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What 14 Studies Say About Brown Rice vs. White Rice

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What 14 Studies Say About Brown Rice vs. White Rice

If you want to know what science can teach us about brown rice vs. white rice (and why most of things you’ve heard are wrong), then you want to read this article.

 

According to many health and fitness gurus, the brown rice vs. white rice debate is cut-and-dried.

Brown rice is a “good” carb, they say, and white rice is a “bad” one.

Eat a lot of the former, they say, and you’ll be healthy, wealthy, and wise; eat a lot of the latter and you’ll gain weight, crash your metabolism, and probably get diabetes.

Well, this might make for catchy listicles and magazine headlines, but what does science have to say about it?

Does white rice deserve the notoriety? Does brown rice deserve the hosannas?

Well, that’s what we’re going to cover in this article, and as you’ll soon see, a lot of what you’ve likely heard about rice is bunk.

The idea that brown rice trumps its lighter counterpart in every meaningful way is more or less a myth.

As you’ll soon see, it really doesn’t matter which one you choose.

Let’s dive in and see what we can learn…

What’s the Difference Between Brown and White Rice?

brown rice vs white rice bodybuilding

Let’s start with the basics.

Rice is technically a seed, but we all know it as a grain that comes in white and brown and refined and whole grain varieties.

The difference between these options really comes down to the processing.

As the Minnesota Department of Health explains, whole grains, like brown rice, are made up of three separate parts:

1. The Bran

This is the outer layer of the grain that contains fiber, antioxidants, B vitamins, phytochemicals, and the majority of the minerals.

2. The Endosperm

This is the middle largest layer that contains protein, carbs, and small amounts of B vitamins and minerals.

3. The Germ

This is an inner portion at one end of the grain that contains fats, B vitamins, phytochemicals, and antioxidants like vitamin E.

Here’s a simple visual:

whiterice vs brown rice nutrition

White rice, on the other hand, is stripped of everything except the endosperm, which, we’re told, is the crux of the problem.

Well, while it’s generally a good idea to eat a diet rich in relatively unprocessed foods, that doesn’t mean you should avoid white rice.

Let’s find out why…

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Which Is Healthier? Brown Rice or White Rice?

It’s easy to make the argument that brown rice is healthier than white rice.

It’s more nutritious (on paper, at least — more on that in a minute) and studies confirm the health benefits of eating whole grains and the risks associated with eating refined grains.

What that pitch doesn’t tell you, though, is that the nutritional advantages of brown rice aren’t nearly as exciting as you might think and the health risks don’t apply to you unless you’re sedentary and overweight and eat poorly.

Let’s unpack this mystery…

Is Brown Rice More Nutritious Than White Rice?

You’ve probably heard that brown rice is more nutritious than white rice, and it’s true.

It contains 43% more protein, 105% more fiber, and a whopping 425% more omega-3 fatty acids than white rice.

Impressive, right?

Well, while those statements are accurate on paper, they’re actually negligible when viewed in the right context.

To understand why, let’s take a look at actual numbers, starting with the calories and macros:

NutrientWhite RiceBrown Rice
Serving sizeper 1 cup/ 174 gper 1 cup/ 195 g
Calories169216
Carbs (g)36.744.8
Fiber (g)1.73.5
Protein3.55.0
Fat (g)0.31.8
Saturated (g)0.10.4
Mono (g)0.10.6
Poly (g)0.10.6
Omega 3 (mg)5.227.3
Omega 6 (mg)115603

And now the vitamins and minerals:

VitaminWhite RiceBrown Rice
Vitamin A (IU)0.00.0
Vitamins C (mg)0.00.0
Vitamin E (mg)0.10.1
Vitamin K (mcg)0.01.2
Thiamin (mg)0.00.2
Riboflavin (mg)0.00.0
Niacin (mg)0.53.0
Vitamin B6 (mg)0.00.3
Folate (mcg)1.77.8
Vitamin B12 (mcg)0.00.0
Pantothenic Acid (mg)0.40.6
Choline (mg)3.717.9
MineralWhite RiceBrown Rice
Calcium (mg)3.519.5
Iron (mg)0.20.8
Magnesium (mg)8.783.9
Phosphorous (mg)13.9162
Potassium (mg)17.483.9
Sodium (mg)8.79.8
Zinc (mg)0.71.2
Copper (mg)0.10.2
Manganese (mg)0.51.8
Selenium (mcg)9.719.1

One of the reasons we’re often told to choose brown rice over white rice is the fiber content.

Well, as brown rice is a whole grain, it does have more fiber than white rice…but not by much (1.8 grams per cup).

Moreover, rice of any kind doesn’t make for nearly as good of a source of fiber as fruit and vegetables, which you should be eating plenty of anyway.

