Rice is the most popular grain worldwide, feeding over half of the globe, according to the USA Rice Federation. In the U.S., consumption of this gluten-free grain has doubled over the past three decades, to more than 25 pounds per person per year. This is good news, as scientists report rice is tied to many health benefits.
Research examining the dietary patterns of U.S. rice (both white and brown) eaters reveals they tend to make healthier choices than non-rice eaters. A 2009 study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that compared to non-rice eaters, rice eaters had higher intakes of vegetables, fiber, iron and potassium, with lower intakes of total fat and saturated fat.
Another analysis from the journal Nutrition Today in 2010 reported similar findings, and it found that rice fans chose more fruits and legumes and consumed fewer added sugars than non-rice eaters. Both studies identified rice eaters as those who consumed at least a quarter-cup of rice per day.
The results of these studies aren’t surprising to nutrition experts; you don’t usually eat rice all by itself.
“Rice eaters are more likely to pair rice with vegetables, such as in a stir-fry, or combining beans and rice,” says Rachel Begun, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Brown rice advantages
Most rice eaters in the U.S. choose refined white rice, with a mere 1.3 percent opting for whole-grain brown rice, according to Julie Jones, professor emerita at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minn., and an international expert on grains. Brown rice is considered a healthier choice because the nutrient-rich germ and bran are intact. They are removed in the refinement of white rice. Enriched white rice offers essential B-vitamins and iron, but whole-grain rice contains more fiber, minerals and phytonutrients.
One such phytonutrient in whole-grain rice is oryzanol, which may lower cholesterol, according to Jones. Michio Shimabukuro, a professor at the University of Tokushima and co-author of a review on oryzanol and brown rice published this year in Obesity Research and Clinical Practice, goes further, stating, “Oryzanol exerts a variety of biological effects, including cholesterol-lowering, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, anti-diabetic and anti-oxidant activities.”
Shimabukuro reports that brown rice and oryzanol could play a role in treating obesity. He co-authored research in mice, published in the journal Diabetes that showed oryzanol led to a significant shift in preference from fatty to healthier foods. Whether humans would respond in the same way and consequently eat fewer calories remains to be seen.
Brown rice does hold promise, as evidenced by Shimabukuro’s 2013 research in the British Journal of Nutrition. In this study, he reported weight loss and lower abdominal fat in subjects with metabolic syndrome who switched from white to brown rice.
There’s no need to wait for the research to play itself out before deciding to choose brown rice. It’s a nutrient-dense food and is counted toward your whole-grain intake by the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, which recommend you make half your grains whole grains to reduce the risk of chronic diseases.
Enjoy brown rice with steamed or stir-fried vegetables, in soups and salads, or top with fruit and milk for a brown rice breakfast.