Let me ask you a question. If you had the choice between eating brown rice or white rice, which one would you choose?
Many people would probably pick brown. Why? Because…
- Brown rice is often thought to be the good, clean, natural, healthy choice. So if you want to lose fat, avoid gaining fat, be healthier, or anything similar, this is supposedly the only rice you should ever eat.
- White rice, on the other hand, is thought to be the bad, dirty, processed, unhealthy choice. So if you want to improve your body or health in some way, this is supposedly the rice you need to avoid.
But is any of this actually true? (Spoiler: it’s not true.)
In this article, I’m going to do an unbiased, evidence-based comparison of brown rice and white rice to determine what their differences actually are, and how they stack up against each other in the following 6 categories:
- Calories, Protein, Carbs, Fat, And Fiber
- Micronutrients And Anti-Nutrients
- Glycemic Index
- Arsenic Content
- Personal Preferences
Let’s get started…
1. What’s The Difference In Calories, Protein, Carbs, Fat, And Fiber?
One category brown rice is often said to have a major advantage over white rice is nutritional content.
For starters, people always talk about brown rice containing a lot more fiber and protein. It’s supposedly a “great source” of both. It’s also talked about as being a much better choice for losing weight/not gaining weight, so perhaps it has fewer calories? Or fewer carbs? Or less fat?
To find out, let’s compare the nutrition facts for 1 serving of brown rice and 1 serving of white rice side-by-side and see what the differences actually are…
Carolina Rice: Brown vs White
The first brand of rice that popped into my head is the brand Carolina (it’s a popular brand here in the US). Here’s a screenshot from their official website…
Take note of the area I highlighted in blue at the bottom. That’s their white and brown rice.
So, what do we see?
- Calories: they contain the same amount of calories.
- Protein: they contain the same amount of protein.
- Carbs: white contains 3g more carbs (35g vs 32g).
- Fat: brown contains 1g more fat (1g vs 0g).
- Fiber: brown contains 1g more fiber (1g vs 0g).
As you can see, they’re damn near identical in every nutritional category, with any differences between them being insignificant.
Let’s try another brand…
Lundberg Rice: Brown Basmati vs White Basmati
Lundberg is another popular brand of rice here in the US, and it’s the brand I personally eat. Here’s the nutritional info from their official website…
So, what do we see now?
- Calories: white contains 10 more calories (160 vs 150).
- Protein: brown contains 1g more protein (4g vs 3g).
- Carbs: white contains 1g more carbs (34g vs 33g).
- Fat: brown contains 1g more fat (1.5g vs 0.5g).
- Fiber: brown contains 1g more fiber (2g vs 1g).
Yet again, they are damn near identical.
Which Is Better?
In terms of calorie, protein, carb, fat, and fiber content, I’d consider them equal.
Sure, looking at fiber and protein – which are often thought to be huge differences that make brown the good/healthy choice and white the bad/unhealthy choice – brown rice DOES sometimes have an advantage over white.
But, that “advantage” is trivial at best.
We’re talking about 1 additional gram of fiber (wow!), or 1 additional gram of protein (wow again!), and this is unlikely to make any meaningful difference in the big picture of a typical person’s overall diet.
Not to mention, if you’re eating any type of rice specifically for its protein content, you should probably reevaluate your diet. It’s pretty laughable as a “good source” of protein.
Instead, if you need more protein and/or fiber in your diet, the best option would be to combine your rice with something like chicken (or whatever protein source you prefer) and vegetables (whichever ones you like best).
That is what will provide the meaningful nutrition you’re looking for.
They are equal in this category. White and brown rice are virtually identical in terms of calories, protein, carbs, fat, and fiber, and any differences that may sometimes exist between them are too small (i.e. a single gram) to matter in the context of a person’s overall diet.
2. What’s The Difference In Micronutrients And Anti-Nutrients?
In terms of the larger nutritional factors we just covered (calories, macronutrients, and fiber), there really isn’t much of a difference between these two types of rice.
But what if we get down to their micronutritional properties, and the various vitamins and minerals they contain?
