Ask Eirik: Should I Choose Brown or White Rice, or Perhaps Neither?

riceIt’s time for another edition of Ask Eirik, the series of blog posts dedicated to answering some of the questions I receive through e-mail. If you have any questions you’d like me to provide my two cents on, feel free to use the contact form. The questions I choose to answer here on the blog are those I feel deserve a lengthy reply and/or that revolve around topics I think a lot of people are interested in. I primarily choose to publish those that cover topics/problems I haven’t already written about, so before you shoot me an e-mail, take the time to use the search function in the sidebar.

In today’s edition I’ll give you my thoughts on a question I recently received from Anthony:

Hi I had a question about brown rice and white rice.

I have always heard in the past brown rice is better for you, but I have recently been reading there is no difference between the two and white rice is fine and actually helps protein digestion better and other macronutrients since brown rice has phyletic acid or something like that.

However, I am hesistant to believe that coming from non-experts.

What are your thoughts on brown rice and white rice and is white rice fine to eat?

Before we get into rice in particular, let’s take a quick look at cereal grains in general. I’ve previously outlined the nutritional shortcomings and potential problems of cereal grains, so I’m not going to delve into that here other than to provide a summary of some of the main points. Cereal grains…

  • are a relatively novel addition to the human diet. Eating some whole grains every now and then is not a problem for most people, but humans are clearly not well-adapted to consume the grain-based diet high in breakfast cereals, breads, and pasta that is now popular in most industrialized societies. Contrary to what some dietitians and public health authorities claim, following the standard food pyramid, which has cereal grains as its foundation, is not the path to choose for optimal health.
  • have a relatively poor micronutrient profil compared to fruits, vegetables, and other foods that were regularly consumed by our preagricultural ancestor (1).
  • contain a wide range of potentially problematic antinutrients (1, 2).
  • are very high in starch. In my comprehensive 4-part series on carbohydrates I made the case that getting about 20-40% of the daily calories from carbohydrate is a good general guideline for most people. However, I also said that a high-carbohydrate diet isn’t necessarily problematic. It all depends on the types of foods you’re eating and how they’re produced, prepared, and processed. A carb-heavy diet made up of fruit juices, refined grain products, and sugar-laden breakfast cereals is clearly very different from a carb-heavy, ancestral diet rich in root vegetables and fruits, such as the one consumed by the Kitavans on the Island of Kitava.
    The problem with cereal grains is that they have a higher starch density than anything we’ve been consuming throughout most of our evolutionary history. All of the plant foods that were eaten by Paleolithic humans had a maximum carbohydrate density of 23% (3), and I’ll argue that these are the types of foods we’re best adapted to eat. Unless you’re a hard training endurance athlete, you don’t need that much starch to fuel your activities. Personally, I consume about 75-150 grams of carbohydrate each day (excluding dietary fiber), and I find that this is enough to fuel the types of activities I’m doing, which are primarily sprinting, strength training, some rowing, and plenty of walking.

As the knowledgeable reader might point out, there are some healthy non-westernized populations that have seemingly thrived on diets high in grains. However, the thing to remember is that most of these cultures, such as the ones studied by Dr. Weston A. Price, eat foods of very high quality, and if cereal grains are a part of their diet, they are often soaked, sprouted, and/or fermented, something that removes a lot of the problematic antinutrients and/or decreases the starch content. The Okinawans in Japan, which are among the most long-lived people ever studied, have been known to eat a diet high in white rice. However, they produce and prepare the rice differently than in Western nations.

The fact that some healthy non-westernized populations eat/ate a diet high in rice and other cereal grains clearly doesn’t mean that this is necessarily optimal.

If you ask your dietitian whether you should eat brown or white rice, he/she will probably say to go for the brown version, as it retains fiber and micronutrients, as opposed to white rice which is basically just a very dense source of starch. However, if you ask someone who is involved in the Paleo community, he/she might tell you that white rice is the best choice, as brown rice is higher in antinutrients, such as phytic acid as you mention. Personally, I would pick brown rice if I had to choose between the two types, largely because it is more nutrient-dense and higher in fiber and because I don’t like how white rice impacts my blood glucose and insulin levels. If I were to consume brown rice regularly, I would take the time to use traditional processing techniques (e.g., soaking) to remove some of the antinutrients.

Okay, let’s wrap things up… As you’ve probably gathered, rice is definitely not the worst carbohydrate-rich food you can include in your diet, and for hard-training fitness enthusiasts who burn through a lot of glucose every day, I would argue that rice is a pretty good choice when it comes to refilling glycogen stores. However, as mentioned, I believe roots and tubers (e.g., yams, sweet potatoes) and other “Paleo-appproved” starchy foods are superior to rice, as they are more nutrient dense, higher in fermentable fiber, lower in antinutrients (than brown rice), and have a starch density that the human body is better equipped to handle.

Personally, I get most of my starch from tubers such as sweet potatoes. I don’t make an attempt to avoid rice, but I don’t make it a regular part of my diet either…

Comments

  1. Eirik- How do the Okinawans in Japan “… prepare the rice differently than in Western nations.”?
    Thanks.

    • Hi Peter!

      Let’s take a closer look. I say in the article that the Okinawa diet is high in rice, which it is compared to H-G diets and most other traditional diets. However, it contains smaller quantities of rice than the traditional Japanese diet. E.g., the dietary intake of Okinawans compared to other Japanese circa 1950 shows that Okinawans consumed less rice (154 grams vs 328g) (1). Sweet potatoes on the other hand were consumed in much greater quantities among the traditional Okinawans (849g vs 66g) (1).

      As for the types of rice they were eating, and the preparation and processing, here is some info:

      After the 1960s standards of living [among the Okinawans] improved, physical activity declined, and Westernization (increased fat, meat and bread) and Japanization (increased polished Japanese or “Japonica” white rice) of the diet occurred, with large shifts in energy balance. (1)

      Here’s a quote from a recent HuffingtonPost article that addresses exactly what you’re wondering about:

      BROWN RICE: In Okinawa, where centenarians eat rice every day, both brown and white rice are enjoyed. Nutritionally, brown rice is superior. Okinawan brown rice, tastier than the brown rice we know, is soaked in water to germinate until it just begins to sprout, unlocking enzymes that break down sugar and protein and giving the rice a sweet flavor and softer texture.

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