So, which one should you eat? Brown or white rice? The quick and dirty answer? Whichever one you prefer the taste of and it works best for you. Seriously. There are pros and cons to both of them.
I can hear the protesting now. But wait a hot second! Isn’t brown rice healthier?! No way, white is healthier, brown rice has arsenic! Hold on, white rice causes diabetes! But brown rice pokes holes in your intestines!
If you want the more in depth answer, then keep on reading.
But wait a second, brown rice is the healthier choice. Right?
Brown rice is a whole grain. With white rice the bran and germ have been removed. Many nutrients are found in the bran and the germ (other things are also found in the bran and germ, but we’ll get to that in a bit). When you line them up side by side, brown rice does have a smidge more macronutrients then white. However, white rice is higher in some micronutrients too.
Brown rice is higher in niacin, B6, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, copper, manganese and selenium. While white rice has more thiamin, folate and iron. Brown rice also has a more fiber and a bit more fat then white.
Hold up! But I read that brown rice has arsenic in it!
Sadly, yes. In 2010 and then again in 2014, consumer reports tested 60 different varieties of rice and rice based products. They found measurable levels of inorganic arsenic in almost everything they tested (To read their original report go here)
Arsenic is a heavy metal that is toxic. Long term exposure may increase risk for chronic diseases. Regular exposure to small amounts of arsenic increase your risk for multiple different cancers, heart disease and type 2 diabetes. While arsenic is naturally occurring in nature, it is believed that we are seeing an increase in our food supply due to pollution.
Not all rice is the same. Brown rice has 80% more inorganic arsenic then white rice. While white basmati and white sushi rice have the lowest amounts. Interestingly, white rice from California, India or Pakistan is the lowest, with 38% less arsenic then the same type grown elsewhere. Any type of rice grown in Arkansas, Louisiana or Texas has the highest amounts of arsenic.
If you are eating rice often, are pregnant or are feeding a small child, this is something to keep in mind. (FYI, babies should not eat more than 1 serving rice cereal per day and children under 5 should not drink rice milks instead of dairy milk due to the unsafe amounts of arsenic. Just one rice cake, has a child’s weekly limit of arsenic in it).
If you are just consuming white Basmati or sushi rice, you are safe to eat one serving per day. However, keep in mind if you also consume any rice based pastas, rice cakes, rice cereals and rice based baking mixes as those contain arsenic, too.
The good news is, they have found that rinsing the rice very thoroughly before cooking it, and cooking it with a much higher water to rice ratio helps to reduce the amount of arsenic. (The recommended amount is 6 cups water to 1 cup rice, and draining the excess water off once the rice is cooked)
But doesn’t white rice cause diabetes?
There is a study that found those who eat 5 or more servings white rice a week may have an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes.  Keep in mind that is 5 or more servings a week, and these studies did not account for lifestyle or other food choices. Over consuming any carbohydrate will increase your risk for type 2 diabetes.
The same study also noted that people who consumed white rice were more likely to have a family history of diabetes and those who consumed more brown rice were more likely to live a healthier lifestyle.
Doesn’t white rice cause your insulin to spike?
Some foods can cause our blood sugar to rise very fast. This is measured by the glycemic index. The glycemic index is a number, from 0 to 100, and it is based on how fast that food will raise your blood sugar after eating. The higher the number the faster it will cause your blood sugar to rise. Brown rice has a glycemic index of 50 while white has one of 72.
The glycemic index is not a marker of how healthy a food is, just is effects on blood sugar. For example, pizza has a very low index number, but that does not automatically make it a healthy food choice. When you also consume fat or protein along with the rice, that will lower the GI index slightly.
The glycemic index can be important tool not only for those who are trying to control their blood sugar but also for those who are very serious about their workout nutrition. It can be, slightly, more advantageous to consume high glycemic index carbs in the 2 hours following a strenuous workout. The high GI carbs cause a spike in insulin which both decreases muscle breakdown and increases protein synthesis. This is why many tout white rice a a perfect after workout carb source.
I read on the internet that brown rice is bad for you because it pokes holes in your gut and causes all kind of diseases??
Well, yes, no and maybe. First quick background. Our intestines are supposed to have some permeability. That way nutrients can pass to our blood supply. Sometimes things go wrong and our gut allows things that it supposed to be keeping out cross. You’ll hear this referred to as leaky guy or increased gut permeability or intestinal hyperpermeabilty.
Leaky gut has been linked to food sensitivities, autoimmune disease, inflammatory bowel disease, autism, skin conditions, and thyroid problems. Leaky gut is not an official medical diagnosis. They are only starting to study it and understand it. However, just because there is lack of research and evidence does not mean it does not exist.
Back to brown rice. Brown rice contains lectins. Lectins are a type of protein that we are unable to digest. Since we cannot digest them, they damage the lining of our GI tract as they pass through. Now keep in mind all food damages our GI tract as it passes. Normally our bodies repair the damage fairly quickly. With lectins, however, this process may be slowed.
With repeated over exposure (key words here repeated over exposure!) many believe this can lead to increased permeability.
Keep in mind lectins are also found in many other foods like dairy, eggs, wheat, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shell fish. The good news is the effects of these lectins on our GI tract lasts only as long as they are in the body.
In the end, really only people with autoimmune issues or digestive issues really need to be concerned with the amount of lectins they are consuming.
Rice can be part of a healthy diet. Special populations may need to choose wisely though.
- Those who consume a lot of rice based products (like rice based pastas, cereal and baking mixes) should look into white basmati and sushi rice grown in California.
- Those who are at risk of developing type II diabetes or attempting to lose weight would do best to limit their carbohydrate intake all together and choose brown rice when acceptable.
- Those hoping to gain muscle mass with no other health issues, can choose as they wish.
- Those with autoimmune conditions or GI disease may need to limit their intake of brown rice.
For everyone else, weigh your options and pick as you wish.
A., P. (1993, Oct). Dietary lectins are metabolic signals for the gut and modulate immune and hormone functions. Eur j Clin Nutr. , 47(10), 691-9.
Dr. Qi Sun, M. S. (2010, Jun). White Rice, Brown Rice, and Risk of Type 2 Diabetes in US Men and Women. Arch Intern Med., 961-969.
Vasconcelos IM, O. J. (2004, Sept). Antinutritional properties of plant lectins. Toxicon, 44(4), 385-403.