Is rice responsible for overweight and obesity? Myths and facts about rice

Jul 4, 2019 | 3 comments

A reader wrote to ask, “Is white rice bad for you?” She was talking about weight management. But let’s talk nutrition too.

The world is getting rounder, and I don’t mean the geographical sphere we call planet Earth, I mean the inhabitants. As reported by the World Health Organization (WHO), worldwide obesity has tripled since 1975, and most of the world’s population live in countries where overweight and obesity kills more people than underweight.

And if you think that diet is a contributing factor to this distressing state of affairs, you’d be right. The WHO cites the “energy imbalance” between calories consumed and calories expended. Eating too much and exercising too little.

But to put a finer point on it, it’s the types of foods — more “energy dense” foods that are high in fat. It’s portion size — bigger than ever. It’s the copius amount of sugar consumed — Latin America is especially at risk.

And it is how we live our lives — changes in modes of transportation, increasing urbanization, and work that is performed sitting down. We used to ‘naturally’ burn more calories in our activities of daily living, today we’re mainly exercising our fingers on computer keyboards and smartphones.

Rice is the most widely consumed staple food for a large part of the world’s human population, especially in Asia. On average, Asians consume about 100 kg per capita annually (about 220 lbs) each year — per person! That’s about 3.5 cups of cooked rice daily. In the United States, the average daily consumption is only about 8 kg or about 18 pounds a year. Ecuadorians consume about 30 kg (66 pounds) per year, or about 1.3 cups of cooked rice each day. But it appears that eating less white rice and more junk food is what’s really contributing to the epidemic of obesity.

The ‘explosion’ of obesity in Asia attributed to swapping rice for fast food

‘Malnutrition’ and white rice
As a student, I learned that beriberi, a disease of thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency, was described in Ancient China, but it wasn’t until the late 1800s that Japanese scientists linked this wasting disease to poor diet, namely one that was based on polished rice.

Beriberi victims suffer weight loss, weakness, paralysis of the legs, swelling of arms and legs, and impaired nerve function. My professor taught us that the term ‘beriberi’ meant, “I can’t, I can’t.” Beriberi had become widespread in Southeast Asia in the late 1800s, where because of the colonial introduction of machine milling of rice and reliance on rice as a staple and sometimes sole source of calories, thiamine deficiency became a major contributor to mortality, especially in infants.

Polished white rice means the nutrient-rich husk, bran, and germ are removed and all that’s left is starch. In the U.S. white rice is required to be enriched with vitamins B1, B3, and iron, but not in Ecuador (and other countries). Read the front of the package label to make sure you’re buying arroz fortificado . I visited my local supermercados TIA and Supermaxi and noted that both enriched and non-enriched rice is available. Same price. Buy enriched.

Arroz blanco enriquecido Enriched white rice

Parboiled Rice: it’s like white rice, but oh, so much better
Parboiled rice, or arroz parbolizado is more nutritious right out of the package with significantly more thiamine and niacin than white rice. Because of special processing, it’s also a better source of fiber, calcium, potassium and vitamin B-6 than regular white rice. In the U.S., parboiled rice is also known as “converted rice,” and during the processing, manufacturers soak and steam the rice under intense pressure, which forces the valuable nutrients in the outer hull into the inner part of the kernel — the hull falls off, and the rice appears “white” but still contains those critical-for-good-health nutrients. It also has a lower glycemic impact on blood glucose compared to white rice.

For those who prefer white rice, but want the nutrition of brown, parbolizado is simply the best buy. Find it at Supermaxi for a few cents more per kilo, and it’s worth it. Learn more about parboiled rice here.

“Good” or “Bad?”  Is brown rice better?
When it comes to food, I avoid using terms like “good” or “bad.”  Instead, I talk healthful or harmful; nutritious or not.

The Whole Grains Council writes, “White rice is a refined grain, not a whole grain because the germ and bran have been removed. Whole grain rice is usually brown – but, unknown to many, can also be black, purple, red or any of a variety of exotic hues. Brown rice is lower in fiber than most other whole grains, but is rich in many nutrients.”

Benefits of brown rice include more protein and triple the fiber, and although it lacks certain essential amino acids, brown rice has three times the iron and manganese.

Brown rice safety — what about arsenic?
In 2012, Consumer Reports reported on a study showing significant levels of inorganic arsenic – (IA) in a variety of rice and rice products sold in the USA, including popular rice products like Kellogg’s Rice Krispies, Gerber baby food and varieties of Uncle Ben’s rice. All rice wasn’t found to contain high levels of IA — there is a clear connection between geography and toxicity. Basmati rice from California has the lowest arsenic levels, but rice from Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana contains the highest levels of IA, whether it is grown conventionally or organically (without added chemicals, fertilizers, or pesticides).

[Arsenic occurs naturally in the soil – minerals in the earth’s crust get into soil and water through ordinary weathering processes but inorganic arsenic has been used for years in pesticides and wood preservatives and other industrial uses – and it has been shown to persist in the soil for more than 45 years.]

The journal Environmental Health Perspectives reported that during the reign of King Cotton, farmers in the south central United States controlled boll weevils with arsenic-based pesticides — unfortunately, residual arsenic still contaminates the soil. Today, rice grown in the fields where cotton once grew contains almost twice the arsenic compared to rice grown in California. The least amount of IA was found in brown rice from California, India, or Pakistan.

