By Adda Bjarnadottir
Rice is one of the most widely consumed grains in the world.
It’s mostly comprised of simple carbs, which have consistently been linked to obesity and chronic disease.
However, countries with a high rice intake have low levels of these exact diseases.
So what’s the deal with rice? Is it weight loss friendly or fattening? This article gets to the bottom of this question.
What Is Rice?
Rice is a cereal grain that has been grown for thousands of years. It’s a staple food in many countries and one of the most common cereal grains in the world.
To better understand these different types, it’s best to start with the basics.
- Bran: A rough and hard outer layer that protects the seed. It contains fiber, minerals and antioxidants.
- Germ: A nutrient-rich core containing carbs, fat, protein, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other plant compounds.
- Endosperm: This is the largest part of the grain. It consists almost entirely of carbs (starch) and a small amount of protein.
This diagram shows what whole grains versus white grains look like:
Brown rice is an intact whole grain that contains both the bran and germ. Therefore, it’s nutritious and rich in fiber and antioxidants.
On the contrary, white rice has had both the bran and nutritious germ removed, ultimately stripping it of all its nutritional parts. This is generally done to improve its taste, prolong its shelf life and enhance its cooking qualities (4).
Different types of rice contain different amounts of these starches, which affects their texture and digestibility. Rice that does not stick together after cooking is high in amylose, while sticky rice is generally high in amylopectin.
Because of these variations in starch composition, different types of rice can have different health effects.
Summary: Rice is the most commonly consumed cereal grain in the world. White rice is the most popular type, followed by brown.
Brown Versus White Rice
White rice is higher in calories and contains fewer nutrients and fiber than brown rice.
Summary: Brown rice contains more fiber and nutrients than white rice, which has been stripped of its nutritional parts.
Rice’s Effects on Weight Loss Are Conflicting
While brown rice’s effects on weight loss are pretty well established, white rice’s effects are not.
One 12-year study in women observed that those with the highest intake of dietary fiber from whole-grain foods had almost a 50 percent lower risk of major weight gain, compared to those with the lowest intake (7).
However, when it comes to white rice, the studies are a little more inconsistent.
One study in overweight Korean women showed that a weight loss diet that included either white rice or mixed rice (brown and black) three times per day resulted in weight loss.
The mixed-rice group lost 14.8 pounds (6.7 kg) over a six-week period, while the white-rice group lost 11.9 pounds (5.4 kg) (2).
Therefore, it appears that both types can be included in a weight loss diet.
Nevertheless, brown rice has the advantage of being higher in fiber and nutrients than white rice, making it the healthier choice.
Summary: Brown rice has been linked to weight loss and favorable blood fat levels. Most studies have found either no link between white rice and weight change or associated it with weight loss.
Rice Was the Cornerstone of One Popular Weight Loss Diet
Interestingly, there was once a popular weight loss diet centered on white rice.
It was a tasteless, low-calorie diet that consisted mainly of white rice, fruit, fruit juice and sugar. Nonetheless, it had surprising effects on health, including weight loss and the relief of kidney disease symptoms (22).
However, it should be noted that this was a very restrictive, low-fat, low-calorie diet. Therefore, the results may not be applicable to eating rice as part of a regular diet.
Nevertheless, it goes to show that rice can fit well into a weight loss diet if calorie intake is controlled.
Summary: The Rice Diet was a popular and restrictive low-calorie diet that was used to relieve high blood pressure and symptoms of kidney disease.
Rice Is a Staple Food in Many Countries
Rice is a staple food for more than half of the world’s population, particularly Asian countries like China, Japan, Korea and India.
These are all countries that, until recently, had relatively low percentages of people who were overweight or obese (23).
Even so, rice consumption seems to protect against weight gain and high blood pressure in these populations (16).
In elderly Chinese people, a dietary pattern high in rice and vegetables seems to help prevent weight gain, large waist circumference and obesity (17).
However, this trend may be changing, as diets in these countries become influenced by the Western Diet. In fact, the numbers of overweight and obese people have skyrocketed in many of these countries in the past few years (23).
One study among Iranian adolescents showed that those who had the highest rice intake had the worst diet quality (29).
This indicates that these adolescents may be consuming rice with foods that older generations did not eat, potentially leading to weight gain.
At this point, it seems that rice intake itself has a neutral effect, while its health effects—positive or negative—depend on a person’s overall diet.
In short, it can be fattening if eaten with an unhealthy diet, but weight loss friendly if eaten with a healthy and well-balanced diet.
Summary: In Asian countries, rice is consumed up to six times per day. Rice consumption seems to protect against weight gain in these populations.
Some Types May Spike Blood Sugar Levels
The glycemic index (GI) is a measure of how much and how quickly a food spikes your blood sugar levels.
On the other hand, foods with a low glycemic index cause a more gradual increase in blood sugar levels. They are believed to be particularly beneficial for people with diabetes, as they control blood sugar and insulin levels (32, 33, 34, 35).
Generally speaking, whole grains have lower GI scores than refined grains. This is one of the reasons why diets high in whole grains have been linked to a 20–30 percent reduced risk of developing type 2 diabetes (36).
That being said, not all studies have found a link between refined grain consumption and risk factors for type 2 diabetes (37).
The starch composition of rice may be a key factor in explaining this. Sticky rice is generally high in the starch amylopectin, which has a high GI. Therefore, it’s rapidly digested and may cause blood sugar spikes.
Interestingly, one study in the UK that measured the GI response to 11 different types of rice found that white basmati rice was a low-GI food, while other brown and white varieties were classified as medium or high on the GI (41).
If you are diabetic or sensitive to blood sugar spikes, picking non-sticky rice, which is high in amylose, would be your best bet to keep your blood sugar levels in check.
Summary: Rice can rank either relatively low or high on the glycemic index scale. Non-sticky rices have lower GI levels than sticky rices do.
Any Food Can Be Fattening If Portion Sizes Aren’t Controlled
As with most things in nutrition, the dose determines the poison.
There is nothing particularly “fattening” about rice, so its effects on weight must come down to serving size and the overall quality of your diet.
This has to do with the perception of the serving size. Serving large portions has been shown to increase calorie intake significantly, without people realizing it.
Also, since people don’t realize that they are eating more than usual, they generally don’t compensate by eating less at the next meal (44).
One interesting study showed that participants who didn’t know they were eating soup from a self-refilling bowl ate 73 percent more soup than those eating from normal bowls.
Most importantly, they didn’t realize that they ate more than the others or perceive themselves as more full than those eating from normal bowls (45).
Studies that have analyzed the effects of serving size have shown that reducing the size of the “rice bowl” is an effective way to reduce calorie intake, body weight and blood sugar levels (46, 47, 48).
Therefore, depending on the serving size, rice can be both weight loss friendly and fattening.
Summary: Almost any food can cause weight gain if eaten in excessive amounts. Eating food from large plates or bowls may unknowingly increase calorie intake without people perceiving themselves as more full.
The Bottom Line
There doesn’t seem to be anything specifically fattening about rice. Different studies link it to both weight loss and weight gain.
However, of the two types of rice, there is no question that brown rice is much more nutritious than white rice.
Non-sticky rice may also be the better choice for people who are sensitive to blood sugar swings or have diabetes.
It all seems to boil down to watching your serving size and following an overall healthy and balanced diet.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Authority Nutrition.