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Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
12 Oct

How Bad is Rice, Really?

The cereal grain family prides itself on its powerful, expansive arsenal of lectins, phytates, gluten, and other antinutrients. A single seed of its patriarch, wheat, can punch holes in gut linings with ease, and cousin oat has managed to obtain official recognition as being good for the heart even as it doses you with gluten. As healthy whole grains, they hide their armaments in plain sight; they cloak their puny bodies in the very poisons for which they are lauded and applauded. We Primals have got a heated feud going with the family as a whole, but should we paint all its members with the same brush?

Let me draw your attention to rice – diminutive member of the cereal grain family, frequent component of anti-low-carb advocates’ arguments, and the source of much consternation among grain abstainers. Is white rice the proverbial black sheep of the grain family? Does it deserve our full and unwavering opposition? Or, perhaps, can we treat rice like that crazy uncle who drinks a bit too much at family gatherings – occasional visits of short duration are fine and mostly harmless so long as you keep the hard stuff (scotch/soybean oil) locked up?

I’m starting to think it’s not quite so bad as we sometimes portray it. Sure, rice is nutritionally bereft, but it’s not all that offensive when compared to other, more heavily fortified grains.

As a seed, rice does employ a number of anti-consumption deterrents, most of which are located in the hull and bran. Let’s take a look…

Phytate

Phytate, or phytin in rice, binds to minerals, rendering them largely useless to any animal that consumes it. Well, rats can break through the phytate and get at the minerals fairly well, but they evolved that ability – we did not. Heat does little to phytate, but, since it’s located in the bran, physically removing the bran removes the phytate. That’s why brown rice eaters tend to have poorer mineral balances than white rice eaters.

Trypsin inhibitor

Trypsin is a digestive enzyme produced by mammals to cleave protein peptides in twain and reduce them to their constituent parts – amino acids – for easy absorption. Without trypsin (or with it inhibited), we’d be hard pressed to digest all the protein we eat. Luckily for rice eaters, trypsin inhibitor is located primarily in the outer embryo of the rice seed, with a bit in the bran, and none in the polished, milled seed. Bran-free white rice has no trypsin inhibitor. Steaming rice bran deactivates it, too.

Haemagglutinin-lectin

While rice doesn’t have something as pernicious as the gluten lectin agglutinin, it does feature haemagglutinin-lectin, which can bind to specific carbohydrate receptor sites in the intestinal lining and impede nutritional absorption. Again, though, it’s only found in the bran, and standard steam cooking inactivates its toxicity.

The common thread is that white, milled, polished rice is basically pure starch. All the chemical negatives are found in the hull, husk, and bran, and those are easily removed or negated. It is essentially a blank slate, nothing all that bad about it, but nothing all that great, either.

Well, wait: there is the fact that rice contains potential allergens, which cannot be neutralized by processing. Rice allergy isn’t necessarily common, but its incidence rises in countries that eat a lot of rice. Wheat-sensitive individuals and others with food-related autoimmune disorders seem more susceptible to rice allergy, too (big surprise there), and allergic reactions generally manifest as atopic dermatitis, eczema, gastrointestinal distress, or asthma. If you’re sensitive to food in general and grains in particular, rice could pose a problem. And even if it doesn’t cause an immediate reaction, there remains the question of latent, hidden damage. As I’ve mentioned before, gluten is damaging even to supposedly wheat-resilient individuals. Is rice doing similar damage on a lesser scale, even to asymptomatic people? It’s certainly possible.

Varieties

There are tons of different rice varieties. Check out this exhaustive list of dozens upon dozens for an idea. Now, if this were a post about dozens upon dozens of strains of cattle (note: I’m actually not sure how many different types of cow exist; perhaps this would make a good future post), I would go into each and every variety with exquisite detail. Beef, after all, is a staple food for us. We’d do well to know everything about it. But rice? Rice is not a Primal staple. I’m not very interested in which Cambodian variety contains the most magnesium, or whether Bangladeshi ultra-short grain is superior to Indian red rice. It’s all very interesting, I’m sure, but I don’t want to become a boutique rice guy. I’m just interested in whether or not having some sushi or Vietnamese rice porridge with pig blood and organs now and then will derail efforts – and I think most of you are in the same boat. Here are some of the basic rice varieties you’ll come across.

