There’s a reason why rice is among the most commonly eaten grains all over the world. It’s super versatile, and can be adapted to complement a wide range of flavor profiles and dishes. Plus, there are many varieties to choose from (more than 120,000, if you want to get technical!). Food & Wine reports that rice comprises a staggering one-fifth of total calories consumed globally.
White rice, also known as enriched rice, is one of the most popular types. White rice is refined rice, meaning it has been milled to remove the outer husk, bran layers, and germ. Despite its prevalence, white rice tends to get a bad rap because of how it’s processed, especially as compared to its more nutritious whole grain cousin, brown rice. You may have heard white rice described as a “bad carb” or source of empty calories. However, is it worth skipping over it completely?
We spoke with Lauren Manaker, MS, RDN, LDN, CLEC, CPT, author of The First Time Mom’s Pregnancy Cookbook, The 7 Ingredient Healthy Pregnancy Cookbook, and Fueling Male Fertility, to get the scoop on what eating white rice really does to your body. Turns out, there are some surprising side effects—both good and not so good.
“White rice is a source of carbohydrates, which is the main source of fuel for your body,” says Manaker. “Plus, many varieties of white rice, at least in the U.S., are fortified with B- vitamins that may help support energy levels as well.”
According to research published in the journal, Nutrients, all the B vitamins, with the exception of folate, are involved in at least one step (if not more) of the energy-production system within the cell. With that being said, it is essential to get a dose of each B vitamin for gaining energy. And, too little of it will limit your body’s energy production, which can potentially have a negative impact on your metabolic and general health.
According to Manaker, arsenic is a trace element that, when consumed frequently and in large quantities, can lead to some unpleasant health outcomes.
“Arsenic has been found in rice, so when you consume this grain, you can be ingesting this element too,” she says.
Although white rice is lower in arsenic than brown rice, it’s still important to avoid consuming too much and to vary your grains. Some options that are lower in arsenic and worth trying are amaranth, quinoa, bulgur, and farro.
You can also look at whether the arsenic levels are lower or higher in the region where your rice was grown. For example, white basmati rice from California, India, and Pakistan may contain less arsenic than other types of rice. Sushi rice from the U.S. is another example.
Turns out that consuming white rice may offer a major flex when it comes to bone health.
“We all know that calcium and vitamin D are important nutrients for bone health,” says Manaker. “But one unsung bone health hero nutrient, manganese, is found in white rice.”
“While more data is needed, some studies suggest a link between white rice consumption and metabolic syndrome risk,” says Manaker.
According to the Mayo Clinic, “metabolic syndrome is a cluster of conditions that occur together, increasing your risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.” The conditions include high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist, increased blood pressure, and abnormal cholesterol or triglyceride levels.
One study published in the Heart Asia journal suggested that those who consumed the most white rice were associated with a 30% higher risk of metabolic syndrome. Although not severe, it’s still significant enough. So if you’re at risk of any of these conditions, consider switching out the white rice for something else.