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 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 the lowdown on 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. 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 School of Public Health. This process removes the majority of naturally occurring B vitamins, in addition to 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 4 grams of protein, 44 grams of carbohydrate, and less than 1 gram of fiber, according to the US Department of Agriculture. That's about the number of carbs in three slices of white bread, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

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 US Department of Agriculture, brown rice also packs more fiber at 3 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 of the 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, though they pointed out that while other studies have received similar results, there are also other studies that have drawn different conclusions about white rice's impact on diabetes risk. For instance, this 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 then cooling starches, including white rice, has been shown to increase the formation of a substance called resistant starch. According to this 2014 article from Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, resistant starch is a unique kind of 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 freshly cooked white rice, cooked white rice cooled for 10 hours, and cooked white rice cooled for 24 hours and then reheated.

The results showed that cooking the rice upped the resistant starch content. In addition, researchers assessed the impact of the three rice samples in 15 healthy adults. The consumption of both types of cooled rice resulted in significantly lower post-meal blood sugar responses compared to freshly cooked rice. If it's possible, allow white rice to cool to room temperature before eating, or chill in the refrigerator for later use.

Bottom Line

Because of the way white rice is made, it is lower in certain nutrients, like fiber and magnesium, compared to brown rice. Brown rice is a whole grain, while white rice is parts of the grain, which leads to fewer nutrients. But even though brown rice contains more nutrients, white rice does also contain some healthy nutrients, according to this article from 2016 in the Journal of Nutritional Science and Vitaminology.

If you choose white rice over whole grain, consider cooling it prior to eating it in order 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.

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.

And remember, rice can be incorporated into nearly any meal and used in both savory and sweet dishes. Add rice to a breakfast scramble, along with 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 as a side dish. Tasty rice treats include rice pudding, mango sticky 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. There are many ways to enjoy white rice.

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