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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. H! I’m a pescatarian (eats seafood and eggs) who is interested in the paleo diet. While cutting out grains/sugars seems to make sense (and makes my body happy), I’ve been having trouble wrapping my head around the rice and soy issue.

    I have been living in South Korea for 2 years and the people here generally eat at least 1 cup of rice or noodles (rice/buckwheat/flour) with every meal, as well as lots of tofu and miso. They are generally all skinny and strong. The only slightly chubby ones are those of the younger generation (usually under 35) who I suspect eat more of the western food that is becoming popular here, such as McDonalds, pasta, pizza, and bakery stuffs. I have seen about 5 seriously overweight Koreans in 2 years.

    The majority of the world eats rice daily, yet health problems are higher in the standard American/European diets. It seems to be that WHEAT and HFCS are the devils. Thoughts?

    On a side note, we have public bath houses here, and as a young western woman, I’m the only one with cellulite!

    Miss Chrys wrote on August 21st, 2011
  2. well after discovering this site some weeks ago, i am pleased to figure out that the only time i ever eat rice, is pretty much the more acceptable occasion. i grew up on a small island, and ate fish regularly, with a small side of rice and some sort of veggies. when i started working in an office this changed, and my health changed with it. in the past few weeks i have gone back to what i used to eat as a child, and it is remarkably close to the PB methodology… and i feel better already.

    not so fit yet wrote on August 23rd, 2011
  3. I love rice and eat it 2 times a day. I eat it with other starchy foods with potatoes and vegetables. No added sugar, no added sodium, I don’t kill my meat, fish, and I don’t milk cows so I don’t eat them. I lost a ton of weight and I jog 8 miles a day! I am also Asian and feel the article does not do a balanced point of view but alas, this is his view and his web site. Have fun and take care!

    Ted wrote on August 29th, 2011
  4. Thanks for this!

    Went out for teppan steak today (medium rare sirloin, prawns, tons of veggies cooked in butter — just say “no sauce” and it is totally primal!)But I could not say no to the white rice smothered in steak sauce. First time I’ve had rice since I started prinal 5 weeks ago, and felt very guilty. Now I’m shrugging and saying, “meh, 80/20.”

    I can’t see wanting rice with anything but teppan steak sauce, so it will most likely be half a year before I have grains again.

    Cin wrote on August 31st, 2011
  5. OMG!!!! I am allergic to wheat and gluten. it shuts me down and leaves me feeling horrible. for the last 2 months i have been following a diet recommended by a trainer that included lots of brown rice and oats. I have felt horrible. this morning when i read about rice and oats — talk about a lightbulb moment!!! I am getting this book and back on fruits, veggies and mean! THANK YOU!!!

    cathy stephens wrote on September 29th, 2011
  6. I am another kind of Asian paradox. I had gestational diabetes that didn’t go away after the birth. Now I can’t eat rice because it spikes my blood sugar terribly (+250). What is that about? Before all of this I was super-skinny, I had amazing glucose tolerance and could eat 10 bowls of rice if I felt like it with no ill effect.

    Apparently Asian-Americans have a genetic predisposition to Type 2 diabetes. How paradoxical is that, being a rice-eating people?

    I’ve had to give up all grains/sugar because of this, and my BMI has fallen to 17.6!

    anna wrote on October 16th, 2011
  7. Great post on rice. I needed the recap!

    PaleoDentist wrote on October 16th, 2011
  8. I’ll be interested to see what Mark makes of the most recent post over at Evolvify, considering the study Andrew unpacks points out that rice (and potatoes) really aren’t such ‘safe’ starches after all…

    http://evolvify.com/rice-wheat-potatoes-interfere-with-gene-expression

    I was just getting on the starches bandwagon, enjoying old favourites like sushi and baked potatoes, but now I’ll be back-pedalling fast! I wonder whether the white starches were the root of my resumed fat gain, after things were starting to improve…

    Girl Gone Primal wrote on October 19th, 2011
  9. HI

    I’m Chinese and the way we eat rice is very different from the West.

    Rice is a staple food and it’s the main meal. The meal is eaten with dishes – protein like meat, fish, seafood and vegetables, tofu.

    Chinese can’t go without rice or noodles. Noodles are eaten the same way… the bigger part of the meal with slices of meats and vegetables.

    My question is whether can a Chinese go on your program ?

    Thanks

    David wrote on October 20th, 2011
  10. Great post, I’ve always wondered about rice. I am fairly active, and need a carb-load on some days where my activity level is high, and rice has rarely presented any negative effects or bloating for me, unlike wheat.

    I was interested in your thoughts on it, this post sums it up well.

    ZenBowman wrote on October 24th, 2011
  11. I am active and I am in a lack of money, so i am getting white rice back in my diet, like 1 bowl everyday.

    I think if i eat a lot of good carbs from vegetables, i would have enough vitamins and amino acids and stuff. Rice would just be an inexpensive complement.

    And i feel rice does not make me feel as bad as pasta and bread and oats.

    Remi wrote on October 31st, 2011
  12. So I’m coming to the conclusion that eating rice within the context of correct “insulin sensitivity, regular activity, absence of metabolic deranging foods like fructose, lectins, and excessive linoleic acid” is not healthy, but also not unhealthy.

    Peter wrote on November 6th, 2011
  13. Thought I’d experiment with eating white rice after not eating it for a primal 3 months and now I wish I didn’t! Most incredibly bad bloating…won’t be doing that again any time soon.

    Danaa wrote on November 25th, 2011
  14. what ab out basmati rice,? is it packed with phytates?

    Tony wrote on December 9th, 2011
  15. Rice is perfectly fine to eat. Potatoes are perfectly fine to eat. The late great Jack Lalanne made this quote,” If mother nature didn’t make it, don’t eat it”.

