Brown Rice vs White Rice: What’s Better For Your Health?

Written by Cristina Powell, PN1, ME-3, CMS

Brown Rice vs White Rice

Chances are you have often been given the option between brown rice vs white rice, and if you’re like most folks, you opted for brown rice. Why? Because it’s been touted as the “healthier choice.” Of course.

Yes, it’s true. White foods in general have been given a bad rep for years. But is it justified? Are white foods really any worse for you than their more colorful alternatives (even if that “color” is beige)? Are white foods to blame for obesity, illnesses, and disease? If we look at this from a completely unbiased perspective, putting aside lifestyle and dietary risk factors, would we be surprised at what we discover?

Brown Rice vs White Rice

What Makes Brown Rice Brown and White Rice White?

Brown rice is a whole grain in which the outer hull is removed, but the underlying bran and germ layers are left on the grain. The bran layers are what make the rice brown.

White rice is the same plant as brown rice, but white rice is only the inner part of the rice grain. A milling process removes the indigestible outer hull and the bran, leaving only the starchy white endosperm. Since this ingredient does not contain all of the parts of the grain, it cannot be classified as a “whole grain.”

What Are Whole Grains?

Whole grains are ingredients such as brown rice, quinoa, oatmeal, whole wheat, and whole rye. According to the FDA’s Whole Grain Label Statement, for a food product to be labeled “whole grain,” it must contain all components of a grain kernel. That includes the bran, the germ, and the endosperm (the inner most part of the kernel).

Now, this is where it gets tricky. Once these whole grains go through manufacturing and are overly processed, what was once a source of good nutrition has been manipulated into things like crackers and breads. It would be difficult to argue that the nutrition of these whole grains isn’t compromised when the grain’s vitamins and phytochemicals are oxidized and exposed to air.

Furthermore, the less processed an ingredient is, the longer it takes to complete the digestion process. This is great news for folks who are looking to stabilize blood sugar levels and keep hunger and cravings at bay.

Bottom line—the “whole grain” label doesn’t mean very much. This product could contain 1% whole grains or 100% whole grains. There are no guidelines in place to measure this, which is disturbing, to say the least. My general rule of thumb is if I cannot see evidence of a grain, then it’s too processed for my consumption.

Brown Rice vs White Rice: Glycemic Index Impact

One factor in determining the effect of a food is to look at the glycemic index. This is a guideline which shows how an ingredient will affect blood sugar levels. Foods low on the glycemic index (GI) scale tend to release glucose slowly and steadily. Foods high on the glycemic index release glucose rapidly.

The following are the guidelines for determining where foods fall on this index:

  • 55 or less = Low (good)
  • 56 – 69 = Medium
  • 70 or higher = High (bad)

This is only part of the equation. There is also the glycemic load to consider. This is a calculation based on how many grams of carbohydrates are in the food. We multiply the carbohydrates and the GI and divide by 100. This number is a better indicator of the nutritional value of the ingredient, as this will tell you exactly how your blood sugar will react to consuming this food.

Glycemic Load = (Quantity of carbohydrate content x GI ) / 100

So how does the brown rice vs white rice battle fall on the glycemic scale?

According to Harvard Medical School, white rice has a GI rating of about 65, and brown rice has a slightly lower rating of 55. The glycemic load of these are rated at 23 for white rice, and 18 for brown rice.

Since the rating system for glycemic load considers a GL of 20 or more as high, a GL of 11 to 19 as medium, and a GL of 10 or less as low, both brown and white rice are what I would consider to be moderately high glycemic foods.

Where calories are concerned, brown rice and white rice are neck in neck, bringing 370 calories and 356 calories to the table per serving, respectively. If the brown rice vs white rice debate came down to just calories, white rice wins this battle (by “thiiss much”).

Alan Aragon has weighed in on this debate and says, “White rice actually has an equal or better nutritional yield and also has a better nitrogen-retentive effect than brown rice. This is because the fiber and phytate content of brown rice act as antinutrients, reducing the bioavailability of the micronutrients it contains.”

Arsenic and Old Rice

Some folks may have heard rice contains arsenic. Is this a cause for concern?

Interestingly enough, rice is one of the highest arsenic-containing foods in the United States. And studies have shown that brown rice contains more arsenic than white rice. According to a report published by the FDA: Arsenic in Rice, it was discovered that due to the outer layer brown rice has, which contains all of that extra nutritional value, it retains more of this toxic ingredient than white rice, which has those outer layers removed.

So by keeping the whole grain intact, in fact, it is actually doing more harm than good at protecting the grain from arsenic.

Take-home points:

  • Arsenic in rice is a legitimate concern and folks should exercise caution before consuming boatloads of rice.
  • A majority of arsenic can be removed from rice by washing it thoroughly with clean water and cooking it in clean water.
  • Check for where the rice was grown; choose rice from the United States (e.g., California) if possible as basmati rice from California was found to have the lowest levels of arsenic according to Consumer Reports.

Brown Rice vs White Rice: The Verdict

I would have to say that provided your diet consists of whole foods that contain the healthiest fats, carbohydrates, and proteins, you could include both white rice and brown rice in your healthy nutrition plan. Being mindful of portion sizes and practicing good overall nutrition is the most effective, intelligent, and enjoyable way to not only lower your risk of developing metabolic syndrome, but to avoid illnesses, disease, and enjoy a long and healthy life.

Some of the important vitamins and minerals are lost when you choose white rice over brown; however, if you are relying on rice to provide you with these vitamins and minerals, we have a lot more to discuss than just brown rice vs white rice.

Something else worth mentioning may be that since my diet is primarily low carbohydrate and my limited inclusion of carbohydrates are generally post-workout, it may actually be more beneficial to switch it up now and again to white rice. The protein in white rice is more easily accessed by the body, and it is actually preferred over brown rice for folks who have digestive concerns. Since fiber and protein content are virtually identical, and there are minimal differences in the calories and macros, and most of the time we don’t just sit down with a heaping bowl of rice and instead combine it with lean proteins and copious amounts of vegetables, I would argue that the choice really boils down to personal taste.

With that being said, based on several of my own personal contributing factors, and considering taste, if given the choice, I would opt for brown rice.

Bottom line: is brown rice superior to white rice? Nope.

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