There are some foods, like wonderful avocados and crunchy kale, that are widely lauded as nutritional goldmines. Then there are the plant-based foods that are more open to debate, like everyone's favorite potatoes and pickles. (For the record, both boast their own nutritional benefits.)
White rice is another that many view as unhealthy, despite it being one of the most widely consumed foods in the world. In fact, white rice is a staple in Okinawa, Japan, which is known as a Blue Zone because its inhabitants regularly live to be over 100 in good health.
“Rice is a staple in diets all around the world and provides a rich source of carbohydrates which is the body’s primary fuel,” says Stefani Sassos, MS, RDN, CDN, deputy nutrition director for the Good Housekeeping Institute.
Cindy Chou, a chef and registered dietitian at The Sound of Cooking and Cancer Nutrition in a Bowl, says that many people in the U.S. overlook white rice’s nutritional benefits. “Nutrition recommendations in the U.S. have been mostly Eurocentric and fail to consider the cultural significance of foods like white rice,” she says. “It’s not only a staple food in many different cultures, but is also enjoyed in combination with a protein source and vegetables.”
Already starting to think about white rice in a new way? Keep reading to learn exactly how eating it can benefit the body and how it compares to brown rice.
White rice nutrition stats
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, here’s what you’ll get per 1-cup serving of white rice:
4 g protein
0.4 g total fat
44 g carbohydrates
0.6 g fiber
16 mg calcium
2 mg iron
19 mg magnesium
68 mg phosphorus
55 mg potassium
Health benefits of white rice
1. It helps provide the body with energy.
One reason why many may view white rice as an unhealthy food is because of its carb content. Chou offers up this wake-up call: The carbs in white rice are exactly one reason why it’s a healthy food. “Carbs also provide energy for other cells in our bodies, including muscles,” she says. “Our bodies break down carbohydrates, like rice, into glucose, which is the preferred energy source for your brain.”
Besides carbs, Chou points out that white rice contains some protein, another nutrient that provides the body with energy. In this way, eating it can help energize the body in not one, but two ways.
2. It supports brain health.
3. It could improve your mood.
What we eat has the potential to directly affect our mood. The B vitamins and folate in white rice are both linked to lowering the risk of depression. The fact that white rice is comforting to eat, soaking up all the delicious flavors it’s paired with, could certainly lead to a mood boost too.
4. It's the perfect vehicle for eating other nutrient-rich foods.
“The fact that white rice is usually enjoyed with proteins and vegetables is also often overlooked,” Chou says. For example, if you use white rice to make a stir-fry with chicken, bok choy and red peppers, you’re going to get lots of glorious protein and gut-healthy fiber. And let’s be honest, the dish could be a lot less appealing to make without the rice.
“Some of the misconceptions about white rice being ‘less healthy’ only consider it as a stand-alone ingredient, which isn’t how it’s used in daily life. Rather than focusing on specific nutrients in one ingredient, it’s more helpful to consider a recipe or meal as a whole,” Chou says.
5. It supports cellular health.
Another often-overlooked nutrient Chou points out that white rice has is phosphorus. Phosphorus is important for cellular health, helping to grow new cells as well as maintain and repair existing cells. If the body’s cells aren’t in tip-top shape, the body won’t function properly, which is why this nutrient is so important.
6. It’s good for your bones.
Keeping the body’s cells in good shape isn’t the only hat phosphorus wears; it’s also a key nutrient for bone health. So is calcium, another nutrient you’ll find in white rice. This is yet another overlooked health benefit of white rice.
Are there any downsides to eating white rice?
It’s clear that white rice has many health benefits, but white rice does have a high glycemic index, meaning it can cause spikes in blood sugar. This means that people with type 2 diabetes need to be mindful of their white rice intake. “People with type 2 diabetes or concerns with blood sugar levels can still enjoy white rice by including a source of protein, fat and fiber,” Chou says, adding that if you are concerned, it’s always best to talk to your healthcare provider first. “Incorporating a protein source and veggies will help with a more gradual rise in blood glucose levels,” she says.
In general, Chou doesn’t see any downsides to eating white rice. “It’s typically more accessible, has a longer shelf life, is faster to cook, is easily digested and is comforting to eat,” she says.
Is it OK to eat white rice every day?
Sassos says that white rice readily absorbs arsenic from its growing environment more than other foods. “Arsenic is found in two forms, organic and inorganic, and is a naturally occurring element found in water and soil according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences,” she explains. “Arsenic is a known human carcinogen and can be harmful when consumed in excessive amounts. If you are eating rice every day in significant amounts, the arsenic content may pose a health risk.”
If you are concerned about arsenic exposure, Sassos says you can reduce the arsenic content in rice by washing it first and then cooking it with clean water that is low in arsenic. “As long as you are eating rice in moderation — no more than a few times a week —and washing it before cooking, it should be perfectly safe to consume,” she says.
How does white rice compare to brown rice?
First, it’s important to know exactly how they’re different. “Brown rice contains all three parts of the grain kernel and is considered a whole grain. White rice differs from brown rice in that the bran and germ are removed,” Sassos says. She also explains that white rice is typically enriched meaning that nutrients are added to it, so it isn’t necessarily less nutritious than brown rice.
Sassos points to two benefits that brown rice has over white rice: it’s slightly higher in fiber and has a lower glycemic index, meaning it won’t spike blood sugar levels as much.
“When comparing white rice to brown rice alone, white rice has slightly less fiber and nutrients overall,” Chou says. But she emphasizes that this doesn’t mean that one is healthier than the other. “Since rice is usually paired with other foods, the difference in nutrients as a whole is negligible,” she says. Her advice on which one to go for is to pick the one you like the taste of the best. “Those that enjoy the taste and texture of brown rice more than white rice or have the need to increase their fiber intake beyond adding more fruits and vegetables to their meals may benefit from eating [brown rice instead of white rice],” she says. “But in general, I don’t see a benefit in replacing white rice especially if it’s what you grew up eating.”
It’s also helpful to keep in mind that there are many other rice varieties beyond white and brown. For example, Sassos says that wild rice (which is actually a type of aquatic grass) is slightly higher in protein than other types of rice, and it has as much as 30 times the amount of antioxidants that white rice has. It just goes to show that cooking with different types of rice not only adds variety to the taste of your meals but gives a wider range of nutrients too.
Bottom line: Is white rice healthy for you?
With all of this in mind, consider the debate about whether white rice is healthy officially settled. White rice has many health benefits and minimal downsides. White rice is typically not eaten on its own and is often paired with other nutrient-dense foods like lean sources of protein and vegetables, making it a great vehicle for incorporating nutritious foods into a balanced diet.
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