Puffed Rice Diet

There is no official "puffed rice diet." But puffed rice, especially in the form of rice cakes, is often included as part of a calorie-restricted diet or weight-loss plan. Even though puffed rice is low in calories, it's also low in vitamins and minerals, so it may not be the best choice.

Rice puffs are often part of a calorie restricted diet. (Image: HandmadePictures/iStock/GettyImages)

Puffed rice is also highly processed and high in carbohydrates, which can stall weight loss and contribute to other health problems. While eating puffed rice occasionally is OK, especially if you combine it with a source of protein or healthy fat, you shouldn't rely on it as a foundation of your diet.

What Is Puffed Rice?

Rice, which is a staple in many diets, is the second most consumed cereal grain in the world, according to a June 2016 report in the International Journal of Food Properties. Brown rice, which is less processed than white rice, contains fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that help make it a decent addition to an otherwise healthy, balanced diet. But when rice, even brown rice, is turned into puffed rice, it undergoes even more heavy processing that strips it of most of its nutritional value.

Puffed rice, also called murmura in certain regions, is a staple in some Indian and Asian diets. To turn rice into puffed, or popped, rice, food manufacturers use a combination of parboiling, drying, milling and expanding. As the name implies, the hard rice kernel is expanded, or puffed, and a light, crunchy rice kernel is left in its place.

The amount of processing involved has a direct effect on the nutritional value of the rice. Researchers from a study published in Food Chemistry in January 2016 compared raw brown rice to puffed brown rice and reported that the puffed brown rice was significantly lower in antioxidants and minerals than the raw rice samples.

Puffed Rice Nutrition

So, while puffed rice is low in calories, it's also low in other nutrients. Although rice contains fiber and antioxidants, most of those are stripped away during processing. What's left is a low-calorie, high-carbohydrate snack (or meal, if you opt for cereal) that doesn't offer much.

Some popular puffed rice options include rice cakes and puffed rice cereal. As far as nutrition goes, one rice cake contains 35 calories, 7.3 grams of carbohydrates and 0.4 grams of fiber, while 1 cup of puffed rice cereal has 56 calories, 12.6 grams of carbohydrates and 0.2 grams of fiber.

Both rice cakes and puffed rice cereal have some trace amounts of vitamins and minerals, but nothing that's really notable, except for iron. Because most cereals are fortified with certain vitamins and minerals, puffed rice cereal does contain a decent amount of iron, at 4.4 milligrams per cup. That's about half the amount that men need for an entire day, and 25 percent of the amount that menstruating women need.

Fortified Puffed Rice

Although the natural nutrients in puffed rice are destroyed during its processing, food manufacturers have tried to find a way to replace those lost nutrients, and even add more, after the fact. In a report published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry in October 2012, researchers described a new processing method for puffed rice that may be able to preserve some of the nutrients and make it more beneficial to include it in your diet.

Most commercial puffed rice is made with steam at temperatures between 265 and 355 F. These high temperatures kill the nutrients and leave nothing behind but a small amount of calories and carbohydrates. However, another processing method that uses carbon dioxide instead of steam may be able to preserve the nutrients and add more, like protein.

According to the report, puffed rice made with carbon dioxide processing contained 8 percent fiber, 21.5 percent protein and significant amounts of vitamin A, vitamin C, iron and zinc. All of the amino acids were also retained in the new processing method. However, there's no way to tell if the puffed rice you're getting is made with steam processing or carbon dioxide processing, so you may not be getting what you think you are.

The Problems With Puffed Rice

In addition to its low nutritional value, there are other problems with puffed rice. While puffed rice may seem like a good option because it's low in calories, it's also high in refined carbohydrates, which can disrupt blood glucose and insulin and increase your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Rice is also high in arsenic, a heavy metal that's been linked to chronic health problems, like cancer, heart disease, diabetes and developmental problems. Researchers from a study published in Food Control in December 2017 tested 59 different rice-based products, including rice cakes and puffed rice, and found that 75 percent of those samples contained more than the recommended value of arsenic per serving. This is especially problematic for infants and young children.

Rice also contains phytates, which are compounds that block the absorption of certain minerals. Because they interfere with the amount of nutrients you absorb, phytates are often classified as "anti-nutrients."

In addition to losing minerals during processing, the phytates in the rice make it difficult for your body to absorb any minerals, especially iron, zinc, calcium and selenium, that are left over. Since you're not effectively absorbing these nutrients, rice may be even less nutritious than the nutrition facts label shows.

Making a Puffed Rice Snack

If you do decide to incorporate puffed rice into your diet, you can do it strategically by turning it into a well-balanced snack. Harvard Health Publishing recommends combining more than one macronutrient to optimize nutrition and satiety. Since puffed rice is high in carbohydrates, it's a good idea to combine it with a healthy fat or protein source.

You can spread some peanut butter, avocado or hummus on your rice cake or use a couple of rice cakes as the "bread" for some minimally processed deli meat or tuna fish. If you're opting for puffed rice cereal instead, you can add some sliced almonds and use full-fat coconut milk to sneak in some healthy fats and protein.

Making sure your puffed rice snack is balanced will help keep your blood sugar and insulin levels steady and help you feel satisfied so the snack can help hold you over until your next meal. If you eat the puffed rice on its own, the carbohydrates can cause surges and resulting drops in your blood sugar that leave you feeling hungry and irritable shortly after eating.

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