Brown Rice

It’s the “healthier” choice because it still has the bran, with all its nutrients. In a 100g dose, raw brown rice contains:

  • 77 g carb
  • 3.5 g fiber
  • 3 g fat
  • 8 g protein
  • 0.4 mg thiamin (Vitamin B1)
  • 5 mg niacin
  • 1.5 mg iron
  • 143 mg magnesium
  • 223 mg potassium

I mean, even the most ardent zero-carber would have to admit that brown rice sports an impressive nutrient profile (to clarify, that’s 100g raw; 100g cooked is far less impressive). But most of it is bound up with phytic acid and mostly useless to humans. Rats and other rodents produce phytase, which breaks down phytic acid and releases the bound minerals, but until we engineer rat-human hybrids, we’re not enjoying the full potential of brown rice. Another option is to soak and ferment brown rice, as Stephan details here. To me, though, this just sounds like a ton of work, and I worry that the newly unbound minerals will just leech into the soaking/fermenting liquid along with the phytate and the other antinutrients. If you toss the liquid, won’t you be tossing the nutrients, too? Hopefully Stephan can chime in with some clarification.

White Rice

Mostly neutral. A 100g dose (raw) contains:

  • 80 g carb
  • 1 g fiber
  • 0.6 g fat
  • 7 g protein
  • 0.07 mg thiamin
  • 1.6 g niacin
  • 0.8 mg iron
  • 25 mg magnesium

Pretty meager, right? Not many nutrients, pretty high in starchy carbs – eating white rice and nothing but will lead to nutritional deficiencies fast, but not because white rice is leeching nutrients from you. It’s simply a matter of displacement. White rice replaces other, more nutritious foods, and in some cases, it acts as a vehicle for negative foods, like rancid oils and sugar.

Parboiled Rice

Parboiled rice is interesting. Parboiling involves partially boiling the intact rice seed – husk, bran, and all. This, in theory, is supposed to incorporate some of the bran’s nutrients into the interior. The parboiled rice is then dried and milled, producing a white rice with greater nutrient content than regular white rice. How does it pan out? A 100g raw dose contains:

  • 81 g carb
  • 2 g fiber
  • 1 g fat
  • 7.5 g protein
  • 0.224 mg thiamin
  • 5 mg niacin
  • 0.74 mg iron
  • 27 mg magnesium

It kinda works. There’s very little mineral change from white rice (perhaps even a reduction), but some of the vitamins seem to increase by parboiling. Interesting.

Wild Rice

Wild rice is pretty high in nutrient content, but, as with brown rice, the antinutrients are present and the minerals are mostly bound by phytate. In a 100g raw dose of wild rice:

  • 75 g carb
  • 6 g fiber
  • 1 g fat
  • 15 g protein
  • 0.115 mg thiamin
  • 6.7 mg niacin
  • 2 mg iron
  • 177 mg magnesium

If you’re willing and able to figure out a way to soak and ferment wild rice while retaining all nutrients and minerals and discarding the antinutrients, it’s probably not such a bad option for a post-glycolitic workout carb.

The Peril of Categorization

Wheat is not awful because it’s a grain. It’s awful because it contains gluten (among other things). “Grain” is simply a valuable linguistic tool to promote better dietary choice-making. Rice is a grain that happens to be not so awful in certain circumstances – on the occasional dinner plate of a lean, insulin-sensitive individual; after a glycogen-depleting workout; underneath a massive slab of yellowtail prepared specially by a sushi-chef in appreciation of your enthusiasm for his creations. It’s a cheat that almost isn’t, that neither necessitates eventual pangs of guilt nor causes – for most people – pangs of gastric distress.

There is nuance to all things. Though categorization is a valuable, essential data management tool, one that helped propel us to the top of the food chain (grouping bits of data together into categories allows us to handle more mental “stuff” at once), we run the risk of forgetting that these groups are made up of individual, non-homogenous bits. There is danger in missing the trees for the forest. Rice is a grain, yes, but it’s not the same as wheat, barley, oats, or corn. Avoiding grains as a general rule is good for your health, and that goes for rice, but be realistic. A bit of white rice with a restaurant meal is not going to kill you.

Don’t take this as blanket approval for immediate regular rice consumption, however. It’s not black and white. Rice exists on one end of the “grain suitability” continuum. You know how I’ve discussed the dairy continuum? Raw, grass-fed one on end and low-fat, homogenized, ultra-pasteurized on the other. It’s the same for grains. High-gluten wheat on one (very bad) end and rice on the other (don’t lose sleep if you eat it) end. Do I recommend ditching the entire group altogether, just to make things easy and avoid any possible irritants? Sure, but if grain consumption presents itself, or you literally are hamstrung by finances and simply need some calories, you shouldn’t beat yourself up over it just because you ate some white rice.

