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White rice. It is a controversial food in nutrition circles. On the one hand, some nutritionists warn us away from rice and grains as a nutritionally empty source of calories, phytates, and even toxins like arsenic. Others consider it a safe starch and say it is ok in moderation.
Then, of course, there is the Japanese paradox- also known as “they eat rice all the time and live a long time so I should be able to eat pizza and Doritos and live to be 100 too” (exaggeration but I’ve heard some arguments very close to that!).
Unlike modern wheat and most other grains, which have been hybridized and modified and can be problematic for many people, rice is unique and potentially less harmful. I get asked about rice often and why I choose to eat white rice (in moderation), so I felt that it deserved its own post.
Is White Rice Healthy?
After years of debate, I’ll skip to the punch line: Whether or not rice is healthy for you could depend on your genetics.
Genes could be why some cultures that eat rice as their primary source of carbohydrates are healthier and live longer than others who do not. Also, just because some cultures thrive on white rice does not mean we can eat pizza, Doritos, and processed rice products and also expect to live to 100!
First, here are some important facts to understand when deciding whether to consume rice at all:
- Due to modern farming practices, rice may be a better choice than wheat and other grains.
- Both brown and white rice are gluten-free. Both brown and white rice are safe for people with celiac disease, gluten intolerance, and gluten sensitivity (unless cross-contaminated during processing, so always read the fine print on the labels!). So there is no reason to choose one over the other on this point.
- All rice contains phytates. Like anything from the grains family, rice contains anti-nutrients like phytates, which can block the absorption of important minerals.
But Aren’t Grains Bad for You?
If you are working to reverse an autoimmune disease as I have, you may be put on an elimination diet with no grains, especially if you have digestive issues. Alternatively, you may be allowed only a ½ cup of gluten-free grains, depending on your specific case.
Now that my Hashimoto’s is in remission, I don’t have to avoid grains totally.
Like any grain, large portions may increase your risk of developing heart disease. However, a 2011 study showed that combining it with black beans lowers cardiovascular risk factors. This finding may confirm that consuming it in moderation is healthiest.
As always, talk to your doctor about how much rice or grains in general you should consume.
But if you do eat rice, which is healthier? Brown or white?
Health Benefits of White Rice vs. Brown Rice
We’ve all spent time agonizing in the grocery aisle over what kind of rice to buy. Long grain or short? Jasmine or basmati? White or brown?
Experts I admire like Mark Sisson recommend brown rice over white (read his excellent article here) due to its higher nutritional content, since it still contains the bran and is less refined.
However, due to my past autoimmune issues, I have a slightly different take:
Pros of White Rice
Here are some of the ways white rice qualifies as a healthy food:
- Contains Vitamins and Minerals – White rice contains magnesium, B1 (thiamine) and B6 (pyridoxine), manganese, phosphorus, selenium, and iron. (Although, admittedly, brown rice contains higher amounts.)
- High in Antioxidants – Although not as high as pigmented varieties of rice
- Lower Phytic Acid – The bran contains the most phytic acid content, which milling removes. White rice is lower in phytic acid than most nuts, seeds, and most other grains.
- Lower Oxalates – White is also lower in oxalates than brown rice and quinoa.
- Lower Arsenic – The lowest levels of arsenic were in white (jasmine rice or basmati rice) imported from other countries. Rinsing the rice (traditionally done in many cultures) further reduced the arsenic levels on all types of rice. I’ve written extensively about the risks of arsenic in rice and what you can do about it.
- Longer Shelf Life – Since it is refined, white rice lasts longer on the shelf. (However, you can always freeze it!)
Cons of White Rice
White rice isn’t perfect, though! Here are some downsides:
- Lower Vitamins and Minerals Than Brown Rice – A 2019 study on rats showed that brown rice lowers cholesterol and has more of an antioxidant effect than white, but white still did to some extent. However, more research is needed to determine if it is the same for humans.
- High Glycemic Index – White rice has a higher glycemic index than gluten and may spike blood sugar more than many other foods. (However, you should know that a 2009 English study found that long grain rice and white basmati rice varieties have the lowest glycemic index if you do choose to include rice in your diet.)
