Tuesday, July 1, 2014

"Swings and roundabouts” is a cracking British term used by David Brent to illustrate that our life’s paths rarely consist of a straight line: there are obstacles, turns and deviations along the way. 

The same goes for our diet and nutrition pathways. What may seem perfectly healthy today could turn out to be a dietary devil in years to come, and vice versa.

In 1984 the Times came out with this story vilifying saturated fat:

We were warned that eating too much saturated fat would almost certainly lead to heart disease and urged to comply with the recommendation of cutting saturated fat to the paltry amount of less than seven percent of calories - basically a couple of slices of cheese.

30 years later we see a complete about-face:

Now it seems saturated fat is relatively benign or even healthy when it comes from whole food sources and that we should eat more butter!

The point is that nutrition research is some of the most biased and misleading of all the sciences. 

To make matters worse the media has a tendency to pick up this (bad) science - that they don’t understand - and spit out sensationalized news stories such as "Eating Red Meat Worse than Smoking a Pack a Day”. 

You no doubt stumble across these articles on a monthly basis. For the most part you should ignore them.

Unfortunately the lay public and even General Practitioners know very little about nutrition and are therefore susceptible to propagate "health wisdom" written by industry-funded researchers, advertisers and lobbyists for the profitable industrial food companies. 

Do you think the old Food Pyramid recommendation to eat 8-11 servings of grains per day was backed by sound science? Hell no! You can bet your bottom dollar that the influence and lobbying from multi-billion dollar agri-businesses had a lot to do with it.

The point is, when it comes to nutrition recommendations be very skeptical. You should even be skeptical of my advice, given my predisposition to the literature favoring ancestral health and nutrition. 

Either way, at least my motivations are fairly pure and you can rest assured I’m not being bribed by the grass-fed beef industry… I wish!

So now that I've ranted about the baselessness of most conventional health wisdom let's get to the topic of white rice versus brown rice. 

I'm sure that most of you would assume that brown rice is far healthier white rice. Why? Because you've heard the following (misleading) statements:

  • Brown rice is less refined than white rice.
  • Brown rice is a complex carbohydrate, more ‘complex’ than white.
  • Brown rice has more protein, fiber and nutrients than white rice.
  • Brown rice is lower on the glycemic index than white rice. 
  • White rice makes you fat.
  • They charge $1 extra for brown rice at many asian restaurants so it must be better for you.

Now apart from the last one there is some truth to the above statements but as you’ll see the full story is very different.

Human metabolism is incredibly complex. The effect of a food on our health is far more convoluted than just the micro and macronutrients contained within that food. We need more context. 

Let's reconsider these statements in light of what we now know about organic chemistry and human biology:


Just because something is less refined or more 'whole grain' doesn't necessarily mean it is better for us. Refined foods (in the sense of industrial agricultural foods) are generally worse for us than whole foods but when we consider grains this isn't always the case. 

Grains and legumes are only edible to humans after cultivation and processing. Try eating raw wild wheat or rice and see how that goes for you... 

The germ and bran of rice does contain most of the protein, fiber and other nutrients but it also is the part of the organism that is most harmful to predators (humans). 

You see, rice is the seed of a swamp grass and therefore defined as a cereal grain. Unlike fruit seeds, grains don't want to be eaten by predators. And since they can't run away like animals or don't have a hard shell like nuts, grains have developed anti-nutrients as a means of self-defence or deterrent to predators. 

Anti-nutrients - phytates and lectins in the case of rice - can be quite irritating and harmful to human digestion. The more intact these anti-nutrients the more damaging they can be. This is their job. They can be thought of as biological warfare against predators.

Processing: soaking, grinding, cooking, sprouting and even human digestion can partially break down these anti-nutrients making them far less harmful. This is why humans with robust gastrointestinal function can get away with eating a substantial amount of well prepared grains and legumes for many years without any ostensible harm. 

Yet for those with gut irritation, gluten intolerance, leaky gut, etc, grains can be debilitating. Celiac disease is an extreme case of inflammation in response to gluten intolerance where the gut lining has been destroyed by long-term exposure to wheat protein.

Not only can the bran and germ of rice be potentially aggravating to human digestions but research is increasingly demonstrating how anti-nutrients can also bind to nutrients - like magnesium, zinc, iron and calcium - preventing the absorption of these micronutrients. 

