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There are over 40,000 species of rice or Oryza sativa. It is a staple across many cultures, with varieties like wild rice, red rice, white rice, brown rice, sella rice, arborio rice, jasmine rice and sticky rice, among others, now available in Indian cities.

Rice is also one of the oldest cultivated grains in the world, with famous recipes like the paella from Spain, the Italian risotto, jambalaya (said to have originated in New Orleans, US), and the biryanis made across India developing over centuries.

Rice is almost completely composed of carbohydrates. And because it is plentiful and palatable, it makes for a convenient and functional accompaniment to our meals. 

Rice is grown and consumed heavily in India. While white rice is more popular, many are now switching to brown rice because of its supposed health benefits.

But do the claims that brown rice is healthier, hold water? Let’s do a quick comparison of white and brown rice to understand the important differences.

  1. Differences between brown and white rice
  2. White versus brown rice in diabetes
  3. White rice or brown rice for heart patients?
  4. Comparative effects on heart disease
  5. Takeaway

Brown rice is whole grain rice, while white rice is refined. The former has the bran, germ and endosperm intact which gives its characteristic brown colour. Note that other colours exist too, such as red and purple.

White rice is polished in the milling process, and the outer coating is removed, leaving behind only the white, starchy endosperm. This means that white rice is shorn of nutrients such as vitamin B, fibre, minerals like iron and other phytochemicals (plant-derived chemicals). 

This means that white rice—which lacks the bran and germ—is considered to be less healthy because it consists almost entirely of empty calories in the form of carbohydrates. 

White rice also tastes innocuous, whereas brown rice has more of a nutty and distinct favor, so both the grains complement dishes differently. 

There are other important differences as well—white rice takes less time to cook as it is easier for water to be absorbed since the outer covering has been removed. White rice also has a longer shelf life than brown rice—if you want to store brown rice for longer periods of time, you will need to stash it in the freezer.

In summary, brown rice has more fibre, antioxidants and nutrients than white rice. Having said that, neither is composed for health reasons per se; it’s just that brown rice seems to be a healthier alternative. Here is a table comparing the nutritional value of the two:

Nutrition value of White and Brown Rice
  White Rice Brown Rice
Energy 344 kcal 378 kcal
Protein 6.67 g  8.89 g
Carbohydrate 77.8 g 78 g
Fibre 0 g 4.4 g

There are many robust studies that suggest brown rice is better for those with diabetes and is also better for those who are at risk of getting diabetes. For starters, brown rice has a lower glycemic index (GI) than white rice; 55 as opposed to 64. The GI is a measure of how much and how quickly blood sugar rises after consuming a food. 

A review of 16 international cohort studies found that a diet rich in whole grain (including brown rice at 3 servings daily) led to a 32% risk reduction in getting type 2 diabetes. White rice was associated with an increased risk of diabetes, but this finding was not consistent across all studies. 

Another meta analysis found a 55% increase in type 2 diabetes when comparing the highest and lowest intakes of white rice in Asian populations. 

In general, research has shown that holding all else equal, substituting brown rice for white rice is better for people at risk of diabetes, given the lower glycemic index.

Read about the blood sugar (glucose) test

Studies have shown a consistent, inverse relationship between whole grains and cardiovascular diseases. Those who consume refined grains appear to be at a higher risk of getting cardiovascular diseases (CVD). Whole grains have been shown to lower the amount of LDL cholesterol and increase HDL concentrations in the blood. 

Read about heart disease and high cholesterol.

The beneficial gains in weight loss and the reduced risk of diabetes both contribute to a degree of protection against CVD as well. 

Read more: tips on how to lose weight.

Again, these studies point to the fact that brown rice may be more beneficial than white rice for those suffering from heart conditions. However, note that the studies looked at whole grains in general and not specifically at brown rice.

While research has shown that brown rice can make certain indicators of CVD, more favourable, prospective cohort studies have been less clear. For example, a review of 45 studies did not find a risk reduction of CVD on consuming white or brown rice. Another study that looked at over 110,000 people did not find a reduced risk for ischemic disease for those who consumed large amounts of brown rice.

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that multigrain foods are better for weight loss than refined foods given the lower glycemic index (GI). Long term, robust studies have confirmed these findings. However, the data specifically on brown rice is more limited, but given that the underlying principles are the same, it is reasonable to assume that substituting brown rice with white rice will lead to weight loss.

As always, refined foods are unhealthier options since they have been stripped of naturally occurring minerals. Brown rice is the healthier choice since it packs in more nutrients. Having said that, neither seemed to increase or decrease the likelihood of heart diseases—and evidence also points to neutral correlations to stroke, cancer and other causes of mortality. What matters more than a specific part of the meal is the composition of the meal; if you are eating a balanced diet with diverse food sources and nutrients, you are much better off. 

Having said that, if rice is a staple in your cuisine, it is a better idea to choose varieties that don’t have the germ and bran removed—the simple carbohydrates of white rice can increase the likelihood of developing chronic diseases.

References

  1. USDA [Internet]. U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE; BROWN RICE
  2. USDA [Internet]. U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE; White rice
  3. Behnaz Abedi, et al. The association between dietary intake of white rice and central obesity in obese adults ARYA Atheroscler. 2013 Mar; 9(2): 140–144. PMID: 23690814
  4. Sayyed Safavi, et al. Effect of Brown Rice Consumption on Inflammatory Marker and Cardiovascular Risk Factors Among Overweight and Obese Non-menopausal Female Adults Int J Prev Med . 2014 Apr;5(4):478-88. PMID: 24829736
  5. Phillip Mellen, et al. Whole Grain Intake and Cardiovascular Disease: A Meta-Analysis Nutr Metab Cardiovasc Dis . 2008 May;18(4):283-90. PMID: 17449231
  6. V. Mohan, et al. Effect of Brown Rice, White Rice, and Brown Rice with Legumes on Blood Glucose and Insulin Responses in Overweight Asian Indians: A Randomized Controlled Trial Diabetes Technol Ther. 2014 May 1; 16(5): 317–325. PMID: 24447043.
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