I recently wrote an article comparing cleaning eating and IIFYM. It was a fairly broad look at how you should approach your diet and choose what foods you’ll eat.
Today I want to be a little less broad and get a little more specific. How? By looking at two particular foods commonly thought of as “clean” or “dirty,” “healthy” or “unhealthy” and “good” or “bad.”
I’m of course talking about brown rice and white rice, the yin and yang of annoying diet arguments.
Now to the average person, these two foods are easy to compare and the verdict has already been in for quite some time. Brown rice is the clean/healthy/good one, and white rice is dirty/unhealthy/bad one.
So if you’re trying to lose fat or build muscle or prevent fat from being gained or be healthier or just make any sort of improvement to the way your body looks, performs and functions, brown rice is supposedly the better choice by far, and white rice should be avoided.
Sound about right? Cool. Now let me show you why it’s bullshit…
The Difference In Glycemic Index
The glycemic index (GI) classifies foods based on how quickly and how high they raise blood sugar levels. The higher a food’s GI value is, the faster it will be digested and the faster/higher it will raise blood sugar levels. The lower a food’s GI value is, the slower it will be digested and the slower/lower it will raise blood sugar levels.
For this reason, eating in accordance with the glycemic index (eating low GI foods/avoiding high GI foods) is often viewed as a great idea for everything from losing fat or preventing fat from being gained, to controlling hunger, to preventing heart disease, diabetes and more.
And guess what? White rice has a higher GI value than brown rice. Most people know this, and it’s typically the first reason given for why brown rice is the better choice.
Is this true? Yes. Although, the difference in glycemic index can sometimes be less significant than people make it out to be depending on exactly what types of rice are being compared (long grain, short grain, basmati, jasmine, etc.).
But regardless of which type of rice is being compared, brown DOES in fact have an advantage over white in terms of the glycemic index. No doubt about that.
What should be doubted however is whether any of this glycemic index crap actually matters in the real world. For the most part, it doesn’t. Here’s why…
Does The Glycemic Index Actually Matter?
The GI value of a food is determined when it’s eaten in isolation after an overnight fast. As in, this is how this food will affect your blood sugar when it’s the FIRST and ONLY thing you’re eating after a full night of not eating anything.
And this is the point where the glycemic index becomes borderline useless as a means of determining if a food is “good” and “bad.” There’s two reasons why.
1. Eating After An Overnight Fast? Probably Not.
With the exception of your first meal of the day, you’re not eating after an overnight fast. So the majority of the time you eat rice (or whatever else), you’ll be eating it AFTER having already eaten other foods and meals at some point earlier that day.
Why does this matter? Because now there are other foods in your system already in the process of being digested, and this will reduce the speed of digestion of all other foods being eaten from that point on.
So the white rice (or brown rice) you’re eating for dinner tonight will actually digest slower (and therefore have less of an affect on your blood sugar) than the glycemic index says it will thanks to whatever foods you’ve already eaten today.
2. Eating In Isolation? Probably Not.
The much bigger issue here is the fact that, in the real world, the average person is unlikely to eat these foods in isolation.
Meaning, the average person won’t sit down to a big plate of white rice and nothing else (yet this is the scenario the glycemic index is based on).
Why does this matter, you ask? Because when other stuff is eaten along with it like it usually is, it changes everything. It’s now less about each food in the meal and more about the overall meal itself.
And, the protein, fat, fiber, etc. in those other foods will greatly reduce the glycemic index/speed of digestion of the entire meal to the point where there will be no meaningful difference between whether white rice or brown rice was a part of it.
So a meal of white rice + some fiber (like a vegetable), or fat (like various oils or nuts), or protein (like chicken) or all of the above will actually be MUCH lower glycemic and digest MUCH slower than a meal of just white (or brown) rice alone.
And a meal of white rice + some fiber/fat/protein vs a meal of brown rice + that same fiber/fat/protein will digest at virtually the exact same speed and affect blood sugar in virtually the exact same way.
