The tyranny of brown rice

BrownWhiteRice“Do I have to eat brown rice?”  A friend asked me that recently.  She’s trying to eat healthy. But she hates brown rice.

My answer: “No!”

I know, I’ll probably be disbarred from the nutrition profession for failing to support the tyranny of brown rice.  The constant drumbeat of “Eat Whole Grains” is the official mantra of health professionals.  We’re supposed to eat nothing but whole wheat bread, whole grain pasta and brown rice.  The ChooseMyPlate graphic of grain foods puts saintly brown rice at the top of the list, while white rice is banished to the absolute bottom of the list.  Deliberate?  Or a really sneaky use of alphabetical grouping to promote an agenda: “brown” starts with “b” while “white” starts with “w”.  Never mind that they’re both rice, which starts with “r”.

Every official health organization dutifully advises us to eat whole grains and brown rice: the USDA, the Dietary Guidelines, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the American Heart Association and countless others.  Why?  Food intake studies link consumption of whole grain foods to lower risks for various chronic diseases.  But people who eat more whole grain foods tend to make other healthy choices, such as more vegetables or fruit, healthy fats, less added sugar.  So is it just the whole grains, or is it the whole diet? **

Despite the whole grain PR bandwagon, surveys show that barely 3% of children and 8% of adults eat the requisite dose recommended amount of whole grains, about 3 oz per day, or at least half of all grain-based foods eaten.  Main sources were cereals, bread, oatmeal and popcorn.  Popcorn?!  Yes technically a whole grain.  If it’s loaded with salt or butter, the whole grain benefits may be cancelled.

Getting back to brown rice.  Ask anyone from an Asian country if they eat brown rice instead of white rice and the response is likely a yucky face.  😕 White rice is a staple of Asian cuisine, has been for centuries. And somehow they remain thin and healthy.  Asian cuisine also includes lots of vegetables, fish and little meat.  The food tends to be lower in fat and sugar.  White rice work fine as part of that entire diet.

The key question: what difference would brown rice make to your overall diet.  If you eat rice once or twice a month, not much. If you eat rice every single day, you’d get significantly more fiber. Also brown rice is slightly lower in calories. Here’s a comparison of random nutrients for 1 cup of cooked rice:

       calories  protein    fiber  mg iron  mg B1  mg B6 magnesium
brown     218     4.5  g    3.5 g    1     .2     .3     86 mg
white     242     4.4  g     .6 g   2.8    .3     .1     24 mg

If you like brown rice, fine. It works well in some dishes, particularly rice-based salads.  But it has a strong flavor, and can overwhelm other recipes that were written with white rice in mind.  Healthy food is pointless if it tastes bad and no one eats it.  If you prefer white rice, and the rest of your diet is all about vegetables, healthy fats, nuts, beans, fruit then I see no reason to feel guilty about preferring white rice.

** It’s the whole diet. You knew that. Adding a token serving of brown rice or whole grain bread to a junky diet isn’t going to do much for you.

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