This is another category where brown is often claimed to be significantly better than white. And it’s all due to the fact that…
Removing Layers Removes Nutrients
Brown rice is referred to as a “whole grain” because it contains all 3 layers of the grain:
White rice, however, is really just brown rice that has had the bran and germ layers removed, thus making it a “refined grain.”
The reason this matters is because the bran and germ layers contain various micronutrients, and when those layers are removed, that micronutrition is removed right along with it.
That’s why white rice is often viewed as being “empty calories” with no nutritional value, while brown rice is viewed as being much more nutritious and thus, the better/healthier choice.
Does Brown Rice Actually Contain More Vitamins And Minerals Than White?
The answer is yes.
Brown rice is comparatively higher in micronutrients like magnesium, manganese, selenium, phosphorus, thiamine, niacin, copper, and vitamin B6.
It’s not exactly setting any records here (its superior nutrient content is quite overstated, to be honest), but yes, in comparison, it’s certainly the more nutrient-dense type of rice.
Is White Rice Really Just “Empty Calories”?
Eh, not exactly.
This is because a lot of white rice sold in various parts of the world (including the US) is “enriched,” which means the food company has added back in some of the micronutrients that were lost in the process explained above.
Here’s a quote from Carolina’s website about this very topic:
The USDA has established a standard of identity for enriched rice specifying the levels of thiamin, niacin, iron, and folic acid that the rice should contain. When the bran layer is removed from the brown rice to produce white rice, these vitamins and minerals are also removed. White rice is enriched to provide you with the same thiamine, niacin, and iron content as brown rice.(source)
Does This Matter For Weight Loss Or Weight Gain?
Whether or not a person loses fat or gains fat is dependent on their total calorie intake, with their total protein, fat, carb, and fiber intake playing important secondary roles as well.
And as we saw earlier, brown and white rice are pretty equal in that regard.
So, when we compare the differences in their vitamin and mineral content, we’re mostly just looking at which is a more nutrient-dense (and thus potentially “healthier”) food rather than which is better for weight loss.
One Problem: Anti-Nutrients
An interesting fact a lot of people don’t know about brown rice is that it contains the “anti-nutrient” phytic acid (aka phytate), which hinders the body’s ability to actually absorb the nutrients it contains (sources here and here).
In studies looking specifically at brown rice and white rice, one found that:
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.(source)
And another study concluded:
Comparing these results with data on standard protein intake, we concluded that brown rice reduced protein digestibility and nitrogen balance.(source)
So, what’s the takeaway message regarding anti-nutrients? There are two:
- Brown rice has anti-nutritional properties that white rice doesn’t have, and this could inhibit the absorption of some of the minerals it contains.
- While this is a fact worth mentioning in an article like this – where we are comparing every major and minor pro/con of each type of rice – it’s not actually a significant thing that most people on most diets will ever need to worry about.
Your Overall Diet Matters More Than Any Individual Food
Even if we ignore all of the above and declare brown rice to be the better, healthier, more nutrient-dense type of rice, it’s important to understand that we’re still only talking about a single food choice in the context of an overall diet.
And overall diet is what matters most.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. Let’s say we have two meals:
- Meal A contains grilled chicken and brown rice.
- Meal B contains grilled chicken and white rice… and vegetables.
Meal A may contain the more nutrient-dense form of rice, but Meal B is still likely to be the more nutrient-dense meal overall.
Here’s another example. Let’s say we have two people:
- Person A eats brown rice as part of their dinner every night, but the rest of their daily diet is less-than-ideal. They eat too many total calories, not enough fruits and vegetables, not enough protein, fiber, or essential fatty acids (EFAs), too much junky stuff, etc.
- Person B eats white rice as part of their dinner every night, and they also do a really good job with the rest of their daily diet. They consume an ideal amount of calories per day, optimal amounts of protein, fiber, and EFAs, plenty of fruits and vegetables, junky stuff is kept in moderation, etc.
Now, which person has the healthier overall diet, and is likely to be healthier overall based on diet alone?