Simply put, when other foods enter the meal, the type of rice becomes irrelevant. It’s gonna digest slowly either way.
What Does This Mean?
While all of this glycemic index stuff may look like it matters a whole lot on paper, the truth is that it matters a whole lot less in the real world. So if that’s your #1 reason for considering brown rice to be the good/clean/healthy choice of the two, you may want to reconsider.
Fiber, Protein, Micronutrients And Anti-Nutrients
The next area that brown rice is said to have a huge advantage over white rice is nutritional content. Brown rice has more fiber, more protein and just more “healthy” nutrients overall. White rice on the other hand is just “empty calories” with little to no nutritional value.
So if there’s one thing everyone can agree on, it’s that brown easily beats white in this area. Right?
Not quite. In fact, they’re often either exactly equal or brown just barely beats white. Don’t believe me? I’ll show you.
Carolina Brown vs White
The first rice brand that popped into my head is the brand Carolina. I’m thinking it’s gotta be one of the top few brands here in the US, isn’t it? Now here’s a screenshot from their official website…
Take note of the area I highlighted in blue at the bottom. That’s their white rice and brown rice. Take a moment to let all of those massive nutritional differences sink in.
Seriously. They’re damn near identical in every area, including exactly the same in protein (3 grams per serving). Brown does have the advantage in fiber though, and what a huge advantage it is… one whole gram more than white. Wow!
Eat a single small piece of broccoli or like 10 little green peas (or some laughably tiny amount of whatever you favorite vegetable is) with your white rice and you’ll instantly have an equal (if not higher) amount of fiber.
This was fun. Let’s do it again.
Lundberg Brown Basmati vs White Basmati
Here’s another very popular brand of rice. It’s also the specific brand and type of rice I’ve personally been eating most often over the last couple of years.
This is partially because A) basmati rice tastes and smells awesome, B) Lundberg makes a great version of it that is conveniently sold where I live, and C) Lundberg’s rice recently tested lowest in arsenic content compared to other brands (more on that later).
Here’s the nutritional info from their official website…
As you can see, more huge differences. Brown basmati has 1 more gram of protein and 1 more gram of fiber than white basmati. Once again… wow!
So in terms of fiber and protein content (along with calorie/carb/fat content as well) – which are often blindly cited as the differences that make brown “good” and white “bad” – the reality is that they are virtually identical.
And whatever advantage brown occasionally has is so tiny (e.g. 1 additional gram of protein) that it won’t actually matter in the grand scheme of your diet.
Not to mention, if you’re eating rice (which contains a very small amount of lower quality protein) as a primary source of protein in the first place, you should probably reevaluate your diet.
And by the way, if you’re trying to get more protein and/or fiber in your diet, the best option would be to combine your rice with something like chicken (or whatever) and vegetables. Just an idea. Now your meal will digest much slower, have much less impact on blood sugar, AND actually provide a useful amount of protein and fiber (and various micronutrients).
For example, I eat this meal all the time.
Micronutrients And Anti-Nutrients
Alright, so fiber and protein didn’t quite pan out as the huge nutritional differences everyone makes them out to be. But what about all of those micronutrients (various vitamins and minerals) that brown rice contains plenty of that white rice doesn’t?
Four things about that…
- First, this is true. Kinda. White rice is essentially just brown rice that has had its outer layers removed, and it’s those outer layers that contain various micronutrients. So when they’re removed during processing, many of those micronutrients are removed as well. For this reason, brown rice definitely does have the advantage over white rice in this area. Kinda.
- Second, none of this will have any effect on fat loss, fat gain, muscle growth, muscle loss or anything similar. At this point we’re only arguing about whether one food is more “nutrient-dense” than the other, not whether one will have a more positive or negative impact on body composition than the other, because micronutrients won’t have any meaningful effect on that.
- Third, a lot of white rice sold is “enriched,” which basically means the food company has added back in some of the micronutrients that were lost in the process explained above.