Rice can even be a vehicle for the good stuff – for butter, ghee, coconut. It can also be a vehicle for the bad stuff – for vegetable oils, for sugar. In fact, it’s the essential neutrality of rice that makes it what it is. The problem with rice in most people’s diets is twofold: it serves as a vehicle for processed fat and sugar; and overweight, insulin-resistant folks with damaged metabolisms can’t handle the glucose load.

Rice fried in rancid corn oil? Avoid.
Rice fried in homemade ghee? Not so bad, necessarily.
Rice if you’re trying to lose weight? Avoid.
Rice if you’re lean and active? Not so bad, necessarily.

The Asian Paradox

This probably deserves a full post, but I’ll briefly discuss it here. I’m not going to sit here and claim that Asians don’t actually eat rice. They do. And they have for centuries while maintaining pretty good health and staying fairly lean. That’s changing nowadays, though, with the Westernization of their food. They’re eating more sugar and using vegetable oils for cooking, rather than traditional animal fats. These factors are deranging their metabolisms, turning the relatively benign rice starch into an enemy. It just suggests that carbs, in and of themselves, are benign in a metabolic vacuum. If you have everything else going right – insulin sensitivity, regular activity, absence of metabolic deranging foods like fructose, lectins, and excessive linoleic acid – pure starchy carbs aren’t going to be a big problem. But, especially in the States, we live in anything but a nutritional vacuum. We aren’t starting from ground zero. The overweight perimenopausal wife and mother of three working 50 hours a week is not starting from square one. She has an issue with glucose, one that might not be cured in a lifetime. For a person like that, avoidance of rice is recommended and probably necessary.

We have to face facts. Deranged has become normal. Glucose intolerance – or perhaps “mishandling” is better – has become standard. Where rice belongs in your life depends on where you fall on the metabolic derangement continuum.

What are your views on rice? Do you avoid it like the plague? Have a little in certain dishes? Let me know in the comment board on Grok on!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Raised in an asian household for my early years, I was fed a diet of rise with a side of sauteed beef and veggies or a soup made from pork broth, tamarind, and salmon. I was somewhat healthier back then. Unfortunately, my diet at the time also included the classic sugary snacks like gushers and lays potato chips. Some time ago, during the summer, I went back to my old rice and side dish diet but this time the only sugary snack I had was a smoothie. Not the best diet, but better than the canned foods and oven pizzas that I was on. I had lost 10 pounds that summer, with absolutely no exercise whatsoever. Mind you, the meal of rice was my only meal the entire day, but yet I didn’t feel hungry. Rice may lack any measurable nutritional value, but it is certainly a gut-stuffer when coupled with your usual plants and animals. With that said, if you found yourself stuck in a metropolitan asian city, or you eat rice as a comfort food. Don’t beat yourself up for it. It’s not that bad.

    E. Allen wrote on December 6th, 2010
  2. I noticed years ago that white rice never gave the bloated, dizzy, tired, irritable -generally horrible – feelings that other carbs did. It’s damn convenient, since sushi has been a deep love of mine since I started eating solid foods.

    I’ll have it with sushi alone now, and while most of my meal will consist of sashimi and soup, the few nigiri pieces I have never lead to guilt. It also helps that I love it so much that I’ll take time to savor it; if I were eating wheat products, they’d probably be scarfed during a rushed breakfast or in front of the TV.

    The point, I suppose, is that context matters. :)

    Thank you for a great article on something I’ve been wondering about for a while.

    Anonymous wrote on December 21st, 2010
  3. Wish I could post/share your articles on FB.
    You’re confirming everything I’ve been idependently studying lately about nutrition and the causes of obesity.

    Keep it up and thanks!

    Lisa Clibon

    Lisa wrote on January 4th, 2011
  4. Being of asian descent, I think my ancestors have evolved well enough to survive on rice for generations. I do know that eating white rice spikes my blood sugar, but that doesn’t go the same for brown rice. In fact, brown rice is the perfect neutralizer when I overdo veggies or overdo meat. I don’t adhere to keeping portions as much as I should, and I end up feeling bloated, lethargic, or still hungry. If you experience those effects, it’s a sign of an unbalanced meal. Thus, I cave to eating some brown rice restore my energy.