And this example helps illustrate that when you look at the big picture of a person’s overall diet, the type of rice being eaten doesn’t really matter.
Because even if brown rice contained more of some vitamin or mineral, a person could just as easily eat white rice and still get sufficient amounts of that same vitamin/mineral via the other foods in that meal or in their diet as a whole.
So while I know this article is all about looking at individual foods and doing a 1-on-1 comparison, it’s important to remember that your overall diet always matters more than any single food that is (or isn’t) a part of it.
(For more on this topic, check out my guide to The Best Superfoods.)
Brown rice technically wins in this category, as it does contain more vitamins and minerals than white rice. However, the anti-nutrients brown rice also contains will hinder the body’s ability to absorb some of that micronutrition. In addition, a lot of white rice is enriched, which adds back some of the micronutrients it loses when the bran and germ layers are removed. These two facts, combined with the fact that the nutrient content of your overall diet matters much more than the nutrient content of a single food that’s a part of it, all make brown rice’s advantage in this category a lot less important and a lot less beneficial than it’s often made out to be.
3. What’s The Difference In Their 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 (on a scale of 0 – 100), the faster it will be digested and the faster/higher it will raise blood sugar levels. And vice versa.
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 gain, to controlling hunger, to preventing heart disease, diabetes, and more.
And guess what? Brown rice has a lower GI value than white rice.
This is one of the most common reasons why people consider brown rice the good, healthy choice, and white rice the bad, unhealthy choice.
Unfortunately for those people, it’s not quite that simple.
The Difference In GI Isn’t That Significant, And It Varies
For starters, the GI values for brown rice and white rice aren’t consistent.
This is because the exact form of rice (e.g. long grain, short grain, basmati, jasmine, etc.), the cooking method being used, and the length of cooking time will all affect the glycemic value.
For these reasons, the actual GI of rice will vary based on these details, and in many cases, the difference between brown and white becomes fairly insignificant (source).
But wait, there’s more!
The Glycemic Index Is Flawed
Many people view the glycemic index as this perfect and definitive method for judging if a food is good or bad. Lower GI = good. Higher GI = bad. Case closed. No further questions, your honor.
The problem with this is that the glycemic index isn’t nearly as perfect or definitive as people want it to be. Rather, it is flawed to a degree that greatly reduces or perhaps completely voids its usefulness in this regard.
Let’s take a look at 4 of its biggest flaws…
Flaw #1: The true GI value of a food varies by person.
One study showed that individual blood sugar responses to a particular food can vary by an average of 25% among different people based on each person’s own metabolic response to that food. So what might be high glycemic for some people may be low/medium glycemic for others (and vice versa).
Here’s a quote from Nirupa Matthan, PhD, the lead author of this study:
Glycemic index values appear to be an unreliable indicator even under highly standardized conditions, and are unlikely to be useful in guiding food choices.(source)
Flaw #2: The true GI value of a food varies among the same person.
The same study mentioned above also found that the glycemic index of a food varies by an average of 20% within the same person.
Here’s another quote from the lead author:
If someone eats the same amount of the same food three times, their blood glucose response should be similar each time, but that was not observed in our study. A food that is low glycemic index for you one time you eat it could be high the next time, and it may have no impact on blood sugar for me.(source)
Flaw #3: GI is measured during conditions that aren’t relevant.
The glycemic index of a food is determined when:
- An amount that contains exactly 50g of digestible carbohydrates…
- Is eaten in complete isolation…
- After an overnight fast.
So, let me ask you a question.
How often do you wake up and eat nothing but a bowl of plain white rice or brown rice for breakfast?
Nothing in it, nothing on it, nothing on the side of it, nothing within 12 hours before it, and nothing within 2 hours after it? Literally just rice, in a serving size that provides exactly 50g of carbs, as your very first meal of the day?
How often would you say you eat rice under these VERY SPECIFIC conditions?
Never? Cool. Then the GI value of rice isn’t relevant to you.
Well, first off, if you’re eating an amount of rice that contains more or less than exactly 50g of carbs, that rice will have a different GI value than it’s said to have.