- Fourth and most entertaining of all is the issue of anti-nutrients. Here, I’ll let Alan Aragon handle this one…
White rice actually has an equal or better nutritional yield & also has a better nitrogen-retentive effect than brown rice. This is because the fiber & phytate content of brown rice act as antinutrients, reducing the bioavailability of the micronutrients it contains. Since no one is reading the fricking link, I’ll just lay things out here:
Comparison of the nutritional value between brown rice and white rice
Callegaro Mda D, Tirapegui J. Arq Gastroenterol. 1996 Oct-Dec;33(4):225-31.
Cereals are considered an important source of nutrients both in human and animal nourishment. In this paper nutritional value of brown rice is compared to that of white rice in relation to nutrients. Results show that despite higher nutrients contents of brown rice compared to white rice, experimental data does not provide evidence that the brown rice diet is better than the diet based on white rice. Possible antinutritional factors present in brown rice have adverse effects on bioavailability of this cereal nutrients.
Effects of brown rice on apparent digestibility and balance of nutrients in young men on low protein diets
J Nutr Sci Vitaminol (Tokyo). 1987 Jun;33(3):207-18. .Miyoshi H, Okuda T, Okuda K, Koishi H.
The effect of brown rice with low protein intake was studied in five healthy young men. Feces were weighed, the digestibility of nutrients was determined, and blood tests were made. Each subject followed a diet consisting mainly of polished rice for 14 days and one consisting mainly of brown rice for 8 days. Both diets contained 0.5 g protein per kg of body weight. The brown rice diet had 3 times as much dietary fiber as the polished rice diet. On the brown rice diet, fecal weight increased, and apparent digestibility of energy, protein, and fat decreased, as did the absorption rates of Na, K, and P. The nitrogen balance was negative on both diets, but more negative on the brown rice diet. The phosphorus balance on the brown rice diet was significantly negative, but other minerals were not affected by the diet. The levels of cholesterol and minerals in the plasma were not significantly different on the polished rice diet and the brown rice diet. Comparing these results with data on standard protein intake (Miyoshi, H. et al (1986) J. Nutr. Sci. Vitaminol., 32, 581-589.), we concluded that brown rice reduced protein digestibility and nitrogen balance.
So yeah, if the supposed amazing macronutrient and/or micronutrient content of brown rice is the #1 reason why you consider it to be better/cleaner/healthier than white rice, you may want to once again reconsider.
I’m not talking about speed of digestion here. We covered that already. I’m talking about your ability to digest a food.
And in terms of which is least likely to cause any digestive issues and/or just make you feel a bit crappy in general (gas, bloating, nasal congestion, lethargy, cramps, constipation, diarrhea, etc…. all the fun stuff), white rice has an advantage over brown.
It’s one of the most well tolerated foods on the planet.
Now sure, many people will feel just fine eating both types of rice and have no issues as far as they can tell. In those cases, this advantage is irrelevant.
But for the people who DO have food intolerances, allergies or digestive issues and DO have mild to significant issues with certain types of foods (like grains), this advantage is relevant.
So how can you tell if you have any issues with brown rice (or any other food for that matter)? Try this:
- Eat that food consistently for a few weeks while keeping your overall diet the same… and pay attention.
- Then, remove that food from your diet for the next few weeks while still keeping your overall diet the same… and pay attention.
- Then, reintroduce that food back into your diet for the next few weeks while keeping your overall diet the same… and pay attention.
So, what happened? Did you notice any differences? Did you feel better/worse with or without that food? Or was everything exactly the same?
If everything seemed exactly the same with and without that food, then cool. Feel free to keep on eating it.
If however you noticed that you feel better without it and worse with it, you may want to consider eating that food less often or maybe even not at all.
And while rice in general tends to be one of the least problematic foods in this regard, the simple fact is that brown rice WILL cause some issues for some people, while white rice most likely never will.
Those people should adjust accordingly.
Hey look, another thing brown rice is higher in! Only this time that’s probably not a good thing.
You see, ALL rice contains some amount of arsenic (yes, the same toxic arsenic you’re thinking of), as do many of the other things we consume on a daily basis (water, fruits, vegetables, grains, etc.).