Thus the bioavailability of nutrients in brown rice tends to be low. So while brown rice may have more calcium and magnesium than white rice you probably aren't absorbing any more of it overall. 

Phytic acid (Phytin in rice) can also inhibit the enzymes pepsin and amylase, used to break down protein and sugar respectively. So all that extra protein in brown rice (which is still insignificant and inferior compared to animal and other plant proteins) may not be absorbed so well either. 


The second major argument for brown rice over white rice is that because it has more protein and fiber from the bran and germ it is a ‘complex carbohydrate’ lower on the glycemic index and therefore has less of a blood-sugar spiking effect. 

In effect this is true, however the glycemic index is only a rough guide and should not be used alone as a metric to decide what to eat and not to eat. 

Looking at the Glycemic Index is kind of like looking at calorie content (which I am NOT a fan of): it can give you an indication of one scientific metric - effect on blood sugar for GI or total energy for calories. But such metrics tell you nothing of the nutrition content, quality, or potential effect on your digestion, metabolism or hormonal function. 

The glycemic load, which corrects for net carbs in a given serving size, is a slightly better metric but since blood sugar control varies so much from individual to individual and depends on many other factors - such as what you ate along with the food in question - it is not a good reason to choose brown rice over white rice. 

If you suffer from elevated blood sugar, diabetes, are overweight or obese or trying to lose weight then the real question is should you be eating rice at all? Probably not. 

Technically grains are neolithic, post-agricultural foods and are “not Paleo” but that’s not an argument I want to go into today.

Yet this does lead us to the next point of contention - why are we eating rice in the first place? 

If you are eating brown rice because you think it is a “healthy whole grain" - high in fiber, protein and micronutrients - I would encourage you to think again. 

On the scale of nutrient density brown rice, just like any other grain or faux-grain like quinoa, rank very low when compared to healthy animal products or vegetables. 

Let’s look at the stats:

100 calories of boiled brown rice has 3g of protein, 24g of carbohydrate, 2g fiber, 0.5mg of iron and 9mg of calcium.

100 calories of boiled Brussels sprouts has 9g of protein, 12g of carbohydrate, 7g of fiber, 3.5mg of iron and 100mg of calcium.

i.e. Brussels sprouts have triple the protein, half the carbs, three-and-a-half times the fiber, seven times the iron and 11 times the calcium of brown rice. 

Clearly if you are after protein, fiber or most other micronutrients you are better off eating cruciform vegetables than brown rice. 

Evidently, the only real reason to eat rice from a nutritional perspective is for it’s carbohydrate content. And since most people already consume too many carbohydrates then rice should really only be eaten occasionally as a simple form of glucose or a good accompaniment to a Thai curry.  

Given that you are relatively active, have good blood sugar control and are looking for a safe form of starch that will be readily converted to glucose in order to restore glycogen levels post workout, for example, then your choice should definitely be white rice. 

Ultimately, there really is no compelling reason to ever eat brown rice. 

Having said that, eating the occasional serving of brown rice is probably not going to adversely affect most people in any serious way. And if you prefer the taste or texture of brown rice over white rice that’s your prerogative. 

However, when you consider that brown rice is potentially more aggravating to the gut, that any additional nutrition content is less bioavailable and that the only real benefit of eating rice in the first place is for a source of relatively safe starch - then white rice is actually healthier than brown rice and is the better choice of the two. 

As I said, swings and roundabouts.

So when you’re at Thai Pod or Thai Tanic restaurant next time and you really feel like white rice, save yourself the dollar and go for it!

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http://www.time.com [Image source]


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  3. This rise looks tasty and I'd like to tasty it. I like to experiment in cooking and find it exciting. Sneak a peek at this website too - they share interesting and usefull information.

  4. Question: What about "beige" rice such as the kind available in Japan? That is, rice with the bran polished off, but not the brown nutrient load underneath? I'm looking for an appropriate rice accompaniment to a few specific meals, and my search brought me here. In particular, what is the effect on the inflammation factor?

  5. 100 calories of brussels sprouts is almost 3 cups, whereas 100 calories of brown rice is less than 1/2 a cup.

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