Second, if you’re eating rice during any other scenario or at any other time of the day (you know, like most people), you now have other foods in your system from earlier meals that are in the process of being digested, and this will reduce the speed of digestion of all other foods/meals being eaten after that.
So the white rice or brown rice you’re eating for dinner will digest slower and have a lower glycemic impact thanks to the foods you ate for breakfast and lunch.
And third, if you’re eating anything else in that meal along with that rice, it instantly becomes less about the GI value of any individual food in the meal, and more about the GI value of the entire meal as a whole.
This is because the protein (e.g. chicken, turkey, fish, beef, dairy, etc.), fat (oils, nuts, butter, etc.), and/or fiber (vegetables, legumes, etc.) contained in the other foods being eaten along with it will greatly slow down its digestion and greatly reduce its glycemic index value (source).
And in this typical context, there won’t be any meaningful difference whether the rice in your mixed-meal is brown or white. It’s going to digest slowly either way.
Flaw #4: Common sense is needed.
Let me just throw this out there…
- A Snicker’s bar is a low glycemic food.
- A watermelon is a high glycemic food.
Does this mean candy bars are good and healthy, and fruit is bad and unhealthy?
Of course not.
It mostly just means the glycemic index is flawed, and using it as a way to determine whether a food is good or bad – a purpose it wasn’t even designed for in the first place – is… well… stupid.
Which Is Better?
On paper, brown rice has a lower GI value than white rice. But, the GI value of rice isn’t something that actually matters in the real world.
Brown rice has a lower GI, but this isn’t something you need to care about. The glycemic index is a highly flawed method for determining if a food is good/healthy or bad/unhealthy, and any differences in the GI values of brown and white rice aren’t actually going to matter in the vast majority of real-world scenarios. To quote a study I cited earlier, the glycemic index is “unlikely to be a good approach to guiding food choices.”
4. What’s The Difference In Digestibility?
When we compare “digestibility” in this context, we’re looking at which type of rice is more or less likely to cause digestive issues like gas, bloating, and so on.
And this is a category where white has some degree of advantage over brown, as white rice is one of the most well-tolerated foods there are.
In fact, it’s frequently recommended to people as an ideal food choice when they are dealing with preexisting stomach issues because it’s so easy to digest.
Brown rice, on the other hand, does negatively affect certain people. I, myself, happen to be one of those people (it causes gas and bloating for me… fun times).
Of course, many people won’t have any digestive issues with either type of rice, in which case this advantage won’t matter to them at all.
But for those of us who are affected, it’s a small win for white rice.
White rice wins in this category. In terms of digestion, it’s one of the least-problematic, well-tolerated, and easily-digestible foods there are, whereas brown rice can sometimes cause issues for some people in this regard.
5. What’s The Difference In Arsenic Content?
Hey look, here’s something else brown rice contains more of than white rice! Only in this case, that’s probably not a good thing.
Let me make this clear: ALL rice contains some amount of arsenic (yes, the same toxic arsenic you’re thinking of). In fact, a lot of stuff we consume on a daily basis contains arsenic (water, fruits, vegetables, other grains, etc.).
It just so happens that rice contains more arsenic than most other stuff.
And it turns out that brown rice contains more arsenic than white rice. This is something that’s been seen in studies, as well as in separate reports from Consumer Reports (source) and the FDA (newer source here, and an older source archived here).
This is actually a topic I wrote about back in 2012 (Arsenic In Rice), when that Consumer Reports report first came out. Allow me to quote myself from that article…
Literally all of the products that came back with the highest levels of arsenic 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.
So what kind of difference are we talking about here?
According to Consumer Reports, brown rice contains an average of 80% more arsenic than white rice (source), although it does vary quite a bit depending on the geographic location of where the rice was grown (source).
Why Does Brown Rice Contain More Arsenic?
Remember earlier when we talked about the bran, germ, and endosperm layers of rice? And how brown is a “whole grain” because it has all 3 layers intact, while white rice is a “refined grain” because the bran and germ layers are removed?