It just so happens that rice contains more arsenic than the other stuff.
This is actually a topic I wrote about (Arsenic In Rice) back when that first report originally came out. Allow me to quote myself…
Literally all of the products that came back with the highest levels were brown rice products. And every time they tested a brown and white rice from the same brand, the brown version always had a lot more than the white.
Why is this? Well, you know that outer layer brown rice has that contains all of that extra nutritional value that supposedly makes it better than white rice? It turns out this outer layer also allows it to retain more arsenic.
The next obvious question here is what risk does this all pose? Is this something to worry about? Is this a reason to avoid brown rice and eat white instead? Is this a reason to avoid all rice completely? Is this a reason to avoid fruit, vegetables and water too?
The last question isn’t serious of course (and I say “of course” knowing that there are people who already spilled out their water and threw out their vegetables), and the question before that is a huge overreaction in my opinion. But the first 3 questions? We honestly don’t know enough to answer them. All I can do is give you the information and leave the decision making to you.
As for me personally, as someone who eats a shitload of rice on a regular basis, I viewed this report as another reason for me to stick primarily with white rice (digestibility is the other).
And by the way, the article of mine that I quoted above also covers some good recommendations for reducing the amount of arsenic in your rice. In you’re interested, feel free to check it out. And as mentioned earlier, the brand I eat (Lundberg, especially their white basmati) tested lower than everything else.
And finally we have that one tiny, minor, super unimportant aspect of choosing foods that people like us (those eating to improve their bodies) tend to forget about or ignore completely.
Whether or not we actually like that food.
And please note the sarcasm in that first sentence. Describing personal preference as being “tiny, minor, super unimportant” is a joke despite it being the way many of us realistically treat it.
So, which type of rice do you like better? The taste. The texture. How it goes with other foods you’re eating it with.
I personally like the taste of white and brown rice damn near equally. So, I’ve eaten both on and off for years because I happen to like both. Although, for reasons mentioned in points #3 and #4 above (digestibility and arsenic content), I’ve gone primarily with white rice for a couple of years now.
But that’s just me… what about you?
Your answer can be more important than you think. Here’s an example of what I mean.
Take someone who thinks brown rice tastes horrible. Now tell them that in order to lose fat, be healthy or whatever else, it’s the only type of rice they should ever eat because it’s beneficial for those goals while white rice is detrimental to those goals (which you know by now is complete bullshit).
Now this person goes and forces himself/herself to start regularly eating a food they don’t actually enjoy eating. So even if it did provide magical benefits over white rice or other carb sources (which it doesn’t), those benefits would soon be overridden by the fact that they’re just not going to stick to a diet that they hate.
And if you’ve never been there before, forcing yourself to eat foods you don’t like on a daily basis will eventually become something you hate. Or maybe even an eating disorder as well.
Which is why I saved this point for last. People get all nuts about meaningless crap like the glycemic index and 1 extra gram of protein and clean vs dirty and blah blah blah, but seem to forget that the key to improving your body is actually sticking to your diet. And the key to sticking to your diet is designing it around your specific needs and preferences so it’s as enjoyable and sustainable for you as possible.
Additional details here: How To Choose The Best Foods For Your Diet
And here: The Best Superfoods
Which Is Better: White Rice or Brown Rice?
Alright, so… what’s the final conclusion here? Here’s how I’d sum it all up.
Are there differences between white rice and brown rice? Yup, definitely.
Are those differences likely to make any significant difference whatsoever in terms of body composition or health with all else (overall diet, training, consistency, etc.) being equal? Nope.
In fact, when you really compare the two, any differences that might be even close to significant (for example, digestibility and arsenic content) actually favor white rice over brown.
So which one is better? It’s a tie, and that tie is likely best broken based on your own personal needs and preferences. The rest doesn’t matter. Eat the one you like best and/or have less issues with eating.
If that’s white, awesome. If it’s brown, awesome. If it’s both… awesome.