    There is a presoaked brand of rice I purchase that suggests further soaking on the package to detract more phytates. Soaking rice has been in my ancestral heritage for centuries to soften the grain, but it is only now scientists realize the extent of this method.

    Jen wrote on March 23rd, 2011
  5. I’ve read in Fiber Menace that white, polished, milled rice is the lowest in fiber, making it move through your bowels without effort and eliminating quickly.

    If I ever cheat with a grain on my primal diet it’s white polished rice, because of that fact.
    Some do tubers…I just do a handful (not even that much) of rice, and always boiled in bone broth, not plain water…so the minerals and saturated fat from the bone broth are left behind in the rice when done.

    Quick elimination is what’s important, too….you don’t want to literally sit on your grains for weeks =P

    Suvetar wrote on April 14th, 2011
  6. Hi Mark and fellow Applers! Quick question re: vegetable oil, which was mentioned in one of the comments above: My very favorite snack in the whole world is Salt & Vinegar Almonds (manufactured by Blue Diamond), and on the canister it lists vegetable oil as one of the ingredients. Is this horrible, or do you think maybe the amount of vegetable oil required to get the salt and vinegar to stick to the nuts is negligible? Thank you for your help!

    Carrie G. wrote on May 22nd, 2011
  7. Asians are generally very lean and rice is the basis of almost every meal. Have you ever been to an Asian country? They are only getting fat when they adopt western practices eg lots of meat and processed crap. Things are not as simple as the readers of this site would believe.

    David wrote on June 14th, 2011
  8. I live in South China, and so I can say that avoiding rice, or even significantly decreasing consumption of it, is wholly impossible. Even if you went to lengths to eat a Primal diet, you would create a very real cultural rift between yourself and ANY Chinese people you interact with. In the Chinese language, the same word is used for rice and food. If a meal does not contain rice, then it is not considered a meal, but rather a snack (obvious exceptions exist if you’re going out for an exotic American or European meal). Moreover, convincing Chinese people that rice is in any way bad for you is many times more difficult than convincing an American that animal fat is actually good for you. To that extent, skipping rice or even just skimping on it can 1) be considered offensive or ignorant and 2) drastically increase personal food costs.

    Tyler wrote on June 16th, 2011
  9. And are the Chinese who eat rice near you fat?

    David wrote on June 16th, 2011
  10. What about shirataki noodles and rice (also known as Miracle Noodles and Miracle Rice)? They are derived from plant material, contain no nutrition and are pure insoluble fiber. Would this rice substitute fit into the primal plan when a starch substitute is needed, as in sushi? Anyone tried them?

    Linda wrote on June 27th, 2011
  11. In this article, under the heading “the peril of categorization,” Mark says that rice isn’t bad for you because it’s a grain, it’s bad for you because it contains gluten — however, pretty much every source that I’ve checked says rice is gluten free. Can anyone weigh in on this?

    Joey wrote on June 30th, 2011
  12. Does anyone know if the nutritional makeup of Japanese rice is distinctly different to others?

    Chris wrote on July 4th, 2011
  13. Cool.. this guy tells me that everything I’ve ever been taught regarding food is wrong. Sooo what next? Water is bad? Fruits are bad? Vegetables are bad? Give me a fucking break..

    Man wrote on July 12th, 2011
  14. Almost all foods have some toxins to defend themselves. Leafy greens have alkaloids, grains and legumes lectins, nuts and seeds high omega 6 to 3 ratios, etc.

    Humans can become allergic to virtually any foods so my interpretation is that almost all foods may trigger silent inflammation. It seems that the only way of avoiding phytotoxins is IV nutrition.

    Would vaccinations, pesticides, dysbiosis, GMO’s, etc be a more important cause of food intolerance than eating grains?

    According to the bible, people did eat grains in the form of breads, and the universe is estimated to be 6000 years, not billions of years old. Evolution would contradict the scriptures. I understand that people would not believe this.

    brian wrote on July 17th, 2011
  15. I’m a Chinese American and my family eats white rice pretty much every night for dinner, a bowl per person. Usually we eat it along with meats, vegetables, and clear soups, and we’re all relatively healthy people, especially my parents. My brother and I are much more “Americanized” than my parents and I myself am not the leanest person, but I think it’s more from eating junk food and fast food when I was little rather than from rice. Most of my Asian friends are also pretty healthy too, despite daily rice consumption. I’m not sure if it might just be an Asian thing, but rice will likely be a part of my diet forever, at least until I live on my own. Great article, it would be interesting to see the effects of daily Asian-style rice consumption on non-Asians.

