What is rice?
Rice (oryza sativa) is the seed of a cereal grass. It’s one of the most important dietary carbohydrates in the world, with over half the global population depending on it. Typically boiled or steamed, rice can also be ground into a gluten-free flour. It’s a central component of many cuisines including those of India, China and Southeast Asia.
There are many types of rice, but broadly speaking they are categorised by their shape (long or short grain) and colour – white or brown. White rice has had the fibre-rich outer bran of the grain removed along-with the nutrient-rich germ. As a result, it has a longer shelf life, is quick to cook but has a bland, neutral flavour; nutritionally it has less fibre and protein than the wholegrain equivalent. Brown rice, on the other hand, contains both the bran and germ, making it nutrient- and fibre-rich and retains a nutty flavour.
Nutritional benefits of rice
A 100g serving of white rice (boiled) provides:
- 131 kcal/560KJ
- 2.8g protein
- 0.4g fat
- 31.1g carbohydrate
- 0.5g fibre
A 100g serving of brown rice (boiled) provides:
- 3.6g protein
- 0.9g fat
- 29.2g carbohydrate
- 1.5g fibre
- 48mg magnesium
- 125mg phosphorus
What are the 5 top health benefits of rice?
1. May help maintain a healthy weight
Brown rice contains fibre and protein, both known to have a satiating effect and contributing to a lower glycaemic index (GI) than that of white rice. This means the carbs supplied by a portion of brown rice are converted to energy more steadily. For this reason, opting for brown rice over white helps reduce blood glucose and fasting insulin levels. All of which stabilises energy levels, prevents cravings and may help with weight management.
The picture with white rice is less clear, with some studies suggesting an increase in weight gain and in particular belly fat, whilst other studies show no connection. However, it is thought that a substantial serving of white rice, eaten on a regular basis, may lead to elevations in blood sugar levels, which over time may increase your risk of metabolic syndrome, including weight gain.
2. Brown rice protects against chronic disease
Brown rice retains the bran layer and as such contains protective compounds called flavonoids, examples of these include apigenin and quercetin. These compounds play an important role in protecting against disease. Numerous studies suggest including wholegrains, like brown rice, in the diet is linked to a reduced risk of conditions like heart disease, some cancers including pancreatic and gastric cancers as well as type 2 diabetes.
3. White rice supports energy and restores glycogen levels after exercise
Athletes, often opt for white rice as a preferred source of energy, especially when refuelling after exercise. This is because refined carbs, like white rice, are a source of quick, easily accessible carbohydrate which is needed to replenish muscle glycogen after physical exertion.
4. White rice is easy on the digestive system
White rice is easily digested, low in fibre and when cooked and served correctly is unlikely to cause gastric upset. It may be a useful inclusion for those who suffer from heartburn or nausea as well as during the flare-ups associated with conditions like diverticulitis and Crohn’s disease.
5. It’s a gluten-free grain
Being naturally gluten free, rice is a valuable option for those with coeliac disease or non-coeliac gluten sensitivity. The brown, wholegrain variety is especially useful because it supplies insoluble fibre, which promotes digestive function and ‘fuels’ the beneficial gut bacteria which are so important for health.
Is rice safe for everyone?
Rice is an important dietary staple however, reports have linked it with arsenic contamination, high levels of which, over a consistent period, have been linked with an increased risk of heart disease and cancer. The accumulation of arsenic tends to be greatest in the bran part of the grain, which means wholegrain rice may potentially have higher amounts of this heavy metal contaminant than white rice.
Given their smaller bodyweight, exposure to arsenic is of more concern for children. This risk is increased by their limited dietary choices and the fact that many first foods are rice-based. For this reason, rice milk, which is made from the bran of the grain, should be avoided for all children under 5 years of age.
Some useful kitchen tips may help reduce levels of arsenic such as washing rice before use and using a high volume of water to rice when cooking. That said, rice eaten in moderation as part of a varied and balanced diet should not be a problem for the majority of people.
If you are concerned, please consult your GP or registered dietitian for guidance.
Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a registered nutritionist with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications, including BBC Good Food.
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