I know this may be a little silly, but I’m still more than a little amazed when I get asked if I would prefer white or brown rice. This may seem like a fairly straightforward question and I am sure there are a few people who appreciate the fact that they are still allowed a few choices when dining out, but does anyone ever really choose white? Not only does the superior taste and texture of brown rice provide ample reason to make this choice fairly simple, but I also remember hearing somewhere along the way that brown is better for me and that eating white borders on nutritional heresy. To be honest, I don’t remember getting any more information than that at the time, but it seemed like a reasonable statement so I never really questioned its validity. While some random person telling me that brown rice is good for me during some keg party in an abandoned warehouse a decade ago has sufficed as sound nutritional advice up until now, I think it may be a good idea for me to explore this a little further and verify or rebuke what I have unquestionably held to be true for so long.
Let’s start simply on this little journey. Rice is considered a carbohydrate. Carbohydrates are one of the three primary macronutrients (fat and protein are the others) that we consume through food and are composed of sugar, starch and fiber. When consumed, our bodies convert carbohydrates into glucose, a simple sugar, which is absorbed into our blood stream. As glucose is absorbed and our blood sugar rises, our pancreas reacts by producing insulin. As insulin starts to pair off with glucose, our bodies kick into a cellular sugar binge, which it either uses immediately as energy or tucks it away in the liver and muscles for later 1. Here is where it gets a little bit more complicated. Carbohydrates fall into one of two categories based upon their structure: simple or complex. Simple carbs are made up of either single or double sugars and include foods such as fruit, milk and vegetables. I must also point out that cakes, candy and other refined food products fall in to the simple carb category, but lack the vitamins, minerals and fiber of the natural foods that are included in this bucket. That white rice we were offered falls into this category because when whole grains are refined the fiber is removed which alters its structure and turns the rice from a complex to simple carb. Complex carbs are made up three or more sugars and include foods like legumes, starchy vegetables and whole grain breads and cereals. The alternate brown rice and all of its fiber-full bounty falls here. Fiber is a big enough subject matter to require its own post, but lets touch on this for a second. Fiber, a complex carb, is either soluble or insoluble. Soluble fiber dissolves in water, forms into a gel-like substance and slows the digestive process (Remember the Beauty of Beans? Insoluble fiber is generally referred to as “roughage” as it increases digestive movement and increases stool bulk 2. If that wasn’t enough to make your head spin, fiber is unique in the fact that is cannot be broken down during digestion and passes through the body largely undigested while still providing a tremendous amount of nutritional benefit. So, fiber is a good thing.
While all that is interesting, the real question is which type of carbohydrate do we need to be consuming? It is often believed that the majority of our carbohydrates should be received from complex sources. Complex carbs deliver vitamins, minerals, fiber and other important phytonutrients while providing a more stable energy source through the virtue of slowly releasing glucose. Conversely, simple carbs are sugars that release glucose more quickly which can lead to wild swings in blood sugar levels (not to mention mood, energy and mental fortitude). The more refined or simple the sugars become, the more quickly they release glucose, which can lead to fat accumulation and a myriad of other adverse health conditions 3. Wait a tick! Taking this information at face value would mean that eating fruits and vegetables (carbs of the simple variety) is less healthy and should be limited if not avoided completely, right? Very good question which unfortunately takes a little bit of heavy lifting to answer. Haphazardly throwing carbs into the simple or complex bucket doesn’t completely explain their affect on the body and answer the question of which we carb we should lean to in the white or brown rice decision.
Lets welcome the Glycemic Index to the conversation. The Glycemic Index helps us quantify the “value” of different carbs by their rate of conversion to glucose within the body and their affect on blood sugar levels. High GI foods (pure sugar is a 100 on a scale that maxes out at 100) “cause a large and rapid glycemic response…[which will provide]…an initial elevation in energy and mood…., but is followed by a cycle of increased fat storage, lethargy and more hunger,” as your blood sugar drops 4. Alternately, low GI foods (grapefruit, a fruit and simple carb, is a 25!) are digested more slowly and cause a more subtle change in blood sugar levels. By placing a numerical value and indexing different foods by their glycogen response, we are better able to control our blood sugar levels and prevent the ill affects of excess glucose and insulin production by choosing foods that have been tested to only incrementally affect the sugar content of our blood. I am of the school that prefers to think as little as possible about what some might consider a more trivial life decision and a 0 to 100 scale is almost mind blowingly simple. So the idea is that the majority of our carbohydrate choices should fall on the lower end of the glycemic spectrum. For me this means lots of whole, unprocessed fruits, vegetables and whole grains. While I have developed what I would call an almost subconsciously eat this way, I don’t believe its healthy to completely deprive ourselves of the periodic indulgence that may be classified as a high GI food. I personally find great pleasure in the occasional slice of cake or less than optimal dish when eating socially or during the holidays and although I try and be mindful of the portion size of such indulgences, I feel that eating these foods every once in a while goes a long way in helping me be a happy, healthy and balanced individual. Of coarse, I would disregard this idea if I happen to develop a condition where it would be advisable to avoid sugary, high GI foods. Here is a fairly comprehensive list of common foods and their glycemic values so you can size up a few of your favorites.
So, why is all of this important? The importance of the Glycemic Index is that it allows us to minimize insulin related problems by identifying and avoiding food that have the greatest affect on our blood sugar. Not only is this important in providing our bodies with a steady supply of energy to keep us moving and our brains active, it is of particular importance to individuals afflicted with diabetes, which is a condition where the body produces inadequate amounts of or is resistant to insulin and its blood sugar equalizing ability. When diabetics add more glucose to their already high blood sugar levels by eating high GI foods, the potential for severe medical problems rise exponentially. For individuals not afflicted with diabetes, diets rich in high GI foods have been linked with the risk of developing diabetes, cardiovascular disease and weight gain. Also, there are some early studies that link high GI diets with macular degeneration (loss of vision), infertility and cancer 5. Another interesting tidbit, “moderate reductions in glycemic load…increase[s] the rate of body fat loss…[and is] better for the heart 6.” An effective measure in fighting obesity and lowering the rate of cardiovascular disease, a diet founded on low GI foods is a very important step we can take as individuals to help fight the health crises currently affecting millions of people around the world. It would now seem that the white or brown rice decision isn’t so silly after all.
The stark reality of the situation is that foods ranking high on the GI index are the most plentiful in the standard North American diet. White bread, pasta, donuts and other similar foods make up the majority of our carbohydrate intake where fiber rich whole grains, fruits and vegetables are very limited in not non-existent. While a few short years ago I fell into this majority, I have since refined my diet to consist of primarily low GI foods and I have begun to receive a wealth of benefits as a result. Providing my body with a wide variety of vitamins, mineral and phytonutrients by eating fruits, veggies and whole grains a plenty has increased my energy levels, improved regularity of my bodily functions and has helped me develop a leaner body composition. Active and lean, bueno. From a holistic perspective, reduced consumption of foods that lead to large spikes and dips in blood sugar has limited the adverse energy that sugary food have on my well being while simultaneously reducing the emotional imbalances that result from the fluctuations. Manic behavior no bueno.