As we become more conscious around our eating habits and our heart health, it's reasonable to feel concerned about the connection between your cholesterol levels and your diet.
But when you look into ways to lower your cholesterol, things can get a bit confusing. For example, while foods like white rice are cholesterol-free, there's a chance they can still affect your blood cholesterol levels and, in turn, negatively affect your heart health.
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To help eliminate the confusion, we talked to a dietitian and rounded up the facts for you, below.
Nutrition and Cholesterol Content in White Rice
Dietary cholesterol is the cholesterol found in foods like red meat, eggs and certain dairy products. And it's actually an important nutrient — your body uses cholesterol to make estrogen, testosterone, vitamin D and other important compounds, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Experts used to believe that the cholesterol in food raised cholesterol in your blood. Because of that, people sought to fill their diets with cholesterol-free foods while limiting or eliminating foods high in cholesterol.
White rice is cholesterol-free, according to the USDA. A 1-cup serving of cooked white rice has:
- Calories: 205
- Total fat: 0.4 g
- Saturated fat: 0 g
- Trans fat: 0 g
- Cholesterol: 0 mg
- Sodium: 1.6 mg
- Total carbs: 44.5 g
- Dietary fiber: 0.6 g
- Sugar: 0 g
- Protein: 4.3 g
But as it turns out, dietary cholesterol doesn't seem to affect your blood cholesterol levels as much as we once thought, according to a December 2019 science advisory from the American Heart Association (AHA) in Circulation.
Is White Rice Bad for Cholesterol?
If you're trying to eat a heart-healthy diet or keep your cholesterol levels in check, you may want to eat white rice in moderation.
When it comes to raising cholesterol, fatty processed meats likely come to mind. It's true, fatty meats are high in saturated fat, which can raise cholesterol and worsen heart disease, according to the AHA.
That said, a diet high in carbohydrates from refined grains, such as white rice, has been associated with a higher risk of heart disease, according to a November 2013 study in the American Journal of Epidemiology.
"Because it's a refined carbohydrate, white rice has a high glycemic index, which means it can easily spike your blood sugar," says Lauren O'Connor, RDN, author of 28-Day Mediterranean Diet Heart-Healthy Solution. "That's because the milling process removes its germ and bran, which contain most of its nutrients, and leaves mainly the starch."
Blood Sugar, Refined Carbs and Cholesterol
When you eat foods high in carbs, like white rice, the digestive system breaks those carbs down into sugar, which enters the blood as glucose, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. As your blood sugar levels rise, your pancreas produces a hormone called insulin, which prompts your cells to absorb blood sugar for energy or storage.
"Because those important nutrients are removed, a diet high in refined carbs may also raise your risk of insulin resistance," O'Connor says. Insulin resistance is when cells in your muscles, fat and liver don't respond well to insulin and can't easily use glucose from your blood, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
"Current research shows a link between insulin resistance and heart disease risk factors, including high cholesterol," O'Connor says. It's true: Insulin resistance can alter blood lipid (fat) levels, elevating triglycerides and LDL (bad) cholesterol, while reducing HDL (good) cholesterol, according to August 2018 research in Cardiovascular Diabetology.
It's worth keeping in mind, though, that any foods high in carbs will be broken down into sugar, so rice doesn't have to be entirely off-limits. To make sure rice fits in a heart-healthy diet, stick to the recommended portion size of 1/2 cup of cooked rice.
White Rice Alternatives for Heart Health
In addition to keeping portion size in mind, swapping white rice for whole grain alternatives can be a heart-healthy option.
"Whole grains like brown rice contain the fiber-rich bran, which slows the breakdown of carbs into glucose and promotes healthier blood sugar levels and helps lower cholesterol," O'Connor says.
"Whole grains are also good sources of magnesium, which is important for blood pressure control, and plenty of other heart-healthy nutrients (whereas white rice has to be enriched)."
Whole grains like brown rice aren't processed in the way white rice is, so they still have the bran, endosperm and germ, which are full of nutrients. The bran is rich in antioxidants and B vitamins and the germ contains minerals, protein and some B vitamins , according to the Whole Grains Council.
A diet rich in whole grains may improve cholesterol levels and lower the risk of heart disease thanks to the fiber, per the AHA.
Next time you're at your local grocer, look for brown, black or red rice. These are delicious white rice alternatives that are nutrient-dense whole grains.
For instance, black rice is rich in anthocyanins, antioxidants that give the rice its deep color, per the Whole Grains Council. Foods rich in anthocyanins have been associated with a lower risk of heart disease.
If you don't see black or red rice in the rice aisle of your grocery store, check the international foods aisle.
And, of course, feel free to round out your diet with other whole grains like oats and barley and foods high in fiber like beans, lentils and sweet potatoes.
Enjoying White Rice on a Heart-Healthy Diet
Below, O'Connor shares a few ways you can enjoy white rice while still caring for your heart health:
- Pair white rice with a fiber-rich whole grain, such as bulgur or quinoa, for a blended rice. This will provide more texture and a slightly nutty flavor. You can also go for a 50/50 mixture of white rice and wild or brown rice. Or, mix in fiber-rich lentils instead.
- You can also add foods high in healthy fats, like crushed almonds or seeds such as flax (which have both omega-3 fatty acids and dietary fiber). You can also enjoy your rice with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil.
- Enjoy a small portion of white rice (aim for about 1/2 cup cooked) with salmon (it's got heart-healthy fats and protein, which help keep those blood sugars in check) and veggies.
- Enjoy a small portion of white rice with beans (which are high in fiber and protein) and veggies.
- Whole Grains Council: "What is a Whole Grain?"
- American Journal of Epidemiology: "Dietary Carbohydrates, Refined Grains, Glycemic Load, and Risk of Coronary Heart Disease in Chinese Adults"
- American Heart Association: "Saturated Fat"
- Circulation: "Dietary Cholesterol and Cardiovascular Risk: A Science Advisory From the American Heart Association"
- USDA MyFoodData: "Cooked White Rice"
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "Cholesterol"
- Cardiovascular Diabetology: "Association Between Insulin Resistance and the Development of Cardiovascular Disease"
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "Carbohydrates and Blood Sugar"
- American Heart Association: "Whole Grains, Refined Grains and Dietary Fiber"
- NIDDK: "Insulin Resistance & Prediabetes"
- Whole Grains Council: "RICE OF MANY COLORS"
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