white rice but rather the quantities consumed. Paleo eaters seem to have a habit of going a bit crazy on a ‘safe carb’ source once they discover it. The point is that no matter what your source of starch is, it is best to moderate your intake and align with activity levels. Often this is the struggle for those trying to reduce weight and lean out.

    Regarding the studies of the white rice portions per week/month vs likelihood of diabetes, those results are really interesting. However I would be interested as well to know the overall carb intake of those involved in the study. I imagine the overall intake would be the first thing to control if you are pre-disposed and the type of rice would be further down the list.

    Great reading though and great info to take forward!

    Andy

  • http://www.worthwhileworkouts.com Mitch Reed

    I wouldn’t worry too much about phytic acid or or any other naturally occuring compounds in seeds, nuts, etc (barring the obvious poisonous exceptions) unless extensive research points at a need to. Brown rice is a staple of my diet and serves as great fuel for workouts. With all of the useless processed junk people eat nowadays, I’d suggest brown rice every time as most people could benefit from the micronutrients. That said, there’s nothing wrong with white rice….I would just personally pick the more nutrient rich food as a staple in my diet. Thanks Steve for a great read! Very informative.

  • Deepti Roy

    We do eat small amount of white rice around here. I usually ,make well raised sushi rice that i make into one ounce rice balls before freezing. That creates higher levels of resistant starch.!

    Deepti Roy
    http://fazzy.in

  • Linda Bryant

    I eat rice about twice a week, and I always felt soooo guilty about eating white rice even one of those times. Now I feel I can rest assured knowing a serving of white rice a week isn’t going to kill me (I’m at risk of type-2 diabetes). Thanks so much for the great article.

  • J Mareeswaran

    nutrient rich diets like red-meat are a double edged sword as they also feed the malignant cancer cells lining the intestine. In this respect phytate/fiber rich foods act as a defense against these malicious cells. best strategy, I think, is to limit servings of nutrient rich foods and not eat them together with phytate rich foods so that max nutrients can be absorbed

  • http://www.worthwhileworkouts.com Mitch Reed

    Please don’t discourage people from eating nutrient rich foods on the grounds that it is going to feed cancer cells lurking in your body.

  • Obitim

    I wanted to know the exact answer to the age old question, “What’s the meaning of life?”

    I can’t believe you didn’t say you made a typo and typed in the meaning of rice instead…

    Gutted!

  • http://www.sprouting-up.com Victoria Garcia

    And when it’s parboiled it doesn’t have phytates! It’s a win win situation 😉

  • Naseer Expert

    This is fantastic blog and I like this article,
    http://www.ecogreencarpetcleaning4u.co.uk/

  • http://www.defensesoap.com/ Rebecca Dawkins

    Brown rice is surely more healthier than white rice and tastes much better as well.

  • http://www.indjob.in M Khan

    I love to have Rice. Really i I missed that. Thanks for you Deep information.
    http://www.getresultonline.in/2015/08/cbse-10th-time-table-www-cbse-nic-in.html

    M. Khan
    CEO at http://www.getresultonline.in

  • Alka Pandey

    Nice post, No doubt in that brown rice is healthier alternative than white rice. And you can use it in a very smart and delicious way in fried rice recipe.

  • Pingback: Your Beliefs Are Wrong. Are You Willing To Change? | Nerd Fitness()

  • http://www.underconstruction.com Vivek Sood

    I’m gonna eat veggies. I stopped eating rice few months ago. Frakk it 🙂