The Truth Behind The Brown Rice Vs. White Rice Debate

rice and rice berry
Is Brown Rice Actually Healthier?pedphoto36pm - Getty Images

If you’re like me, your parents indoctrinated you with this essential life principle: brown rice is healthier than white rice. Even now, you can’t order a burrito bowl without an internal argument over whether you should get what you really want (white rice) or the "healthy" option (brown rice).

But how much healthier is brown rice, really? Does it actually make that much of a difference?

To get to the bottom of this debate, I consulted two nutritionists for their expertise and personal opinions. Here’s everything you need to know about brown vs. white rice, and whether it’s really worth fighting that internal battle at Chipotle.

The Grain-ular Breakdown

Brown rice and white rice are very similar since they come from the same grain. The differences between their nutritional content results from how the grain is processed. When it’s harvested, a whole grain of rice contains three main components: the bran, the germ, and the endosperm. “White rice has been processed to remove the bran and the germ,” says Kim Yawitz, RD, owner of Two Six Fitness in St. Louis, M. According to Yawitz, “this strips away the fiber and many micronutrients” from the grain, “leaving mostly starch.” Brown rice, on the other hand, still contains the bran and germ, as well as the endosperm. That’s why we consider it a whole grain.

white and brown rice grains contrast background texture
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Perks of Staying Whole: The Case For Brown Rice

Why does this matter? Well, the bran and the germ are some of the most nutritious parts of the grain. According to Ally Mast, RDN, “the bran and germ on the brown rice provide fiber, vitamins, and minerals." Those components have valuable nutrition that's missing from the stripped-down white rice.

In addition to the added nutrients, that extra fiber is also helpful for anyone who's diabetic or trying to lose weight. Mast says “the fiber...can help you feel fuller for longer...(and will) not spike blood sugar to the same degree as white rice. If we can minimize large spikes in blood sugar, that improves insulin sensitivity (and) energy levels, and can even reduce cravings.”

It makes sense: eating whole grains that contain more fiber increases the time your body takes to process it, slowing the rate at which the energy contained in the carbohydrates hits your system. This will keep you feeling fuller longer—and keep your blood-sugar levels steady. So if you’re trying to stabilize your blood sugar or drop a few pounds, choosing brown over white rice is definitely helpful.

The White Rice Rebuttal

If the case for white rice feels bleak, don’t give up on it yet. White rice’s relatively low fiber content means that its energy is more readily accessible, which can be a huge perk for athletes or those with a more active lifestyle. Yawitz says it’s “a great choice after long or intense workouts when you need faster-digesting carbohydrates to replenish the glycogen in your muscles.” The lower fiber content also makes it easier for those with digestive issues to consume.

A secondary—but potentially more critical—perk of white rice is that it contains less arsenic than brown. Arsenic is a toxic compound that is found in both white and brown rice, but, according to Consumer Reports, white rice only contains about 20 percent of the amount found in brown rice. You’d need to eat a ton of rice to accumulate toxic levels of arsenic in your system, but Mast still advises that “if rice is eaten daily in large amounts, especially for young children, it would be a safer choice to eat white rice more often.”

Whole-istically Speaking...

Our parents weren’t wrong: brown rice is objectively “healthier.” As Yawitz writes, it “provides more fiber and micronutrients per serving, making it a healthier choice overall.” And that additional fiber is especially important for diabetics or those trying to lose weight.

But, those specific cases aside, it’s important to keep the bigger picture in mind and look at the choice in the context of your diet and lifestyle. “Both white and brown rice can be healthy,” Mast says. “What matters most is the portion size and what you eat with it.” If you’re eating rice a few times a week, and consuming a balanced diet full of whole grains and fiber in other places, then it won’t really matter whether those few servings are brown or white rice. Next time you’re ordering that grain bowl, feel free to choose whatever rice is calling your name.

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