And do you remember when I explained that this is what allows brown rice to retain more vitamins and minerals (and anti-nutrients) than white rice?
Well, it turns out this also allows brown rice to retain more arsenic. How lovely.
Should We Be Concerned?
You probably have a few follow-up questions about this. For example…
- What kind of risk does this all pose?
- Is this something to worry about?
- Is this a reason to avoid brown rice and only eat white instead?
- Is this a reason to avoid all rice completely?
- Is this a reason to avoid fruit, vegetables, and water as well?
That 5th question isn’t serious, of course, and I say “of course” knowing that there are people who probably already spit out their water and threw out all their vegetables.
As for the rest of the questions, I’d say #4 is a huge overreaction, but questions #1, #2, and #3? We honestly don’t know enough to conclusively answer them.
All we can really do is look at the information that exists and try to make our best informed decisions.
Here’s What I Do
To be clear, if you’re someone who rarely eats rice, it’s unlikely that this will matter much, if at all.
But for someone like me who eats rice regularly, there are some measures I take to try to reduce the amount of arsenic I’m exposed to.
If you also eat rice regularly and are concerned about long-term exposure, the following advice may be worth considering, although there’s still no guarantee of risk reduction.
- Arsenic content is one of the two main reasons why I personally stick exclusively with white rice (digestibility is the other reason).
- Specifically, I only buy white basmati rice from the brand Lundberg (you can buy it on Amazon, by the way), as that Consumer Reports test found that this specific rice from this specific brand was lower in arsenic than everything else (although this is largely due to where the rice is grown).
- I also rinse my rice thoroughly before cooking it, and cook it with extra water (and then dump out the excess afterwards). Both of these methods have been shown to reduce arsenic content (sources here and here).
Again, it’s important to remember that there’s a lot we still don’t know about this topic, and I honestly can’t say for sure how helpful the above tips will be for reducing long-term exposure.
Also keep in mind that there’s a lot more contributing to the amount of arsenic each person is exposed to besides the rice they eat. This includes other aspects of their diet, as well as a variety of environmental factors.
The only thing I (or anyone else) can do here is guess based on the information we currently have available. And my guess is that taking the measures I’m taking will be better for me than not taking any measures at all.
(Some additional resources on the topic of arsenic can be found here and here.)
White rice wins in this category. Even though all forms of rice contain some amount of arsenic (plenty of other stuff we consume does as well… it’s kind of unavoidable), brown contains more arsenic on average.
6. What’s The Difference In Personal Preferences?
And finally, we have one tiny, minor, barely important factor to consider when choosing if we should eat a certain food: whether or not we actually like that food.
And please note my sarcasm in that first sentence. Describing personal dietary preferences as being “tiny, minor, and barely important” couldn’t be further from the truth… even though it’s often how many people who are trying to eat better 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’m actually one of those weird people who likes brown rice and white rice equally. I think they both taste good in their own slightly-different ways.
But hey, that’s just me… what about you?
Your answer can be more important than you think. Here’s an example of what I mean.
An Example Of Why Personal Preferences Matter
Take someone who thinks brown rice tastes horrible. (In my experience, a lot of people do indeed feel this way.)
Now let’s say they want to lose weight, build muscle, and be healthy, and they heard that in order to reach these kinds of goals, brown rice is the only rice they should eat (because it’s supposedly the “good” one), and white rice needs to be avoided (because it’s supposedly the “bad” one).
What happens next? This person goes and forces themselves to start regularly eating a food they don’t actually enjoy eating.
So even if it truly was better (which it isn’t), and it truly did provide meaningful benefits over white rice (which it doesn’t), that will all soon be overridden by the fact that this person is simply not going to stick to a diet they don’t like.
And if you’ve never been there before – forcing yourself to eat foods you don’t like on a daily basis because you think you need to – it will eventually become something you hate doing.
In the worst cases, it will lead to a poor relationship with food, and potentially an eating disorder. I see this sort of thing all the time for this very reason.