For example, one cup of boiled broccoli contains just 55 calories and gives you about 5 grams of fiber and one measly apple contain about 90 calories and over 4 grams of fiber.

Thus, if you eat your quota of fruit and veggies every day, the fiber obtained from rice just won’t matter much.

As for the macronutrients, we see that brown rice has a little more of everything, which again technically makes it more nutritious, but the actual amounts are insignificant.

And in terms of micronutrients

  • Apart from niacin, folate, choline and vitamin K, there’s not a huge difference in vitamin content between the two.
  • As far as minerals go, we can clearly see that this is the area that brown rice wins out (but again, your ~cup of rice per day isn’t going to be your primary source of minerals — veggies are).

What you can’t see in the charts above, though, is that brown rice also contains significant amounts of molecules that undermine its nutritional advantage.

These substances are known as antinutrients, and they block the absorption of vitamins and minerals.

One example is phytic acid, also known as phytate, which you’ll find in brown rice at a rate of roughly 0.06 to 1.08 g per 100 g, and which can inhibit micronutrient absorption in the digestive tract, particularly zinc, iron, magnesium and calcium.

This helps explain why, in a study conducted by scientists at Osaka City University, brown rice decreased the digestibility of protein and fats while white rice didn’t.

Another study confirms this phenomenon — phytates can reduce protein bioavailability and impair the function of certain digestive enzymes.

Interestingly, research shows that fermented food sources such as sauerkraut, kimchi, miso and so forth, counteract the inhibitory effects of phytates and aid in digestion. Eating fermented grain products like sourdough bread and soaking and germinating seed kernels does the same.

So, the bottom line is this:

Brown rice may be slightly more nutritious than white rice but, when viewed in context of your diet as a whole, it doesn’t deserve its reputation as the obvious choice for “clean eaters.”

What About the Glycemic Index?

brownrice vs white rice health

The glycemic index (GI) is a numeric system that ranks how quickly the body converts carbohydrates into glucose (blood sugar).

Carbs are ranked on a scale of 0 to 100 depending on how they affect blood sugar levels once eaten.

A GI rating of 55 and under is considered low on the index, while a rating of 56 to 69 is medium, and a rating of 70 or above is high.

Simple carbs are converted into glucose quickly and thus have high GI ratings. Examples of simple carbs and their corresponding GI ratings are sucrose (table sugar) (65), white bread (71), and white potato (82).

Complex carbs are converted into glucose more slowly and thus have lower GI ratings. Examples of complex carbs and their corresponding GI ratings are apples (39), black beans (30), and whole-grain pasta (42).

Now, as far as rice goes, I’m not sure brown rice is generally known as better in terms of GI because it falls in more or less the same area of the index as white rice (50 to 87 vs. 43 to 89).

And, ironically, basmati rice is the lowest on the GI of all types, coming in at 43 to 57.

More importantly, though, is the fact that if you’re relatively lean and physically active, none of this really matters.

While sensible eating naturally involves eating plenty of low-glycemic foods (relatively unprocessed grains and fruit and vegetables), including high-glycemic foods in your diet won’t adversely affect your body composition or health.

Check out this article to learn why.

What About Arsenic?

Arsenic is an element found in nature and many man-made products (including pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers), and it’s toxic to us humans.

It finds its way into our diet and bodies in various ways, including…

And, of course, rice, which contains higher levels of arsenic than other grains due to the way it’s grown.

This explains why research clearly shows that people that eat more rice have more arsenic in their bodies, and this applies to both brown and white rice.

Ironically, according to the FDA, brown rice generally contains a bit more arsenic than white rice, and the white basmati rice has the lowest levels of arsenic of all types commonly eaten.

The sixty-four dollar question, then, is how concerned should we be about this?

Well, not enough to avoid rice completely, but enough to take measures to reduce its arsenic content before we eat it and limit our rice intake overall.

Here’s a simple way to reduce your rice’s arsenic levels by up to 57%:

And in terms of limiting your intake, the FDA planned on issuing guidelines on this back in 2014 but hasn’t yet, so in the meantime, we can look to testing and analysis conducted by Consumer Reports.

What came of their work is a points system that looks like this:

brown rice vs basmati rice Their recommendation is people don’t exceed seven points per week, which, as you can see, is fairly easy to do if you’re a rice lover (or if you eat a lot of processed foods that contain rice and rice derivatives).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two things to keep in mind, though:

  1. They built the points system using the arsenic levels seen at the highest end of the range in their testing.
  2. They didn’t assume that people would be taking special measures to reduce the arsenic in the rice they eat.

This, to me, says that we can stretch their boundaries a bit without putting our health at risk.

That said, it’s worth noting that pregnant women should be especially cautious with their intake of rice and rice derivatives (brown rice syrup, for example) because research suggests that in utero exposure to arsenic increases their children’s risk of cancer and cardiovascular and respiratory disease later in life.

