Is White Rice Healthy?

Remember, no single food makes or breaks the healthfulness of your overall eating pattern.

Rice is a staple food for more than half of the world's population. 

According to this article from 2016 in the Journal of Nutritional Science and Vitaminology, there are over 110,000 cultivated varieties of rice, and we typically group the grain into two categories: White and brown. Of the two, white rice is more widely consumed and preferred by many people. 

But you may be wondering if it's healthy to eat. Here's what you should know about white rice nutrition, how it compares to whole grain options, and healthy ways to enjoy any rice you choose.

First, Some Background on White Rice

Rice is a grain. Brown rice is whole-grain rice, with all parts of the grain remaining intact. On the other hand, with white rice, the grain is polished in a way that removes two parts—the bran and embryo—and leaves a starchy section called the endosperm, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

That process removes most of the naturally occurring B vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and fiber. White rice labeled "enriched" means that B vitamins and iron have been added back, but only at a fraction of their original levels.

White Rice Nutrition

One cup of cooked white rice contains just over 200 calories, about four grams of protein, 44 grams of carbohydrates, and less than one gram of fiber, according to the Department of Agriculture. That's about the number of carbs in three slices of white bread.

White rice does contain nutrients such as magnesium, phosphorous, manganese, selenium, iron, folic acid, thiamin, and niacin, according to this article from 2016 in the Journal of Nutritional Science and Vitaminology. White rice is also low in fiber and fat.

Compared to brown rice, the vitamin and mineral content in unenriched white rice is fairly low. For example, a one-cup portion of brown rice provides 78 mg of magnesium compared to 19 mg in white rice. And the potassium content of brown rice is 174 mg per cup cooked compared to 55 mg in white rice. According to the Department of Agriculture, brown rice also packs more fiber at three grams per cup cooked.

It does make sense that white rice would have fewer nutrients than brown rice since when the bran is removed, some nutrients are too, according to this article from 2016 in the Journal of Nutritional Science and Vitaminology.

White Rice and Diabetes

Excess rice consumption may lead to post-meal spikes in blood sugar and, in turn, raise insulin levels. 

A 2020 study published in Diabetes Care looked at data from more than 130,000 people in 21 countries. The researchers found that higher consumption of white rice was associated with an increased risk of incident diabetes

However, they pointed out that while other studies have received similar results, other studies have drawn different conclusions about white rice's impact on diabetes risk. For instance, a study from 2015 published in Annals Nutrition and Metabolism is population-based in China and showed that a diet with high white rice intake led to a lower prevalence of diabetes.

White Rice and Resistant Starch

Cooking and cooling starches, including white rice, have been shown to increase the formation of resistant starch.

According to a 2014 article from Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, resistant starch is a unique carbohydrate that's been shown to naturally up the body's fat-burning furnace. You can't digest or absorb resistant starch. And when it reaches the large intestine, it gets fermented, which triggers the body to burn fat. 

A study from 2015 in the Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition analyzed the resistant starch contents of cooked white rice cooled for 10 hours, and cooked white rice cooled for 24 hours and then reheated.

The results showed that cooling the rice upped the resistant starch content. The consumption of cooked white rice that was cooled for 24 hours and then reheated resulted in significantly lower post-meal blood sugar responses compared to freshly cooked rice. 

So, if possible, allow white rice to cool to room temperature before eating or chill in the refrigerator for later use.

A Quick Review

Keep in mind that no single food makes or breaks the healthfulness of your overall eating pattern, and white rice is an important staple in many cultures.

If you choose white rice over whole grain, consider cooling it before eating it to blunt its impact on blood sugar. And pair white rice with nutrient-rich whole foods. Or alternate white rice with other whole grain options, including brown and wild rice, quinoa, oats, and millet.

Rice can be incorporated into nearly any meal and used in savory and sweet dishes. Try some of the following ideas:

  • Add rice to a breakfast scramble and eggs or plant-based egg substitutes, veggies, and herbs. 
  • Enjoy a grain bowl with rice, veggies, and lean protein.
  • Add it to stir-fries, soups, and veggie chili, or serve it as a side dish. 
  • Tasty rice treats include rice pudding, sticky mango rice, sweet coconut rice, and even toasted rice ice cream. 
  • Rice can also be used in place of oats as a hot or chilled breakfast porridge prepared with plant milk, fruit, nuts or seeds, and spices.
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