You’ve probably heard that brown rice is better for you than white rice. But why is that? And is it true?
They’re questions worth asking: both types of rice are largely economical and accessible, making for an easy base for many family lunches and dinners. And while some people want to make sure they’re electing the option that gives them the most nutritional bang for their buck, others may feel unnecessarily pressured to depart from an important cultural staple in the name of nutrition. But before you change up your diet, hang tight – in this article, we’ll aim to answer all your questions on the subject.
Specifically, we’ll be investigating: the role of whole grains in a healthy diet, the nutrient profiles of brown rice vs white rice, and what other rices – such as black rice and wild rice – potentially have to offer us.
Let’s dive in.
Understanding whole grains better
First things first: brown rice is a whole grain version of white rice.
But what is a whole grain? We throw around the term a lot, but who actually knows what a whole grain is made of? And how do we decide if something is “whole” or “refined?”
Well, whole grains in general are the unpolished version of their “white” or refined counterparts. This means they contain the fibrous bran and nutrient-dense german of the grain. According to the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), all whole grain kernels contain three parts:
- The bran
- The germ
- The endosperm
Check out this illustration to see what this looks like in action:
Bran, the outer layer, is the fiber-rich part that supplies important nutrients like B vitamins, iron, copper, zinc, magnesium, antioxidants, and phytochemicals (which have been researched for their role in disease prevention). We then have the middle part, the endosperm, which is an interior layer holding carbohydrates, protein, and small amounts of B vitamins and minerals. Finally, at the center of the seed, we find germ, which is known for being rich in healthy fats, vitamin E, B vitamins, more phytochemicals, and antioxidants.
Sounds pretty good so far – but what’s the impact of all that stuff on your body?
Well, for starters, HSPH points out:
- Bran and fiber are great at slowing down the breakdown of starch into glucose, which helps to keep a steady blood sugar (as opposed to sharp spikes and dips)
- Fiber also helps lower cholesterol and move waste through the digestive tract
- Phytochemicals and essential minerals (like magnesium, selenium, and copper) may protect against some cancers
Unfortunately, because white rice has stripped away the bran and germ, leaving only the endosperm, it is not considered a whole grain, and may not be as nutrient dense as other options on the rice shelf. On the plus side, because the hard-to-chew fiber has been processed out, white rice is slightly easier to digest, and it does have a longer shelf life (approximately 4x that of brown rice). These are both considerations, in addition to the rice’s nutrient profile, that you may want to take into account.
Brown rice vs. white rice: what’s the difference?
Check out the following nutrient profile, comparing 1 cup (2 servings) of each type of rice:
NutrientWhite Rice (Long-Grain)Brown Rice (Long-Grain)Wild RiceBlack Rice (based on dry equiv. – 60g)Calories, kcal205219166200Carbohydrate, g45453543Fiber, g0.63.533Fat, g<12<12Protein, g4576Thiamin, mg0.00.2 (12% DV)0.1 (6% DV)–Niacin, mg0.6 (3% DV)3 (15% DV)2.1 (11% DV)–Vit. B6, mg0.1 (7% DV)0.3 (14% DV)0.2 (11% DV)–Folate, mcg5 (1% DV)8 (2% DV)43 (11% DV)–Choline, mg3.3 (no DV)17.9 (no DV)16.7 (no DV)–Magnesium, mg19 (5% DV)84 (21% DV)53 (13%)20% DVPhosphorous, mg68 (7% DV)162 (16% DV)134 (13% DV)20% DVManganese, mg0.7 (37% DV)1.8 (88% DV)0.5 (23%)120% DVSelenium, mcg11.9 mcg (17% DV)19.1 mcg (27% DV)1.3 (2%)4% DV
Most noteworthy, is that when you compare brown rice vs. white rice – pound for pound – brown rice has:
- Almost 6x the amount of fiber
- 25% more protein
- 4x as much magnesium
- Double the amount of phosphorus
- More than double the amount of manganese
- 1.5x the amount of selenium
Now, this does not mean that white rice presents no nutritional value. Quite the opposite: if you do not like brown rice, or you find it difficult to chew or digest, then white rice has plenty of benefits in its own rite.
Specifically, it presents an opportunity to access comparable amounts of protein, in addition to tapping into some useful nutrients that will serve your body and energize it. Indeed, as part of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the average adult needs 6 or more servings of grain per day (the advice is for at least half of this to be whole grains, but more is preferable), and white rice helps satisfy this recommendation.
Not to mention that white rice is a staple food in many cultures around the globe, and there is immense value in following cultural recipes that include white rice, if that’s what you enjoy best. (In that case, we would suggest you find other ways to include fiber in the meal or snack, like from leafy and cruciferous vegetables, to reduce any spike in blood sugar and improve satiety).
That being said – if you enjoy both types, then consider opting for brown rice when given the choice. All things being equal, it does pack more of a nutritional punch. Here are some of the side effects you can expect from consuming brown rice instead of white:
- Improved satiety (specifically, better “staying power” of meals)
- Improved heart health markers (such as cholesterol),
- Improved blood sugar levels (fewer spikes and troughs)
- The fulfillment of more micronutrient targets
What about black rice and wild rice?
Though less accessible than brown rice, there’s a lot to be said for the black and wild varieties of this food.
Wild and black rice have similar amounts of fiber compared to brown rice, while they both have more protein (a differential of 2g and 1g, respectively). Since wild rice is highest in protein while lowest in calories, it would be a good choice for those prioritizing weight maintenance, and for those interested in exploring more ‘superfoods’ – black rice could be an ideal candidate.
Otherwise known as forbidden or purple rice, this food gets it’s signature color from a pigment called “anthocyanin.” This is the very same antioxidant that proves to be its distinguishing factor (also commonly found in berries, acai, and leafy greens). Similar to brown and white rice, it’s easy to prepare, taking only 30 to 35 minutes to boil, and its nutritional value packs a punch: research suggests it may support weight loss, eye health, have anticancer properties, and can boost heart health.
Taken altogether, the high antioxidant, fiber, and protein content support black rice’s nomination as a heart-healthy and blood sugar-friendly whole grain.
Brown Rice vs. White Rice: The Bottom Line?
Ultimately, the choice of which type of grain to opt for is your own. Try answering the following questions honestly, without looking at the nutrient profiles of each rice again:
- Which type do you prefer, taste-wise?
- Are there any cultural dishes you want to eat without amendments or alterations?
- What are your long-term health goals?
- Are there easy ways you could switch out refined grains for whole ones in your everyday life, without too much disruption?
The bottom line is we need grains (especially whole grains), in combination with other food groups that help balance a meal – but, as always, the best type of grain is the one that you will enjoy and incorporate as part of a balanced diet. In fact, a lesser known attribute of grains is that when eaten alone, without a variety of macronutrients (fat, protein) and fiber from other food groups, they can cause detrimental changes to blood sugar levels, which contributes to insulin resistance, cholesterol issues, and development of chronic disease. Some individuals also find that starchy foods may trigger symptoms of GI upset or bloating, signs that there could be gut bacteria imbalances, food intolerances, or other issues at play. If any of those negative side effects sound familiar to you, we strongly suggest you consult your physician or a dietitian.
And remember: thinking of foods as having “hidden” or “sneaky” components can damage your relationship with food.
Try instead to view these foods as offering different benefits to both your taste buds and your body. And most important – be kind and patient with yourself in finding the right balance between nutrition and enjoyment.
Allara Health provides personalized treatment for hormonal, metabolic & gynecological conditions that utilizes a holistic plan that merges nutrition, lifestyle, medication and supplementation, and ongoing, expert support to heal your body.