    Kacy wrote on July 29th, 2011
  16. The absolute best cure for diarrhea is a bowl of white rice!

    BW wrote on August 3rd, 2011
  17. I’m curious anyone’s thoughts on Rice Flour? I occasionally am in the mood for Bread and have found an Almond/Flour Bread, and from time to time fry some chicken after “Breading” in Rice Flour. It seems to slow down digestion, but other than that seems rather benign.

    Jon wrote on August 3rd, 2011
  18. Dear Mark,
    I am a lacto ovo vegetarian. If I go paleo my choice will be limited to eggs nuts and vegetables and roots. I am also hypo thyroidal and diabetic and ostheo arthritic. Are legumes bad also?please give me your suggestions. I followed South beach diet and lost a lot of weight and verybgood readings on my A1c, fasting sugar and triglycerides.

    Jan wrote on August 3rd, 2011
  19. mark love your comment that we dont live in anutritional vacum.this is the truest thing you have ever said .Over the years my hormones and medication for such things have made it more and more difficult to lose weight and certainly a lot more difficult than when i was 20 and trying to lose 10lbs to fit into a dress .i certainly ate rice and was able to lose weight then .but now NO way!
    im trying to get in to primal eating again for health reasons instaed of weight losslike befor(not that i would complain!)you are an inspirationas usaual.

    silvery wrote on August 6th, 2011
  20. I totally admire your knowledge on all the “rice” products but I haved to admit myself that it is really hard to not “eat rice any other day based on all this knowledge I am the same age as you but I was raised very differently and in terms of food intake I am still struggling on what to eat or not to eat at this point in life. I am not saying you are wrong, I can see the results of your quest on changing your diet and way of eating habits but I will say it’s super hard to re-adopt such habits now and be on a healthy shape with out the basic monetary sources.Being unemployed does not help me to achieve a Primal Blueprint when I have to accept all the hand-me downs of other people’s pantries, of which some or all of them contain nothing but un-healthy grains and un-wanted cannery.(to which I should be grateful for none the less.Mark, Tell me How can I avoid all of this and be able to eat as healthy a meal as you do? Sincerely, your avid fan, Coral.

    Coral wrote on August 7th, 2011
  21. For anyone who has just read this post and is running out to destroy some nigiri with rice, keep in mind that “sushi rice” is generally made with seasonings like rice vinegar and sugar. Commerical seasoned rice vinegar also contains sugar and sugar in general is used often, if minimally, in many Japanese dishes/sauces. So if you’re trying to be squeaky clean with your sugar consumption, order yourself some sashimi. Otherwise, don’t sweat it because the use of sugar is relatively small, especially compared to other cuisines like Thai and Vietnamese.

    Leeanna wrote on August 17th, 2011
  22. Mark,

    If you could do a post on the Asian Paradox, it would be really appreciated.

    I’ve really enjoyed reading and adopting your approach to proper eating habits. However, I’m having a very difficult time reconciling that with the myriad of centenarians that I know on my parent’s side of the world who literally eat nothing but a lot of soy-based products (tofu, fermented soy, etc), fried fish (sesame oil), picked vegetables, and steamed rice.

    Even the ones who eat everything with their bowl of white rice three times a day, whether it be fried foods, deep fried vegetable fritters of some sort, grilled marinated meat, whatever, still live easily beyond 85.

    In trying to explain Grok’s lifestyle to my parents (who believe that my paleo diet is bogus), I’m continually stumped by their side of the argument which is based on the belief of what they have witnessed upon generations – lots of rice, kimchi, and whatever the heck else you want to eat. Most often Paleo unfriendly.

    Thanks.

    Darren wrote on August 17th, 2011
  23. Interesting, Bibi. I am following the Perfect Health Diet, which *stipulates* the consumption of “safe starches” (sweet potato, potato, taro, cassava and yes, white rice) every day to avoid stressing the liver by forcing it to supply all of the brain’s glucose requirement. Sound like what you might have been experiencing.

    On PHD, you are supposed to consume 200 calories of safe starch per day. I find that to be a bit much, but I have started regularly incorporating safe starch with no ill effect (just not quite that much).

    My main problem with white rice is that I find it so delicious, I have a hard time stopping eating it. But even a cup is too much for me, leaving my blood sugar high and me feeling overstuffed and lethargic. But 1/2 cup works fine. I just have to get it back into the fridge before I see it again! :-)

    Pia wrote on August 17th, 2011

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