This is the second article in our Controversies series.
In our last blog post, we discussed the facts about whole grains. However, we saved one controversial grain for later because it merited an article of its own.
That grain is rice.
The single most important staple food on the planet, rice currently feeds almost 50 percent of the world’s population.
Americans alone consume an average of a half-cup of cooked rice daily, more than three times of what they ate in the 1930s.
But is rice really good for you?
Today we will look more closely at the myths around rice and explore the different types of rice so we can better answer the question, “Should you be eating rice?”
Is Rice Bad for Our Health?
While white rice consumption is not linked to an increased risk of heart attack or stroke, it does seem to be associated with a higher incidence of diabetes.
Specifically, a meta-analysis of seven studies spanning two decades and 350,000 people showed an association between higher intake of white rice and an elevated rate of type 2 diabetes.
It concluded that a single white rice serving per day could increase the risk of diabetes as much as 11 percent. It also noted that risk of developing diabetes was particularly high in Asian populations.
The numbers shock.
Japan has a higher incidence of diabetes relative to the US despite having eight times less obesity, while the Chinese diabetes rate rivals that of Americans (10 percent for China, 11 percent for the US) even though the former is seven times less obese.
But is it really the rice?
Up until the year 2000, the Chinese enjoyed one of the lowest diabetes rates in the world. What has really changed in the last two decades is an increased consumption of animal-based foods.
Over the past 20 years, pork intake rose a dramatic 40 percent, oil consumption went up 20 percent and the amount of rice in the diet dropped 30 percent!
Since diabetes skyrocketed even though rice consumption decreased, this begs the question: Is the increase in diabetes linked to white rice or the rise of animal food intake?
Moreover, the dramatic uptick in diabetes incidence may also be explained by a little-known fact: combining animal protein with a refined carbohydrate like white rice sends your insulin soaring.
For example, if you feed people mashed white potatoes (a starchy, high carbohydrate food like white rice) and then add an animal protein like tuna fish to the meal, you get twice the insulin spike. Similar results are seen when you combine white flour spaghetti with meat.
Simply put, the addition of the animal protein will make the pancreas work overtime.
What Kind of Rice Should You Eat?
When you think of rice, ‘white’ rice likely comes to mind.
But brown rice emerges as a much healthier alternative because it:
- Contains More Fiber: Brown rice contains four times the fiber compared to white rice.
- Has More Vitamins, Minerals, and Phytonutrients: Brown rice includes an array of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients that are completely lost in the milling process used to create white rice.
- May Lower the Risk of Type 2 Diabetes: While white rice has been linked to a higher incidence of diabetes (when consumed with animal protein), brown rice has been associated with a lower risk. If you replace 1/3 serving per day of white rice with brown rice, you may potentially lower your diabetes risk by up to 16 percent.
- May Decrease the Risk of Cancer: An Adventist Health Study revealed that brown rice is one of four foods associated with a significantly decreased risk of colorectal cancer. According to the study, eating beans, chickpeas, split peas or lentils may lower the risk by up to 33 percent (if consumed at least 3 times a week) while eating brown rice may lower the risk by up to 40 percent with only one single serving a week!
- May Help With Weight Loss: In a study, overweight women were put on a weight-loss diet eating a cup of white rice or cooked brown rice for six weeks. Split into two groups, one group ate white rice and the other ate brown rice. Mid-way in the study they switched: those eating white rice ate brown and vice versa. The results were stunning. When the women ate brown rice, they lost more weight (particularly around the waist), lowered their blood pressure, and experienced less inflammation.
Rice in All Its Glorious Colors
Go beyond brown rice and try other types of this delicious whole grain, including wild and forbidden rice.
Naturally pigmented rice (like black or red rice) might be some of the most nutritious forms of all. Studies have shown that the natural antioxidant-rich plant pigments have a variety of health benefits. including fighting cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.
In fact, these fancier, less known, colored rice variations have everything that brown rice has to offer plus five times more antioxidants, so make sure to include them in your plant-based diet!
What About the Kempner Rice Diet?
When talking about rice, we would be remiss in not at least mentioning the Kempner Rice Diet.
A physician-scientist in the 1950s, Dr. Kempner treated malignant hypertension patients with a radical diet consisting of only white rice and fruit.
If a low-salt diet helps alleviate blood pressure, a low-protein diet helps improve kidney function, and a low-fat/low-cholesterol diet helps the heart, why not combine them all together?
That is exactly what he did. He created a diet with less sodium than any low-sodium diet, less protein than any low-protein diet, and less fat than any low-fat diet.
Dr. Kempner used the diet to treat ‘hopeless’ terminal patients for kidney failure and off-the-charts high blood pressure, and the results were almost unbelievable. Those who followed his diet experienced a rapid improvement in blood pressure, kidney function, and heart health. And in almost two-thirds of his cases, the diet actually reversed the ‘terminal’ ‘incurable’ disease.
While his dietary program was initially created to treat chronic kidney disease and malignant hypertension, Kempner inadvertently revolutionized the treatment of other disorders including obesity. He had hundreds of patients losing hundreds of pounds, proving that morbidly obese people can achieve marked weight reduction without hospitalization, surgery or medicine.
And all by eating rice.
So while admittedly draconian, Dr. Kempner’s diet clearly shows that it is not rice per se that makes you obese—it depends on what you eat with it.
What About Arsenic in the Rice?
Research shows that US rice has some of the highest levels of arsenic in the world. And arsenic is well-known for its ability to cause skin, lung, and bladder cancer in humans.
But why is there so much arsenic in rice?
Apparently, rice is very efficient in taking up arsenic from the soil. And much of the rice produced in the US is grown in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Texas on land once used to grow cotton, where arsenical pesticides were used for decades.
How to Avoid the Arsenic in Rice
Here is the best way to select and prepare rice to avoid high levels of arsenic:
- When buying domestically, look for rice grown in California.
- When purchasing imported rice, choose rice from Thailand, India or China.
- Rinse thoroughly with water (this alone can remove up to 10-20 percent of arsenic).
- Boil your rice in extra water (like you prepare pasta). Use six cups of water for every cup of rice.
- After boiling your rice for 30 minutes, drain the water and return rice to the pot then let it sit for 10 minutes. (This will remove around 35-45 percent of the arsenic.)
- Avoid calorie-dense, concentrated and processed forms of rice or products made with them, including rice flour, puffed rice, rice syrup, and rice milk.
- Check your water supply. Your drinking water can also be a source of arsenic. Ensure your water is safe to use. If in doubt, use purified water for drinking and cooking.
- Vary your rice consumption with other grains such as quinoa, millet, and buckwheat. And choose whole grain brown rice.
In the end, rice does not deserve all the negative press it receives.
Going back to the question, “Should you eat rice?” The answer is a sound yes!
Undoubtedly, brown rice (and its more colorful cousins) will always be a preferred choice over white rice. However, you may decide to eat white rice in moderation, particularly if it will help with your transition to a whole food, plant-based diet.
And remember, just like with other whole grains, it is not the rice that will ‘make you fat.’ It is the company that it keeps!