Is eating white rice really unhealthy?

Is White Rice Bad For You? (I’m Eating 22lbs in 33 Days to Find Out)

Let’s be honest.

White rice gets a really bad rap.

OK, that’s hardly surprising when you take a look at what it contains:

• Arsenic (a Group 1 carcinogen) and phytates (anti-nutrients)

What it doesn’t contain:

• Fiber or “any real nutritional value”

Let alone what effect it has on your body:

• “Unhealthy spikes in blood sugar”

Even worse:

• It’s associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes

and

• Many folks believe that it can lead to sudden and dramatic fat gain

Hell, it makes Keyser Söze look like Mister Rogers.

But is white rice bad for you?

Well, I’m not convinced.

White rice: good or bad depends on context

OK, I know that might sound crazy but here’s why…

(And what I’m hoping to find out by eating 22 lbs of it in just 33 days)

Arsenic? What’s the Problem?

Yeah, I know – arsenic is a Group 1 carcinogen…

The same as:

Alcohol, estrogen therapy, air pollution, sunlight, processed meat, salted fish, wood dust, tobacco smoke and tanning beds

All things that none of us freak out over, right?

And get this:

To receive the acute lethal dose of arsenic from white rice, a 200-lb man would have to eat something like…

…400 POUNDS of the stuff in one day!

Bottom line?

If you came anywhere close to even a fraction of that, you’d have way bigger problems than arsenic.

So, here’s the real question:

What does long-term exposure to low doses of arsenic do to your health?

And the shocking answer is…

…nobody fricking knows!

Surprising things about white rice

The same way nobody knows the long-terms health risks of:

• Using a smartphone,

• Living in polluted cities, 

• Not getting enough sleep,

• Getting stressed at work,

…and a gazillion other things.

But we tend to ignore all that stuff, right?

And we focus instead on things that — while way less important — are much more easily controlled.

So we start wondering what’s wrong with white rice or if it’s even healthy in the first place.

And whatever we look for, we find.

But here’s the bottom line:

Avoiding white rice because of fears about arsenic is just plain crazy

So forget arsenic – we all start running much bigger risks every time we get out of bed in the morning.

Phytates? So What?

Fact:

Brown rice contains way more phytates than white rice.

Why is that a problem?

Because phytates can bind with certain minerals (such as iron and zinc) and prevent their absorption.

And if you’re chronically deficient in minerals, that’s a really bad deal.

Which makes it sound like white rice is healthier than brown rice…

Bowl of white rice

But here’s something that’s easily overlooked:

Phytates don’t act like an ON/OFF switch

So, if you consume a tiny amount of phytates, it doesn’t mean that all mineral absorption stops in its tracks.

Ultimately, if you eat a diet rich in minimally processed whole foods, you’ll be getting in all the nutrients your body needs.

Even after phytates have done their thing.

Bottom line?

Making food choices based on their phytate content is just nuts.

(And yes, nuts can have high levels of phyates too)

Ultimately, the whole question of brown rice vs white rice simply comes down to whichever you prefer eating.

Fiber & “No Nutritional Value”

OK, here’s where things get a little bizarre.

Why?

Because the “white rice is healthier” folks point the finger at brown rice’s higher levels of arsenic and phytates.

(As you’ve already seen, both of those earn a big, fat “so what?” from us)

But on the other hand…

The “brown rice is healthier” camp point out white rice’s lower levels of fiber, vitamins and minerals.

Hell, some even go as far as claiming that white rice has “no nutritional value”.

So, what gives?

Well first off, white rice contains things like:

B vitamins,

Iron,

Selenium, and

Manganese

All are essential for human health, so the “no nutritional value” claim is completely wrong.

And as for brown rice being more nutritious than white rice?

Well, keep in mind that brown rice contains no vitamin or mineral that can’t be obtained from elsewhere in the diet.

That’s the problem with thinking about foods in isolation rather than them simply being part of a much bigger picture.

And the lack of fiber?

Well, assuming that you’re not relying solely on rice for your fiber intake, that’s probably a non-issue, too.

Bottom line:

Claiming that brown rice is good for you or that white rice is unhealthy without specifying the context in which they’re being consumed is pretty much meaningless.

Either (or both) can be part of a healthy diet.

But what about the $64,000 question…

Is White Rice Fattening?

Now, the thing about white rice spiking insulin, being linked to type 2 diabetes, and leading to fat gain all pretty much comes down to this:

Eating white rice causes blood sugar to rise

Rising blood sugar levels lead to increased insulin release

Insulin blunts fat burning and promotes fat storage

(among other things)

Therefore, white rice is fattening and a cause of type 2 diabetes.

But hold on…

Let’s keep in mind that blood sugar levels (and subsequent insulin release) don’t work like ON/OFF switches, either.

And get this:

Even the experts don’t agree!

So, while Harvard School of Public Health published a study, concluding:

Higher consumption of white rice is associated with a significantly increased risk of type 2 diabetes…

Other scientists were quick to point out that:

…no single type of food is directly linked or associated with the development of type 2 diabetes.

So this study does not provide any strong evidence that eating lots of white rice will put people at increased risk of type 2 diabetes.

– Dr Iain Frame, former Director of Research, Diabetes UK

Bottom line?

The whole “white rice causes fat gain and diabetes” thing is little more than a modern-day fairytale that sells more diet books.

Hell, if you think eating white rice makes you fat, just look at Japanese folks.

Here in the land of the rising sun, the rice cooker is steaming away in the kitchen pretty much 24/7…

…yet Japanese folks have an obesity rate of only around 3%.

While in the US, it’s over 30%!

But some people claim that Japanese folks have adapted to eating rice, so it doesn’t make them fat.

And that’s where my little experiment comes in.

Eating 22 lbs of white rice in 33 days

That means consuming this entire 10-kg/22-lb bag of Hokkaido rice…

Is white rice really that bad? I'll find out!

…in a tad over a month.

Sapporo Classic for scale :)

That translates to something like 18 lbs of carbohydrate and 37,000 Calories in total.

Gulp…

Just to be clear, I’ll be eating other stuff, too – this isn’t a white-rice only diet.

And I’m really interested to see the effect it has on my body.

That’s why I had a blood test done last week, and I’ll have another one done when I’m through.

Here are the results of last week’s test:

Fasting blood glucose: 92 mg/dL

LDL-c: 119 mg/dL

HDL-c: 67 mg/dL

Triglycerides: 60 mg/dL

Apo-B: 80 mg/dL

And here’s what I weighed first thing this morning:

Bodyweight: 183.2 lbs

So, there it is.

Now all I have to do is cook it and eat it :)

(Update: you can check out my final results here!)

But let’s finish off with the original question:

Is White Rice REALLY Bad For You?

So, does white rice deserve its bad rap?

Rice, rice baby

 Rice, rice baby…

Honest answer:

Probably not.

All the fuss about arsenic, phytates, fiber and micronutrients distracts us from the two most important things:

The amount being eaten and the context in which it’s being consumed

But, as a caucasian guy that’s “unadapted to rice”, I’m interested to see what will happen over the next month.

• Will my fasting blood sugar go through the ceiling?

• Will my blood lipids go into a flat spin?

• Will I pile on a whole bunch of weight?

Who knows?

So, stay tuned…

(Update: Check out the results here!)

– Tim 

Images: Bigstock.com, Flickr: Galaxy fm – Robert Matthew Van Winkle

References: Consumer ReportsWikipedia

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