Not to mention, people in this scenario are going to struggle with diet adherence and sustainability (because diets comprised of foods you don’t like are pretty tough to adhere to and sustain long-term), and this is a requirement for successfully reaching the types of goals we’re looking to reach.
Which is why I saved this point for last.
People get all crazy over meaningless things like the glycemic index, or 1 extra gram of protein, or good foods vs bad foods, and blah blah blah, but yet they seem to forget that the key to being successful with their diet is actually sticking to that diet.
And the key to sticking to a diet is designing it around your specific needs and preferences so it’s as preferable, enjoyable, convenient, and sustainable (aka The PECS Method) for you as it can realistically be.
(By the way, if you need any help with this, my program will show you how to adjust every aspect of your diet and workout for this purpose. Feel free to check it out: Superior Fat Loss)
There is no universal winner in this category, as it depends on the individual preferences of each person. Only you can decide which one you like better.
What About The Studies That Say Otherwise?
Over the years, I’ve explained the points we just covered in this article to countless people who had previously believed brown rice = good and white rice = bad.
And upon hearing that this belief is not actually true, they often ask me about the various rice-related studies they see making headlines every so often.
You know, the ones showing that people who eat white rice have a higher risk of everything from obesity, to diabetes, to heart disease, to death.
So, if what I’m saying in this article is true (and, well, it is), then how do I explain these studies that supposedly say otherwise?
Good question! Here’s a good answer to it…
Correlation Is Not Causation
The studies people typically cite in this scenario show correlation rather than causation.
Meaning, they show a correlation between two things, not that one thing actually caused the other.
The reason why this matters is because you can find all sorts of correlations between all kinds of things, without any direct cause and effect being involved.
For example, if I punch you in the face today (sorry about that) and you win the lottery tomorrow, we now have a correlation between getting punched in the face and winning the lottery… even though we both know one did not cause the other.
And in terms of these rice studies, think of it like this:
- Who is most likely to eat brown rice?
The answer is health-conscious people. The kind of people who exercise, and eat well, and maintain a healthy body weight, and take better care of themselves, and live a healthier lifestyle than the average person, and are likely eating brown rice as part of this overall healthier approach to living.
- Who is most likely to eat white rice?
The answer is everyone else. That includes the typical, average person who doesn’t exercise, doesn’t eat well, is overweight, doesn’t take good care of themselves, doesn’t live a healthy lifestyle, and is likely eating white rice because it’s cheaper, or they like it better, or it’s the option that’s most often available to them, etc. etc. etc.
And so, when you do these types of studies where you look at large groups of people and ask them what type of rice they eat and compare that against what type of health problems they have… what are you going to see?
You’re going to see more positive health outcomes for the people eating brown rice, and more negative health outcomes for the people eating white rice.
But are these outcomes caused by the type of rice they are eating?
Nope! That’s just correlation. In reality…
- The positive health outcomes observed among the brown rice eaters are caused by all of the good things they are doing in their life (eating well, exercising, maintaining a healthy weight, etc.), not the rice they happen to be eating.
- The negative health outcomes observed among the white rice eaters are caused by all of the bad things they are doing in their life (eating poorly, not exercising, being overweight, etc.), not the rice they happen to be eating.
And I can promise you that the sources you’re hearing about these studies from aren’t going to explain any of this to you.
This is partly because they’re clueless about these topics, and partly because their main goal is to put out whatever scary headline is going to get them the most views (“New Study Shows White Rice Will Kill You Instantly!!!”).
And If You Really Like Correlation….
Here’s a fun fact to consider.
According to both the World Health Organization and the United Nations, Japan is the country with the highest life expectancy (source).
And do you know where white rice is eaten more than anywhere else on the planet?
So, if white rice is indeed “bad” for you, why is it that the people who eat it the most are the people who live the longest?
Apparently eating white rice makes you live longer. Or is that just correlation? 😉
Which Is Better: Brown Rice or White 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 meaningful difference whatsoever in terms of fat loss, muscle growth, health, or anything similar with all else (overall diet, exercise, lifestyle, 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 by your own personal needs and preferences. So… 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.
Me personally? I’ll stick with white.
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