- Often Artificially Enriched – White is typically fortified with artificial vitamins, while brown rice is not.
Remember, individual health is always a factor when assessing dietary choices. Some people may do fine with phytates, while others need to avoid them due to their genetics or a specific health reason. You may want to see how you react to rice with a glucose monitor.
When my husband and I were working to reverse our cavities (we were able to!), we had to avoid foods high in phytic acid. Brown rice was on this list.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are some other questions you’ve asked since I first wrote this post:
Is Rice Naturally Gluten-Free?
Rice is naturally gluten-free, so the most problematic part of many whole grains is already absent from rice. Therefore, it’s generally a safe choice for celiacs and gluten intolerant people, but that doesn’t mean it is healthy for everyone.
At the same time, many people need some healthy carbs, and rice can be a relatively safe starchy option. It’s one of the better choices for a gluten-free diet.
Women in particular often see adverse effects on hormones from consuming too low of a carbohydrate diet for too long. Of all the grains, white rice may be the safest option for carb consumption, along with sweet potatoes.
Is White Rice Healthy for Weight Loss?
A 2016 study demonstrated that instant white and pigmented rice might be beneficial for weight loss compared to a high-fat diet.
More research is needed to determine if regular consumption is healthy for weight loss as part of a well-rounded, healthy diet.
Does Rice Cause Diabetes?
A 2012 study claimed that white rice consumption was associated with a higher risk of Type 2 diabetes. Many questioned if this was enough of a reason to avoid rice. I was surprised by this study when it first came out since historically, Asian countries with high consumption still had a low incidence of diabetes.
However, a 2019 trial in India, the country with the second-largest number of diabetics, showed that consuming white rice increases diabetes risk while consuming brown lowers it.
I researched further and realized that the study showed merely an association between the “risk” of diabetes and rice consumption and not the actual incidence of diabetes. Paul Jaminet (author of The Perfect Health Diet) provides an in-depth explanation for the research if you’re interested.
Listen to this podcast episode with Paul Jaminet on the Perfect Health Diet, Carbs, and Cancer Research.
A 2020 study looked closer at 21 countries and found that South Asians had the highest association for white rice and diabetes while other countries had only a modest risk. This could be due to genetic differences.
What About Rice and the GAPS Diet?
If you’re following a GAPS diet, Dr. Natasha Campbell offers specific guidance here.
What’s the Verdict on Rice?
I consider rice to be in a separate category from other carbs. It doesn’t deserve the same label as most grains (especially modern grains), and it certainly isn’t as bad on the nutritional spectrum as foods like vegetable oils.
The safety of rice consumption seems to vary significantly based on the individual, their cultural background, and the rest of their diet. Some cultures even use rice water for their hair!
In my opinion, those on a high-nutrient diet devoid of inflammatory foods and who have an active lifestyle may do great with moderate rice consumption.
I especially recommend white rice as the best grain to start with if you are reintroducing grains back into your diet after a period of avoidance (properly prepared of course).
If you’d like to know more about what other health and nutrition experts believe on the topic, this post gives a nice summary.
What I Do
Personally, our family consumes organic white jasmine rice occasionally (once a week or less) with veggies. Here are some other guidelines I follow:
- We typically consume more rice and other carbs on heavy workout days or after a lot of activity.
- Before cooking rice, I pre-rinse it to help remove any remaining arsenic.
- All rice varieties still can contain trace amounts of arsenic, so it certainly isn’t one of the first foods I feed to my babies.
- I avoid any processed foods with rice since these may be higher in arsenic since I can’t rinse it off.
- I don’t consider it a “cheat” food because the idea of “cheating” goes against our food rules for creating a positive and healthy attitude about food with our kids.
Bottom line: I love occasionally enjoying some high-quality sushi after a workout or some rice in a stir fry, but I don’t consider it a staple food.
This article was medically reviewed by Cynthia Thurlow, NP, the CEO and founder of the Everyday Wellness Project, nurse practitioner, international speaker, and globally recognized expert in intermittent fasting and nutritional health. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
Where do you stand on the rice debate? White? Brown? None? Share below!