Since the low-carb movement is at its peak right now, it may feel like everyone you know is either doing keto or “not eating carbs.” That’s probably why so many people aren’t sure whether rice is healthy or not.
“I think the main reason people have the misconception that rice is ultimately going to lead to weight gain is because it’s a carbohydrate,” explains Brit Trainor , a registered dietitian and health coach at Parsley Health New York.
The good news? Carbohydrates don’t automatically lead to weight gain, Trainor says. While there’s nothing wrong with a low-carbohydrate diet if it works for you, a landmark study published in JAMA in 2018 showed that low-fat and low-carb diets work equally as well for weight loss.
Trainor also emphasizes that pretty much any food can work in moderation, including rice. “An abundance of any sort of food is going to lead to weight gain, whether that’s rice or Oreos or even apples,” she explains. “If you eat way more calories than you’re burning, you’re going to gain weight.”
Plus, your brain loves carbohydrates. While your brain and body can adapt and really learn to love fat, your brain runs on glucose, the sugars that make up carbohydrates, Trainor explains.
What’s more, rice is one of the least allergenic grains, according to Trainor. “People do really well with eating it, especially if they have food sensitivities or issues like Celiac disease.” Since rice is lower in protein , it’s easier to digest than other grains, and it’s also naturally gluten-free .
Then bottom line here? There are many health benefits of rice. “I do recommend rice for the general population if they like it and enjoy it. Especially since in a lot of different cultures, rice is a huge food staple.” As for which types of rice are best and how to include it in your diet, like much else in nutrition, it depends.
“I tend to always emphasize portion control with rice, especially if weight is a concern,” Trainor says. “Rice is one of those foods that you can overeat pretty quickly.” Since white rice in particular doesn’t have a ton of fiber compared to other grains like oats and bulgur , it’s not as likely to make you feel full.
Ultimately, how much rice you should eat depends on your goals, Trainor says. The amount of rice that works well for an athlete will be tremendously different from what works for someone who is mostly sedentary. But in general, she recommends using the plate method to determine how much rice you should eat. If you imagine a plate, half of it should be green and/or non-starchy vegetables. One quarter should be protein, for example fish, tofu, or chicken. The last quarter should be carbohydrates. (Fat can be sprinkled or drizzled on top.)
So ideally, if you’re having rice, it should make up about 25 percent of your plate, regardless of how much food you’re eating overall.
So wait, is white rice healthy? White rice tends to get a bad rap, with people assuming that brown rice is better, but that’s not necessarily the case. “It’s true but it’s not true,” Trainor says.
White rice is basically brown rice, just stripped of the bran and the germ so that you’re only left with the endosperm. The bran and germ have certain nutrients like iron, B vitamins, and fiber, and the endosperm is the carbohydrate portion of the plant. Since white rice goes through this processing, people have the idea that white rice is more “processed,” and thus, less healthy Trainor adds. But, there are more benefits of white rice than you may think.
Here’s the thing: “In America and other countries, white rice is enriched back with the iron and B vitamins that are stripped when it’s processed,” Trainor says. So you’re not really missing out on anything nutrient-wise if you choose to go with white rice instead of brown. In fact, enriched white rice can contain more iron than brown rice , according to the USDA food database.
What’s more, the bran part of the grain contains an antinutrient known as phytic acid or phytate. “It’s considered an antinutrient because researchers actually found that it can get in the way of your body’s ability to absorb nutrients like calcium, iron, and zinc,” Trainor says. Since white rice doesn’t include the bran, you avoid eating phytates when you eat it.
This is especially key for people who have digestive issues, since they may have a harder time absorbing nutrients in the first place. For this population, white rice also tends to be a lot easier to digest, Trainor says. “It doesn’t have fiber in it, so it’s helpful for people who have Crohn’s disease, IBS, people who just can’t seem to keep things down, or people whose digestive systems just need a little bit of a rest.”
There’s really only one potential drawback to white rice: It has a higher glycemic index. “This means that the carbs in white rice can be converted into sugar more quickly than the carbs in brown rice,” Trainor explains. Mostly, this is a concern for people with diabetes or those who are trying to manage their blood sugar, as it can cause blood sugar to spike quickly.
Both of these varieties fall under white rice, but there’s one main reason you might consider them over regular white rice. You’ve probably heard about arsenic levels in rice. While this is not a huge concern in America and other developed countries, Trainor notes that jasmine and basmati rice are known for being lower in arsenic than other types of rice, particularly brown rice.
Brown rice is pretty similar to white rice health-wise, except for one key component: fiber.
If you don’t have any digestive problems, this could be an advantage, Trainor says. Especially if you’re interested in weight loss. “Fiber has been shown in many studies to help with weight management and weight loss.”
And for those concerned about the phytates in brown rice or those who are low in iron to begin with, there are three ways to remove these antinutrients from brown rice: sprouting, soaking, and souring.
Soaking is probably the easiest of the three; just leave your rice in a bowl filled with hot water mixed with an acidic medium (like lemon juice, lime juice, or vinegar) for 8 to 48 hours, then rinse before cooking. Trainor notes that you can also buy sprouted brown rice at health food stores. But for the average person who has good stores of the nutrients phytates interfere with, these antinutrients shouldn’t be a major concern, she says.
“Black rice actually beats out brown and white in terms of health,” Trainor says. In fact, it’s often regarded as the most nutritious member of the rice family, since it’s higher in fiber, protein, and iron than other types. One thing to keep in mind: “It’s also the highest in calories of all the types of rice, so just like any other type, definitely monitor your portions,” Trainor recommends.
Red rice gets it color from anthocyanins, a type of antioxidant, according to Trainor. Aside from that, it’s similar to all other types, Trainor says, but you might want to consider choosing red rice if you’re looking for an antioxidant boost.
Julia Malacoff is an Amsterdam-based freelance writer, editor, and certified personal trainer. She covers a wide range of wellness topics including nutrition, fitness, specific health conditions, and the latest scientific research in these field. Julia graduated from Wellesley College and she works with brands like Shape, Cosmopolitan, Fast Company, Precision Nutrition, Equinox, and Aveeno. Outside of work, you can find her walking her dog, trying out a new recipe, or learning Dutch.