Across the globe, rice is a major food staple—it’s been a mainstay in countries like Japan and India for thousands of years, and it’s still hard to argue with its versatility in modern kitchens.
But is rice healthy? Well, it depends on who you’re asking, and what kind of rice you’re asking about. The two types that pop into your head are probably brown rice and white rice. Brown rice is a whole grain, and it contains three parts: the bran (the outer layer), the germ (the tiny embryo), and the endosperm (the starchy part of the grain). In brown rice, the bran and germ are kept around for their fiber and nutrient content.
“White rice has had the bran and germ removed,” says Los Angeles-based dietitian Patricia Bannan, MS, RDN, author of Eat Right When Time Is Tight. That basically leaves the endosperm, which is what you think of when you picture a grain of white rice.
White rice versus brown rice
It seems like common knowledge that brown rice is “better” for you than white rice, and in many ways, that’s true. “Rice is not all created equal—brown rice varieties have more natural nutrients [like] fiber, vitamins, minerals, and protein, and white rice varieties have been stripped of the natural nutrition and need [nutrients] like B vitamins to be re-fortified,” says Nashville-based dietitian Jenny Beth Kroplin, RD, LDN, CLC.
This means that white rice isn’t considered a whole grain like brown rice is, and it’s no secret that whole grains win out over refined carbohydrates in a healthy diet. But there’s more to the argument than “white rice is bad, brown rice is good.”
The nutritional low-down on other rice varieties
For one, there’s no shortage of rice varieties around the globe. White rice and brown rice are actually pretty broad categories. In fact, “there are over 120,000 varieties of rice worldwide and they are categorized by degree of milling, kernel size, starch content, and flavor,” says Bannan.
Jasmine rice and basmati rice are common grocery store finds with different flavor profiles, and they each come in brown rice and white rice versions. Other popular rice varieties actually have unique (and sometimes superior) health benefits compared to the “regular” stuff.
One of the best picks is black rice (it surpasses brown rice in the health benefits department), says Kroplin. “Commonly called ‘forbidden rice,’ it is the most nutritious rice in the rice family—it’s high in fiber, antioxidants, protein, and iron,” she says. “However, it is highest in calories, so portion control should be carefully considered.”
Red rice is another option. “It has a unique color due to its anthocyanin content, which also provides a big boost of antioxidants,” says Bannan.
Other common rice varieties aren’t actually rice. “Wild rice is one of the most nutritious [options]—it’s actually a semi-aquatic grass native to North America,” says Bannan. “It’s high in protein, low in fat and sodium, a good source of fiber, and provides vitamins and minerals.” So while it’s not technically rice, it looks a whole lot like it, and it has some similar benefits.
Overall, there’s a lot to love about most kinds of rice (including white rice, believe it or not). But there are also a few drawbacks to keep in mind—even brown rice isn’t perfect. Here’s what you need to know about rice’s pros and cons.
Benefits of rice
1. Rice is a quick energy source. Unless you’re a ketogenic diet follower, carbs are a good thing—the Dietary Guidelines for Americans say that the macronutrient should make up about 45 to 65 percent of your daily calories (and they suggest that at least half of that should be whole grains, like brown rice, says Kroplin). Carbs are your body’s main fuel source, and as rice is broken down into sugar and enters your bloodstream (like all carbs do), the glucose is shuttled to your cells to power up your activities.
Brown rice is digested more slowly due to its fiber content, whereas white rice will spike your blood sugar more quickly. While that’s generally not a great thing, white rice can actually be a better choice for athletes who need an easily digestible fuel source before a race or event.
2. Rice is generally safe for people with food sensitivities. “Rice is the least allergenic of all grains,” says Bannan, which makes it a good choice for people who have food sensitivities or allergies (or even just suspect they might). It’s naturally gluten free (although those with Celiac disease should read the label to make sure it was processed in a GF-friendly facility), and as of now, any rice you can buy is also GMO-free.
3. Brown rice is a good source of fiber. While the hull is stripped from white rice, brown rice is an excellent source of fiber, which helps to lower inflammation, improve gut health, and boost metabolism. In fact, this fiber content may be to thank (at least in part) for some of the health benefits of brown rice overall. “Research shows brown rice helps reduce the risk of chronic disease and certain cancers, and it plays a role in weight management,” says Bannan.
4. Rice is an excellent source of vitamins and minerals. Rice has more than 15 vitamins and minerals, says Bannan. “Some of the nourishing nutrients brown rice contains are key B vitamins, phosphorus, selenium, and magnesium, and just one cup of cooked brown rice can meet a large portion of daily manganese needs,” says Kroplin.
While brown rice is naturally higher in these nutrients, white rice is often enriched with them along the way (like B vitamins and iron). So, while it’s been processed, white rice isn’t necessarily nutritionally void.
Drawbacks of rice
1. Measurable levels of arsenic have been found in rice. “There is recent research suggesting that rice can contain arsenic levels, primarily in brown rice since it accumulates in the outer layer of the rice,” says Kroplin. “A Consumer Reports study found measurable levels of arsenic in all 60 varieties of rice tested.”
Arsenic is a toxic carcinogen, and exposure has been linked to several types of cancer (among other major health issues). Unfortunately, there’s no FDA regulation on how much arsenic is allowed in food, so it’s important to be mindful of how much rice you’re eating and where it’s from, says Kroplin.
“I would suggest buying brown rice primarily from California, India, or Pakistan, where arsenic levels have been found to be one-third less [than other places],” she says. Try to steer clear of rice from Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas, which have some of the highest levels of arsenic, she adds.
2. Brown rice may reduce your body’s ability to absorb other nutrients. “Brown rice contains the ‘antinutrient’ phytic acid,” says Bannan. Phytic acid, or phytate, is an antioxidant compound found in plant foods. It’s considered an antinutrient because research has found that it can get in the way of your body’s ability to absorb nutrients like calcium, iron, and zinc (among other vitamins and minerals).
Because phytic acid is found in bran, this is only an issue with brown rice—so white rice doesn’t contain the antinutrient.
3. Rice has a relatively high glycemic index. While the energy your body gets from rice is a good thing, there is a dark side to it. Rice has a high glycemic index, meaning it spikes your blood sugar quickly, which can lead to crashes (cue: fatigue, headaches, and cravings).
This is a bigger issue with white rice, since it doesn’t contain much fiber to slow down this spike. “[Brown] rice is comprised of complex carbohydrates that are more slowly digested than simple sugars, allowing the body to maintain more consistent long-term energy levels,” says Bannan.
So, is rice healthy?
Ultimately, rice can absolutely have a place in a well-balanced eating plan. While white rice isn’t necessarily bad, both Bannan and Kroplin recommend going for brown rice over white rice thanks to its fiber content and better nutrient profile.
That said, keep in mind how often you’re eating brown rice—while it’s safe in moderate consumption, says Kroplin, arsenic levels should definitely be a consideration. And if you’re looking for an easily digestible fuel source (or you’re concerned about antinutrients), don’t be afraid to choose white rice once in a while.
Now that you know where rice stands on the healthy food spectrum, here’s the verdict on if acai bowls are healthy and the 411 on flaxseed, another nutritional powerhouse.