You’ve heard it….eat more brown rice! Its got more fiber, more vitamins. And gosh, it’s just so easy to make. According to researchers, several servings of brown rice each week could help reduce your risk of getting type 2 diabetes, a condition that’s on the rise in children and adults. But if you’re about to load your plate with brown rice, there’s something else to consider. Rice plants absorb arsenic – a toxic metal once used in pesticides, and still used in wood treatments. Arsenic is detoxified in the liver, but if levels are high enough it can cause cancer. So should you avoid brown rice? Or can you incorporate it safely into your diet? Can’t a person just enjoy a good stir-fry?
Brown rice – a bowl of good health
Nature packages the perfect blend of B vitamins in rice. People (and chickens) who ate white rice developed beri-beri, a disease causing nerve and skin problems. The disease was “cured” when they returned to eating brown rice. This led to the practice of spraying a few of the B-vitamins onto white rice, to help prevent the obvious signs of beri-beri. But it’s likely we still have some nutritional imbalance from eating excessive amounts of refined rice.
Brown rice, like other whole grains, has an array of healthful nutrients. Brown rice is loaded with essential fatty acids, lignans, fiber, thiamin, magnesium, most of which is not replaced in white rice. It’s estimated that 70% of the US rice consumption is white rice – even though some vitamins have been replaced, it’s likely we still have some health consequences.
Brown rice helps keep blood sugar low.
Once we’ve enjoyed the chewy and delicious brown rice, it moves through digestion where its tough bran layer slowly breaks down, allowing the starchy part of the grain to be absorbed gradually - a slow spike in blood sugar results. When polished rice is eaten, the starchy part of the grain is rapidly absorbed, causing effects in the body similar to eating plain table sugar. Over time, these rapid spikes in blood sugar can lead to exhaustion of pancreatic cells that produce insulin, increasing the risk of type 2 diabetes. Studies show that blood sugar spikes are lower after a meal with brown rice, compared to white rice. In persons without diabetes, glycemic index - a measure of how quickly a food turns to sugar - was 12% lower after eating brown rice. In persons with diabetes, the effect was even stronger – glycemic index dropped 35% with the brown rice diet.
Brown rice can also help to keep a trimmer midline – people who eat more brown rice have less deep abdominal fat, the type of fat that increases the risk for type 2 diabetes and other chronic diseases.
Brown rice may lower the risk of type 2 diabetes
When researchers analyzed diet surveys from about 200,000 adults, they found that people who ate more white rice had a much higher risk of type 2 diabetes. People who at 5 or more servings of white rice had a 17% higher risk of the disease, compared to people who ate less than one serving a day. In contrast, people who ate 2 servings a day of brown rice had an 11% lower risk of getting type 2 diabetes, compared to those who ate less than one serving a day. To make it practical - the researchers estimated that people who switched to whole grains as a group, could lower their risk of type 2 diabetes by 36%. Many other factors, such as sugar, stress, activity level and stress - can promote type 2 diabetes but consumption of whole grains instead of refined grains seems to make a significant difference.
Brown rice and arsenic
Though it's been known for some time that arsenic contaminates food crops, a recent study showed that a half-cup of brown rice contained an amount of inorganic arsenic that would not be allowed in a cup of drinking water. While arsenic in drinking water is regulated, food sources are not. Many products that are sweetened with brown rice syrup, such as bars and formula, were found to have elevated levels.
So brown rice is clearly a nutritious food. But one grain of rice may be very different than the next. There are many varieties of brown rice that are grown in different areas around the world. The soils of the deep south were soaked with pesticides containing inorganic arsenic (the toxic form linked to cancer) during the early part of the 20th century, when the economy was driven by cotton production. Even though arsenic-containing pesticides have been outlawed, arsenic is persistent in soil. So organically brown rice can have high arsenic levels, depending on where it’s grown. Studies tracking arsenic contamination of brown rice have identified more arsenic in brown rice grown in the south compared to brown rice grown in California and some other areas of the world.
Tips for eating brown rice
Now what do you do if you have a 10 pound bag of brown rice in your cabinet? Here are some tips for including (or excluding) brown rice:
1. Don’t overdo brown rice…eat a variety of grains and seeds, rotate your use of brown rice, and consider having smaller portions. Other grains do not concentrate arsenic as much as rice does. Quinoa, teff, buckwheat, oats and barley each have unique tastes and blends of nutrients, and can be used creatively in many recipes.
2. If you are on a gluten free diet, you may be using more rice products than others – look for other alternatives when possible.
3. If you prepare food for children, minimize brown rice and avoid products with brown rice syrup unless you are certain of the source.. Toxicology experts have observed that children respond differently to toxins because of their size and differences in metabolism.
4. Choose brown rice that is low in arsenic: identify the source whenever possible.
5. Include foods such as dark leafy greens, broccoli, cabbage, nuts and seeds - they contain nutrients such as folate, cystine, choline, iron, zinc, and folate that help the liver to detoxify arsenic. Studies have shown that methylation, a liver detoxification pathway, is more efficient when these nutrients are available in the diet.
With all of the delicious whole foods available to us, we can create an enjoyable diet that enhances our health.