Also, in case you’re wondering if all this applies to organic rice, the answer is yes — there’s no evidence that organic rice contains lower amounts of arsenic than conventional.

Is Brown Rice or White Rice Better for Weight Loss?

brown rice vs white rice weight loss

I’ll keep this short and sweet:

Neither is better.

While some foods are more conducive to weight loss than others, there’s no such thing as a “weight loss food.”

If you know what you’re doing with your calories and macros, you can eat anything and lose weight.

That’s why this guy was able to lose 27 pounds on a convenience store diet of protein shakes, Twinkies, Doritos, and other confections. And why this guy was able to lose 56 pounds eating nothing but McDonald’s for six months straight.

That isn’t to say you should follow in their footsteps — nutrition does matter — but they’re simply testaments to the universality of energy balance.

Body weight is dictated by energy in vs. energy out. End of story.

So, bringing this back to rice, the point is clear:

So long as you know what you’re doing with your meal planning, you can lose weight equally well with brown and white rice.

The Bottom Line on Brown Rice vs. White Rice

The optics of the brown and white rice debate simply don’t match the reality.

While it’s true that brown rice contains more nutrients, the difference is rather negligible to begin with and becomes even more so when you factor in the antinutrients.

While it’s true that brown rice is lower on the glycemic index, it’s not that much lower, and the glycemic index is small beer anyway in the grand scheme of being fit and healthy.

So, in the last analysis, I think it’s clear that you should eat the type of rice that you like most, and if you want to be as scrupulous as possible, opt for basmati rice whenever possible.

 

What’s your take on brown rice vs. white rice? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!

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  • Thanks for stopping by and checking out my article! I hope you enjoyed it.

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  • Mark Dinsdale

    Brilliant stuff as usual Mike 👍

  • Juan Blanco

    Hi Mike,

    First of all let me congratulate you for all your great work.

    Let me introduce another similar situation which I often face when it comes to choose food options:

    What about Whole-grain Pasta? Does the same facts discussed in this article apply?
    Whole grain pasta doesn’t necessarily has to be a better (healthier) choice instead of common Pasta?

    -Off topic-
    Mike, I’m a big fan of yours from Uruguay and been following your work for a couple years now. I wonder when will you release a Spanish translation of at least one of your books so I can share with local friends. I often quote your articles and end up translating a lot lol. People like the fact that you explain things straightforwardly and back things up with research, which is uncommon nowadays. I think you have a potential market down here.

    All the best!

    • Thanks Juan!

      Whole-grain pasta is made from wheat, so no, none of this applies.

      I’m working on getting a Spanish deal! Foreign rights deals just take a while because publishers move SLOOOOWLY…

  • BRAD HICKS

    I noticed that when comparing the nutritional info the charts compared the same Volume of food, but not the same Mass.
    White is 174 grams per cup and brown is 195. That’s 12% more, which when accounted for would make the already meager nutritional gap even smaller.

  • tamer

    i’m trying to read all the articles you wrote i love every one because there is a new things
    i’m a love of rice i cooked it by adding Cinnamon to control the blood sugar i eat it 2 to 3 times a week some time with chicken or meat
    thanks and i appreciate your big work here and in legion

  • benzemartin

    Damn you go into so much detail and cover everything. Thanks again for another excellent article!

  • megan fanelli

    I have read that basmati grown in India has the lowest arsenic levels. It’s fairly easy to obtain. I mostly get mine at Trader Joes. If you are really in love with your brown rice soaking it for a few hours in water with an acidic addition, apple cider vinegar, or fremented addition, kombucha or kefir it will help to eliminate the phytic acid. And as I understand it that applies to all grains as well as nuts and seeds. So don’t forget to soak your nuts people.

    • Here’s an interesting bit:

      http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308814608002513

      According to the researcher, fermentation is the best way to get rid of phytic acid. This the procedure used:

      1. Soak brown rice in dechlorinated water for 24 hours at room temperature without changing the water. Reserve 10% of the soaking liquid (should keep for a long time in the fridge). Discard the rest of the soaking liquid; cook the rice in fresh water.

      2. The next time you make brown rice, use the same procedure as above, but add the soaking liquid you reserved from the last batch to the rest of the soaking water.

      3. Repeat the cycle. The process will gradually improve until 96% or more of the phytic acid is degraded at 24 hours.

  • Arturo Reaza N

    Mike, I buy brown rice flour because it gets cooked fast and is easily digestible. I wonder if the arsenic content and anti-nutrients are “killed off” by the cooking process itself since it’s finely milled? Great article btw!

  • Jodie Stewart

    What a wonderful article, thank you. I would love to see something similar on legumes… there is so much conflicting information around.

  • Oscar Acevedo

    Great article, does this include the “wild rice” also?