    We need carbs. Can you imagine a marathon runner trying to run a race fueled by a big steak? He wouldnt make it to the end a lb of pasta pre-race is the fuel of choice by endurance athletes.

    Rice doesn’t make people fat be it brown or white. Asians eat small amounts of meat and large amounts of rice and they are pretty skinny as a whole.

    My advice is to eat natural. This means eating responsibly and not overeating. Use lard, butter instead of chemical fats like vegetable spreads, oils. Eat your grains, dairy, meat, veggies and fruits.

    The UK has it right when recommending those over 50 drink 4 shots of whisky every day for men 2 shots for women. There are true scientifically proven facts behind daily alcohol consumption in moderation and its significant health benefits.

    We all need to use common sense when we pick the foods we put in our mouths. There is no perfect diet for weight management or health. I eat about 3 cups of rice a day 7 days a week and i’m not overweight and in great health. I’ve been eating rice every day and drinking alcohol a few days a week for 35 years.

    One doctor says tomatoes are good for heart health and another says tomatoes cause cancer. Take everything with a grain of salt and use common sense at all times.

    Kirk wrote on December 18th, 2011
    • Absolutely, Kirk!

      Brant wrote on December 18th, 2011
    • Alcohol even in small amounts, much smaller that what you are suggesting, raises the risk of various cancers and also can lead to abuse. 4 shots of whiskey a day is insane. And are the recommending that? They are likely recommending one doesn’t exceed that because then you are in binge territory which can have devastating results. Most doctors that are not directly connected to the alcohol industry do not recommend any alcohol consumption.

      teemy wrote on January 20th, 2012
      • Here is an interesting article about levels of safe consumption of alcohol:

        http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2011/mar/07/safe-level-alcohol-consumption

        Be careful of sites that promote alcohol use, of which there are a few online. If you look closer, you will find they have industry support or are a member of the industry.

        Coffee is another very toxic substance that deregulates blood sugar control, keeps stress hormones elevated leading to visceral fat accumulation and often contains pesticides and toxic products from its roasting.

        Everything in moderation including moderation… some things are just toxic.

        teemy wrote on January 20th, 2012
  16. The problems with rice is that it is extremely constipating… easily the single most constipating food there is. There seems to be something uniquely constipating about it. And it is not an easily relieved constipation. I find that just one exposure constipates for a week, causing some mild back pain and depression. It doesn’t matter how many laxative foods I eat it with. Personally, I avoid it and fear accidental exposures to it when rice is used as an ingredient in other foods.

    teemy wrote on January 20th, 2012
    • interesting, i have not noticed rice being constipating.

      but then i always have it with of other stuff (meat, fish, veg. with plenty of fat).

      maybe that’s why my grandma & my mom fed me plain rice porridge + salt (+ egg) when i had diarrhea when i was a kid.

      Malissa McEwen is pro-rice due to IBS.

      http://huntgatherlove.com/

      regards,

      pam wrote on April 3rd, 2012
    • I had a Chinese friend with the kind of IBS that causes constant diarrhea – all she could eat, every day for dinner, was barbecued pork and white rice. The constipating qualities were a blessing for her, I suppose.

      Corinne wrote on August 31st, 2012
  17. Just wanted to say ‘thanks!’ I have lupus, fibromyalgia, high blood pressure… somewhat of a mess. My mother had a stroke and my ex-husband developed diabetes.. So, as unhealthy as it is, I freaked, especially as many of my peers, have either had a stroke or ‘mild’ heart attack, or diabetes, as it is.

    So, I’ve lessened my one or two Pepsi a day, to having had two in a five day period. Haven’t had one today yet. I’ve slowly changed many eating habits over the years.

    Then, as we make rice every day – I realized that is yet another area of North American et al fav food items that need to be looked at.

    I was at the local supermarket, & wondered about brown rice… EXPENSIVE… Disappointed, I looked for a no-name bran, and saw parbroiled.

    A south east Asian fellow just turned into the aisle looking for rice, so asked him, “Can you tell me if parbroiled is healthier than white?” He said, “Oh yes, for sure!”

    so I bought it.

    and that’s what I’m eating right now. :)

    Smelling it cooking I wasn’t sure if I’d like it, but I do!

    I might buy a bag of bloody expensive brown, and mix a little in… :)

    Thanks for the awesome n detailed info.

    kat wrote on January 28th, 2012
  18. The Japanese may eat rice, but they have an otherwise low carb diet compared to the US or France. Even though they ate more grains (rice) than the other countries, their total carb intake was less. See http://www.westonaprice.org/traditional-diets/inside-japan for details.

    Dr. Will Mitchell wrote on February 5th, 2012
  19. Effect of rice parboiling on performance and metabolic responses in rats.
    I haven’t read the full text of this paper but the abstract indicates that ” animals in the treatment with parboiled rice showed higher body weight gain, feed intake, nitrogen excretion, serum triglycerides, uric acid levels and pancreas weight and lower feed conversion, faecal pH, albumin and serum HDL cholesterol, when compared with the treatment with white rice.”

    Ted Hutchinson wrote on March 8th, 2012
  20. Grains, or extra carbs in general, were only necessary when we were farming large plots of land, building cities, raising barns, etc. Maybe construction workers still need to eat carbs (no, really–though you see how quickly it becomes an uncomfortable class issue, after all).

    The majority of us just don’t have to work so hard to live anymore, so of course grains and carbs would start to become a problem: they were only an *extra* calorie source to begin with.

    Charlotte wrote on April 11th, 2012
    • Gives a strange new meaning to “let them eat cake”, no?

      (Before anyone says anything, yes, I’m perfectly aware she never said that.)

      Charlotte wrote on April 11th, 2012

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