Nutrition Spotlight: Rice – Food Friend or Foe?

Rice was the most ubiquitous food crop on the planet for millennia (until it was recently usurped by its Machiavellian arch rival corn), it was one of the first crops to be widely cultivated at the dawn of agriculture in the East, and has been a staple of Asian food culture ever since.

Traditional Eastern cuisine has long been thought of as one of the healthiest diets on the planet, and rice has become widely accepted as a good food choice, a staple in health food shops and on clean eating menus.

More recently however, rice has received criticism from various corners of the nutrition world – first white rice was bashed by the “wholegrains are healthy” and “fibre is good for you” crowd, as it was a refined food, stripped of its nutrients and fibre. Next all rice was off the menu, first because the low carb crowd said it was a root cause of diabetes, heart disease and obesity along with all other carbohydrates, and then because it wasn’t “Paleo” – Only 10,000 years young, we simply weren’t ready for its grainy goods.

So what’s our take on the matter? Should rice be on or off the menu, and if on, should it be white or brown?

White Rice - Healthy Staple or Empty Calories?

White Rice – Healthy Staple or Empty Calories?

The answer, as usual, is “It depends” – There is a bit of truth on all sides of the arguments.

First, let’s look at the difference between brown and white rice.

Brown rice is the whole grain. The brown part is the husk. Remove this husk and you are left with white rice.

The “Wholegrains are healthy” crowd argue that all the essential nutrients are in the husk, so if you remove it you’re just left with pure carbohydrate – empty calories.

Those advocating a “Paleo” diet on the other hand, argue that the husk contains all the anti-nutrients, the main culprits in rice being phytates, which block mineral absorption.

Both are actually correct. The husk does contain all the essential nutrients, but they are bound up with phytates, and various other anti-nutrients, which essentially make them indigestible by any human which might eat them.

In terms of essential nutrients, it really makes little difference whether you eat brown or white rice. They are both a poor source. The white rice is a poor source as it doesn’t contain any, the brown rice a poor source as although it’s packed full of vitamins and minerals, you can’t access them. It’s a bit like having a safe full of money, but no key!

So rice is essentially empty calories – this is surely a bad thing?

Some nutritionists liken eating rice to consuming sugar, stating that as it’s pretty much pure glucose, there’s little to no difference.

This isn’t really the case though, as there’s a big difference between the long chains of glucose starch found in rice, and the short disaccharide of glucose and fructose.

Excessive sugar consumption causes a rapid spike in blood sugar, and all of the fructose needs to be processed by the liver. This isn’t a major issue in moderate quantities, but when consumed in excess can lead to non alcoholic fatty liver disease, and is likely a major factor in rising rates of diabetes.

The glucose from rice on the other hand, is released relatively slowly, and can be taken up directly from the blood stream into the muscles. Glucose is also the primary fuel for the brain and many other essential processes in the body.

Rice, therefore, while a poor source of nutrients, can be a good source of fuel for your body and brain.

Whether it’s a good choice for you, depends on whether you’re in need of extra energy.

If your goal is fat loss, it’s probably best to give rice of any kind a miss. Body fat is stored energy – if your aim is to burn it, you don’t want to be consuming a food which is basically pure energy. Instead, focus on nutrient dense, but low calorie foods. (Hint: Vegetables).

If you don’t want to lose weight, or perhaps even want to gain weight, or are simply very active and need plenty of fuel, rice could be a good option.

Personally, I go for white rice – I prefer the taste, and I’d rather play it safe and ditch the anti-nutrients, and get my nutrients from elsewhere by combining it with nutrient dense foods such as fish, seafood or pastured meat, and lots of vegetables – think traditional, home made Asian dishes such as stir fries and sushi – to ensure you’re getting plenty of good fats, vitamins and minerals.

If you prefer brown rice, however, it’s probably not going to cause you any issues.

If you’ve got any thoughts or questions about rice, or any other grains for that matter, we’d love to hear from you below in the comments!

Image courtesy of Suat Eman / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

3 Comments

  1. josh

    Just to let you know, fructose does not cause high blood sugar spikes compared to glucose in rice. Fructose has a particularly low GI. Somewhere around 30-40 I think.

    Josh

    Reply
    1. SimonPrimal (Post author)

      Hi Josh,

      Thanks for commenting.

      That is correct, though doesn’t really have any bearing on what we are talking about here.

      My point was, that some people liken rice to (table) sugar, as in sucrose. Sucrose is a disaccharide containing one molecule of glucose, plus one molecule of fructose (incidentally, it has a higher GI than fructose, but lower than pure glucose, though as below, this should have little to no importance for most people).

      Glucose can be absorbed directly by the muscles, and is great for refuelling after a workout. Fructose however has to be processed by the liver first before it can be used or stored.

      The small amounts of fructose naturally occurring in fruits is no problem, but when it is ingested in large quantities (typically in the form of processed sugars such as sucrose and HFCS), this can put undue strain on the liver, leading to issues such as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease etc.

      As far as GI and GL go, these may well be useful measures for people with diabetes, but after many studies, they have been debunked as having any value for healthy people. Indeed, even for diabetics, choosing to eat lots of fructose because it has a low GI is probably ill advised.

      Hope this helps clarify matters.

      Reply

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