By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
A major part of promoting your long-term wellness is eating right—specifically, eating the Pan Asian Modified Mediterranean (PAMM) diet. And a major part of PAMM is eating low-glycemic carbohydrates.
Focusing on low-glycemic carbs is one of the healthiest things you can do for yourself. It reduces the amount of sugar you consume, which means your body releases less insulin—a factor that helps drive inflammation and disease.
Most of the food choices involved in making the switch to low-glycemic carbs are easy. Cookies, candy, cake (desserts in general, I’m sorry to say), and most processed foods, for example, are no-brainers. They shouldn’t be within 100 yards of your dinner table!
Some foods are trickier, though—like rice.
On one hand, it’s routinely eaten in the Pacific, so it seems like it should be part of the PAMM menu. On the other, it’s a processed carbohydrate. Is it a yes or a no? And if it’s a yes, should you eat brown rice or white rice? Or is there even much of a difference?
Let’s take a closer look at how to handle this food…
Is Rice Healthy?
First things first: Is rice healthy in the first place? Should you eat it at all?
Here I take much the same position as I do with pasta. It’s okay to eat rice in small portions, and it’s the most nutritious in its least processed form – brown rice. However, brown rice can also contain more toxic arsenic than white rice (more on this below), so it’s not such a clear choice in the name of health.
White vs. Brown Rice Nutrition
Brown rice is a whole grain that contains both the bran and the germ, which provide both dietary fiber and a number of vitamins and minerals. The extra fiber and protein in the bran and germ also help lower the glycemic index of brown rice, although not enough for me to green light eating as much as you want.
White rice actually starts out as brown rice, but it’s milled and polished to remove the bran and germ. Unfortunately, this process also strips away a lot of its essential nutrients—that’s why you often see white rice that’s “enriched.” Some of those nutrients are added back in before packaging.
Brown rice tends to be higher in sodium, and it has significant amounts of some trace minerals, including manganese, selenium, and magnesium. White rice is likely to contain more calcium, folate, and iron, but that’s because of the enrichment process.
There’s one reason I would choose white rice over brown rice, and that’s arsenic. Unfortunately, rice tends to absorb naturally occurring arsenic from the water and soil in which it’s grown, as well as arsenic from pesticides. When the bran and germ of the brown rice are stripped away during processing into white rice, it actually reduces the amount of arsenic since a lot of it is found in those layers. Hence, rice is one of those rare cases where more processing may actually result in a healthier product.
Brown Rice for Healthy Blood Sugar and a Happier Gut?
Aside from the arsenic dilemma (no small thing), brown rice – like other whole grain foods, when eaten in moderate amounts can help you promote healthy cholesterol ratios, head off heart disease, and balance your insulin levels. How? Fiber.
To start, fiber slows digestion. It takes your body longer to break down fiber, so it’s not as quickly absorbed as other carbohydrates. As a result, it can help you feel fuller longer, and it can help prevent sharp spikes in your insulin level. This has the overall effect of helping to prevent inflammation, the primary cause of heart disease and other chronic, progressive diseases.
Another reason I love fiber is for how it helps the gut. In addition to keeping things “moving,” fiber is a primary food source for the good bacteria in the GI tract. The more of it you consume, the more they consume and the stronger and healthier your microbiome becomes.
Science has only scratched the surface of understanding the ways gut bacteria influence our health. But I can tell you that keeping them healthy is linked with better immunity, improved digestion, mood, and weight management, among other benefits.
The ability of brown rice to keep blood sugar and insulin levels on an even keel has another big benefit, too. Replacing just one-third of a daily serving of white rice with brown rice could cut your risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 16 percent! That said, arsenic toxicity can also lead to increased risk of diabetes, so – again, if you’re going to eat rice, consume small amounts here and there, not two scoops at every meal.
So Which Is Better – Brown Rice or White Rice?
Before I discovered the problem of arsenic in rice, I would have declared organic brown rice to be a no brainer. Now I’m more in the white rice camp, but only if it’s organic and from certain regions. Of all the different types of white rice, basmati from California, India and Pakistan appears to be among the safest choices. I also love carnaroli rice, which is sometimes referred to as the “caviar of rice.” Grown in northwest Italy, this short-grain white rice is used to make one of my all-time favorite dishes—risotto.
The problems with traditional rice, coupled with my desire to find the best risotto possible, led me to create my own product: Organic Artichoke Risotto. Not only is it certified organic, I made sure the carnaroli rice gets rigorously tested to ensure arsenic levels are well within acceptable ranges. Luckily, this rice is consistently very low in arsenic and a really healthy option if you’re a rice lover.
- Harvard University TH Chan School of Public Health. Replacing white rice with brown rice may reduce diabetes risk. 14 June 2010. Accessed December 12, 2017.
- Karagas M, et al. Rice intake and emerging concerns on arsenic in rice: a review of the human evidence and methodologic challenges. Curr Environ Health Rep. 2019 Dec;6(4):361-72.
- Mohan V, et al. Effect of brown rice, white rice and brown rice with legumes on blood glucose in overweight Asian Indians: a randomized controlled trial. Diabetes Technol Ther. 2014 May 1; 16(5): 317–325.
- Oberst L. Arsenic in rice: how concerned should you be? Food Revolution Network. 2018 Mar 2. Updated 2020 Dec 3.
- Ware, M. Which is better for you: Brown rice or white rice? Medical News Today. 24 Oct 2017. Accessed December 12, 2017.
- Whelan, C. Brown rice vs. white rice: Which is better for you? Healthline. 10 July 2017. Accessed December 12, 2017.
© Stephen Sinatra, MD. All rights reserved.