How Is White Rice Healthy for Our Body?

Rice is a staple for more than half the world's population, who depend on it for over 20 percent of their daily calories, according to Ricepedia. The majority of that rice is white rice. While white rice nutrition has some benefits, it is not as healthy as other types of less-processed rice.

White rice is more processed than other types of rice. (Image: vm2002/iStock/GettyImages)

Tip

White rice is more processed than other types of rice. This may make it a less healthy choice than whole-grain brown and black rice.

What Is White Rice?

Rice is a grain typically referred to by its color — white, brown, red, black. Most rice is brown in nature. The color of black rice is due to a genetic variation, and the color of red rice comes from anthocyanin, a red-pigmented plant chemical with antioxidant properties.

While the interior of rice may be white, the exterior — the hull or bran — is not. White rice is white because the bran has been removed during processing. In addition to the hull, the germ, or embryo, has also been removed. This leaves only the endosperm, the largest portion of the grain that is the germ's food supply.

The milling process changes the texture of white rice and increases its shelf life. However, it also removes a lot of the nutrition. With the removal of the bran and germ, about 25 percent of a grain's protein content is lost, according to the Whole Grains Council.

In addition, amounts of many of its key nutrients, including the B vitamins and iron, are greatly reduced. These nutrients may be added back after milling in a process called fortification, but according to Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, only a small fraction of the naturally occurring amounts can be replaced.

White Rice Nutrition Snapshot

To get an idea of how much of white rice's nutrition is lost in processing, it helps to compare it to brown rice, which is only minimally processed. One further distinction to keep in mind is that both brown and white rice come in different varieties — long-grain, medium-grain and short-grain. Rice may also be pre-cooked or instant, which means it's been parboiled and dehydrated for quicker preparation. These factors may slightly alter the nutritional content.

One cup of medium-grain, cooked, unenriched white rice contains 242 calories and the following amounts of nutrients, according to USDA data:

  • Protein: 4.4 grams
  • Fat: 0.4 grams
  • Carbohydrate: 53 grams
  • Fiber: 0 grams
  • Thiamin: 0.037 milligrams
  • Riboflavin: 0.030 milligrams
  • Niacin: 0.744 milligrams
  • Vitamin B6: 0.093 milligrams
  • Folate: 4 micrograms
  • Calcium: 6 milligrams
  • Iron: 0.37 milligrams
  • Magnesium: 24 milligrams
  • Phosphorus: 69 milligrams
  • Potassium: 54 milligrams
  • Zinc: 0.78 milligrams

Besides the mineral phosphorus, a cup of white rice doesn't provide appreciable amounts of the recommended daily intakes for any other vitamin or mineral.

In comparison, USDA data shows that medium-grain brown rice has slightly fewer calories at 218 per cup, and is a much richer source of nutrients:

  • Protein: 4.5 grams
  • Fat: 1.62 grams
  • Carbohydrate: 46 grams
  • Fiber: 3.5 grams
  • Thiamin: 0.199 milligrams
  • Riboflavin: 0.023 milligrams
  • Niacin: 2.594 milligrams
  • Vitamin B6: 0.291 milligrams
  • Folate: 8 micrograms
  • Calcium: 20 milligrams
  • Iron: 1.03 milligrams
  • Magnesium: 86 milligrams
  • Phosphorus: 150 milligrams
  • Potassium: 154 milligrams
  • Zinc: 1.21 milligrams

Brown rice contains double or triple the amounts of most nutrients compared to the same serving of white rice.

Glycemic Index of White Rice

All carbohydrates are broken down into glucose, which is the main source of energy for the body and brain. However, complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains, are broken down more slowly than refined grains like white rice. The main difference is how quickly glucose enters the bloodstream.

A rush of glucose into the bloodstream from quickly digested simple carbs dramatically raises blood sugar. You may have heard this referred to as a "sugar high." There is a quick surge of energy, but it's typically preceded by a drop in energy levels. Blood sugar fluctuations from simple carbs have been linked to fatigue, mood changes, increased hunger and food cravings.

All carbohydrate foods have some effect on blood sugar levels, and the system used to measure those effects is called the "glycemic index." Foods are scored on a scale of 0 to 100 according to the level at which they raise blood glucose compared to straight sugar, which has a score of 100. The higher the GI score, the worse the food's effects on blood sugar.

White rice typically has a GI score of 70+ making it a high-glycemic food. Brown rice and other types of whole-grain rice have lower scores below 70, making them low- or medium-glycemic foods, according to Harvard Health.

The GI index of a food depends on many factors, including cooking time and temperature, as well as the other foods in the meal. Typically, fiber and fats in a food lower the glycemic index score, reports the Glycemic Index Foundation. If you look at the nutritional profile comparisons of white and brown rice, you'll notice that brown rice has more fat and more fiber than white rice, which at least partially explains its lesser effect on blood sugar.

Is White Rice Bad?

When eaten in moderation and alongside other foods that help moderate its blood sugar effect, white rice isn't necessarily bad for you. However, eating white rice every day isn't the healthiest option. Brown, black, purple and red rice varieties are higher in fiber and naturally occurring vitamins and minerals. Deeply hued rice may also contribute antioxidants to the diet that fight inflammation and disease.

Switching from white rice to brown or other colors of rice takes some getting used to. White rice tends to be softer and milder, while whole-grain rice has a firmer, nuttier texture and flavor. You may want to start by including more brown rice, which is still fairly mild, in your meals before attempting to experiment with deeper-hued rice varieties.

You can mix white and brown rice to get the best of both worlds in terms of nutrition and flavor/texture. But gradually, your taste buds will adapt, and you can begin to phase out the refined grain for a whole grain that will give you the same satisfaction but with many more health benefits of rice in the long run.

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