Today I want to be a little less broad and get a little more specific. How? By looking at two particular foods commonly thought of as “clean” or “dirty,” “healthy” or “unhealthy” and “good” or “bad.”
I’m of course talking about brown rice and white rice, the yin and yang of annoying diet arguments.
Now to the average person, these two foods are easy to compare and the verdict has already been in for quite some time. Brown rice is the clean/healthy/good one, and white rice is dirty/unhealthy/bad one.
So if you’re trying to lose fat or build muscle or prevent fat from being gained or be healthier or just make any sort of improvement to the way your body looks, performs and functions, brown rice is supposedly the better choice by far, and white rice should be avoided.
Sound about right? Cool. Now let me show you why it’s bullshit…
The Difference In Glycemic Index
The glycemic index (GI) classifies foods based on how quickly and how high they raise blood sugar levels. The higher a food’s GI value is, the faster it will be digested and the faster/higher it will raise blood sugar levels. The lower a food’s GI value is, the slower it will be digested and the slower/lower it will raise blood sugar levels.
For this reason, eating in accordance with the glycemic index (eating low GI foods/avoiding high GI foods) is often viewed as a great idea for everything from losing fat or preventing fat from being gained, to controlling hunger, to preventing heart disease, diabetes and more.
And guess what? White rice has a higher GI value than brown rice. Most people know this, and it’s typically the first reason given for why brown rice is the better choice.
Is this true? Yes. Although, the difference in glycemic index can sometimes be less significant than people make it out to be depending on exactly what types of rice are being compared (long grain, short grain, basmati, jasmine, etc.).
But regardless of which type of rice is being compared, brown DOES in fact have an advantage over white in terms of the glycemic index. No doubt about that.
What should be doubted however is whether any of this glycemic index crap actually matters in the real world. For the most part, it doesn’t. Here’s why…
Does The Glycemic Index Actually Matter?
The GI value of a food is determined when it’s eaten in isolation after an overnight fast. As in, this is how this food will affect your blood sugar when it’s the FIRST and ONLY thing you’re eating after a full night of not eating anything.
And this is the point where the glycemic index becomes borderline useless as a means of determining if a food is “good” and “bad.” There’s two reasons why.
Eating After An Overnight Fast? Probably Not.
With the exception of your first meal of the day, you’re not eating after an overnight fast. So the majority of the time you eat rice (or whatever else), you’ll be eating it AFTER having already eaten other foods and meals at some point earlier that day.
Why does this matter? Because now there are other foods in your system already in the process of being digested, and this will reduce the speed of digestion of all other foods being eaten from that point on.
So the white rice (or brown rice) you’re eating for dinner tonight will actually digest slower (and therefore have less of an effect on your blood sugar) than the glycemic index says it will thanks to whatever foods you’ve already eaten today.
Eating In Isolation? Probably Not.
The much bigger issue here is the fact that, in the real world, the average person is unlikely to eat these foods in isolation.
Meaning, the average person won’t sit down to a big plate of white rice and nothing else (yet this is the scenario the glycemic index is based on).
Why does this matter, you ask? Because when other stuff is eaten along with it like it usually is, it changes everything. It’s now less about each food in the meal and more about the overall meal itself.
And, the protein, fat, fibre, etc. in those other foods will greatly reduce the glycemic index/speed of digestion of the entire meal to the point where there will be no meaningful difference between whether white rice or brown rice was a part of it.
So a meal of white rice + some fibre (like a vegetable), or fat (like various oils or nuts), or protein (like chicken) or all of the above will actually be MUCH lower glycemic and digest MUCH slower than a meal of just white (or brown) rice alone.
And a meal of white rice + some fibre/fat/protein vs a meal of brown rice + that same fibre/fat/protein will digest at virtually the exact same speed and affect blood sugar in virtually the exact same way.
Simply put, when other foods enter the meal, the type of rice becomes irrelevant. It’s gonna digest slowly either way.
What Does This Mean?
While all of this glycemic index stuff may look like it matters a whole lot on paper, the truth is that it matters a whole lot less in the real world. So if that’s your #1 reason for considering brown rice to be the good/clean/healthy choice of the two, you may want to reconsider.
Fibre, Protein, Micronutrients And Anti-Nutrients
The next area that brown rice is said to have a huge advantage over white rice is nutritional content. Brown rice has more fibre, more protein and just more “healthy” nutrients overall. White rice on the other hand is just “empty calories” with little to no nutritional value.
So if there’s one thing everyone can agree on, it’s that brown easily beats white in this area. Right?
Not quite. In fact, they’re often either exactly equal or brown just barely beats white.
Seriously. They’re damn near identical in every area, including exactly the same in protein (3 grams per serving). Brown does have the advantage in fibre though, and what a huge advantage it is… one whole gram more than white. Wow!
Eat a single small piece of broccoli or like 10 little green peas (or some laughably tiny amount of whatever you favourite vegetable is) with your white rice and you’ll instantly have an equal (if not higher) amount of fibre.
And whatever advantage brown occasionally has is so tiny (e.g. 1 additional gram of protein) that it won’t actually matter in the grand scheme of your diet.
Not to mention, if you’re eating rice (which contains a very small amount of lower quality protein) as a primary source of protein in the first place, you should probably reevaluate your diet.
And by the way, if you’re trying to get more protein and/or fibre in your diet, the best option would be to combine your rice with something like chicken (or whatever) and vegetables. Just an idea. Now your meal will digest much slower, have much less impact on blood sugar, AND actually provide a useful amount of protein and fibre (and various micronutrients).