  • Jade Lady

    A real eye opener. Thx Mike!

  • Shawn B

    We can get bogged down here if not careful. Science reports means and we don’t know from where the tested rice was obtained. It makes a HUGE difference in arsenic content. Arsenic is a naturally occurring element in the earth’s crust. If the rice is grown in an area with a “higher” arsenic content in the soil, the rice will reflect that. Not all areas of the world that grow rice have a high arsenic soil. It looks as though the information sources used here were just being cautious, given the implications.
    Don’t forget about the arsenic in your leafy green veggies, drinking water, and rice milk. I would be more concerned about the veggie source as there is no reliable way to reduce that.

    • We’re talking about inorganic arsenic here.

      • Shawn B

        Right. The point is that all plants absorb arsenic and even leafy green veggies can have a high concentration. That doesn’t mean we need to be afraid of eating kale or spinach! Rice may/may not have higher concentrations but unless one is going to test every bag they purchase, it is probably a non-issue.
        We see very long-lived populations who consume much rice, but genetics and other dietary (and physical activity!) components interact for everyone.

        • Absolutely. The point is that rice contains high enough levels of arsenic to be a problem due to the amount of inorganic arsenic in it.

  • Jason Konold

    What about black rice? Is there any real benefit to eating that over white rice?

    • No, but wild rice has the benefit of a high protein content and no arsenic issues (due to not actually being a rice).

  • Chad Love

    Mike, I’ve plateaued at 170 after losing 50 lbs. I need to get to 150, but I feel like 1300 calories is too low. That’s what my calorie calculator says to do. Any ideas?

  • Ritika G

    Just to add my $0.02 about Glycemic Index. The GI of rice correlates to grain length, with longer grains having lower GI. Presumably this is because the starch polymer in longer grains is less branched and longer. Given that starch breakdown to glucose starts from the free ends of the polymer, it makes sense that the less-branched/longer polymers have fewer free ends to chew from and release energy slower. So, this might explain why Basmati has a lower GI.

  • Ryan

    thanks Mike. Have you done a similar article / study on pasta?

    Ryan

    • Welcome! I may do one on grains altogether.

      For now, you can go either way, refined or whole grain. Whole grain is more nutritious and what I prefer personally though.

  • Great article! Thanks for clearing the air 🙂 Though you reference soaking rice overnight, you could definitely have used the popular term “sprouting” your grains. My wife is now getting into sprouting her quinoa, rice, and lentils in order to reduce/remove the phytic acid content. Aside from making the nutrients more available, it also is beneficial for your teeth! Apparently the phytic acid is no good for them.

    • Glad you enjoyed it, Tommy! Thanks for the heads up too.

    • Kate

      Unlike most grains, rice does not contain the necessary enzyme (phytase) to disable the phytic acid. Soaking may result in a slight reduction, but you’re better off choosing white rice and getting your minerals elsewhere (rice with sea veggies anyone?) or eating your brown rice with a fermented food as Mike suggests.

  • Ryhan

    What about brown basmati rice?

  • Amin Abaee

    What I like most about this guy is he answers your questions before you ask em.

  • Not much to say on this one except huge eye opener. Thanks, Mike! I’m not a huge rice fan (I like it, but my preferred grains are potatoes and pasta when I can…or PANCAKES on those amazing cheat days!). But my kids and wife are all in on it. I’ll suggest opting for basmati rice from now on and won’t make as big a deal about when she buys white over brown anymore. !!

  • Livo

    Sorry if this question has been done already but what is your opinion about brown pasta vs white and grains flours. Thanks

    • I may do an article on grains altogether. For now, you can go either way, refined or whole grain. Whole grain is more nutritious and what I prefer personally though.

  • TJ58

    Mike, you have confused me. Reading below, you said to Jason Konold that wild rice had no arsenic issues. I just looked at the FDA site you highlighted above and I noticed wild rice at 6.0 and 5.9 mcg/serving. That puts it right with most of the rice. Did I miss something?

    • bhumishree
    • Hey Jason, that’s still low enough that it’s unlikely to cause problems. If you look around on their list, you’ll see that the highest levels are closer to 10-12 mcg/serving. By “no arsenic issues,” I meant the amounts aren’t large enough to cause problems, as well as having slightly more protein. I should have made that more clear. Really, it’s just another fine alternative.

  • Abemore

    Regarding arsenic, the phrase, “and it’s toxic to us humans,” is a bit misleading since absolutely every element in the universe is toxic to humans. Hydrogen. Oxygen. Water. Arsenic. All toxic at a high enough dosage. And all harmless, at a low enough dosage.

    It just seems like it’s a good educational opportunity.

    • That’s a fair point, but in common usage the term “toxic” usually just refers to something causing damage at a level that you’re likely to encounter.

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