What about Ecuador? Lucky for us, I couldn’t locate any warnings about unacceptable arsenic levels in rice in Ecuador or anywhere in Latin America. According to, “There are currently no sufficient data on which to base any recommendations to slow or stop the rice consumed is related to the levels of arsenic in rice and its potential risk to human health.”

Credit: Zero Latitude. Rice fields in Ecuador

U.S. manufactured products including brown rice syrup, brown rice pasta, rice cakes, and brown rice crisps all contained higher than acceptable levels of IA. If you’re eating a “gluten-free” diet and indulging in these processed foods, eating even more than one serving daily could pose a risk of overexposure to IA.

If you’re living in the U.S. or consuming imported rice products from the U.S., lower any possible risk of over-exposure to IA by varying the type of grains you eat. And it’s a great idea to not eat the same foods every day. As with all foods, variety means you are exposed to an array of important and beneficial micronutrients — vitamins, antioxidants, and minerals — to lower your exposure to any single possible toxin.

Grains, including amaranth, quinoa, buckwheat, millet and polenta (known as “corn grits” in the USA) contain much lower average levels of IA and they offer a variety of good nutrition: micronutrients, vitamins, and minerals. Wheat,  bulgur, barley, and faro contain very little arsenic.

If you think that U.S. organic rice automatically makes it safer, unfortunately, it does not. Organically grown rice may be grown without pesticides, but rice sucks arsenic up from the soil the same way as conventional rice. However, in my research, I came across multiple recommendations for a Northern California organic rice company whose arsenic levels are very low – Lundberg Family Farms – read more here.

Do you need to combine foods?
It’s not necessary to combine plant foods at each meal to be assured of obtaining all essential amino acids, just be sure to eat a variety of different plant foods including whole grains and legumes throughout the day.

Legumes such as dried beans, lentils, peanuts, and peas are low in amino acids tryptophan, methionine, and cysteine, but they’re high in lysine. Grains and cereals are low in lysine so pairing beans with rice “complements” each other and supply all essential amino acids.  Nuts and seeds are also complementary to legumes because they contain tryptophan, methionine, and cysteine.

Mixing a half-cup of cooked white rice with a half-cup of cooked black beans boosts the nutrition significantly without changing the calorie count. Whereas a cup of white rice has only about four grams of protein, a cup of rice and beans has almost 10 grams of protein, about eight grams of fiber, plus many more vitamins and minerals than rice alone.

So, what about obesity?
And as far as “good” or “bad” for you, well… as part of a healthy diet, even white rice fits. In terms of weight management, in countries like China, India, and parts of the Middle East and even Latin America, where rice traditionally made up a very large percentage of calories in their diet, people are consuming less rice and the rates of obesity are soaring. What is happening? Surprisingly, fewer calories from rice could be linked to weight gain. When the traditional diet of beans and rice, a little meat, fish or chicken, some vegetables, and fruit (a diet low in added sugars and fats) is replaced with refined packaged foods, chips, salchipapas, and sugary beverages, then it’s a recipe for obesity.

Finally, as a dietitian, I’d be remiss if I didn’t include some safety steps to avoid food poisoning from eating pre-cooked rice. Cooked rice should be cooled quickly and not left at room temperature. It should not be kept for more than three days in the fridge. It needs to be reheated very thoroughly. Cooked rice should never be reheated more than once.

When traveling in Ecuador vary your grains, but enjoy your rice! To manage the calories just say, una media porción de arroz, por favor.

Nutrition Comparison of Parboiled, White, and Brown Rice: cooked: about 1 cup of parboiled and white rice or a 3/4 cup of brown rice

Parboiled rice White rice Brown rice
Calories 194 205 194
Total fat 0.5 grams 0.5 grams 1.5 grams
Total carbs 41 grams 45 grams 40 grams
Fiber 1 gram 0.5 grams 2.5 grams
Protein 5 grams 4 grams 4 grams
Thiamine (vitamin B1) 10% of the RDI 3% of the RDI 23% of the RDI
Niacin (vitamin B3) 23% of the RDI 4% of the RDI 25% of the RDI
Vitamin B6 14% of the RDI 9% of the RDI 11% of the RDI
Folate (vitamin B9) 1% of the RDI 1% of the RDI 3.5% of the RDI
Vitamin E 0% of the RDI 0% of the RDI 1.8% of the RDI
Iron 2% of the RDI 2% of the RDI 5% of the RDI
Magnesium 3% of the RDI 5% of the RDI 14% of the RDI
Zinc 5% of the RDI 7% of the RDI 10% of the RDI

Table credit:

Consumer Reports. Arsenic in your food.
Environmental Health Perspectives. Food Safety: U.S. Rice Serves Up Arsenic. Parboiled Rice vs. Brown Rice Nutrition.
Obesity Reviews. Obesity and the food system transformation in Latin America. Organic Latin America. Message Rice Producers of USA.
Ricepedia. Rice around the world: Latin America and the Caribbean. Beriberi, white rice, and vitamin B: a disease, a cause, and a cure.
USA Today. Report: U.S. coal power plants emit toxic air pollutants. Thiamine deficiency.
Whole Grains Council. Types of rice.
World Health Organization. Obesity and overweight.

Susan Burke March, a Cuenca expat, is a Registered Dietitian and a Certified Diabetes Educator who specializes in smart solutions for weight loss and diabetes-related weight management. The Cuenca Diabetes Support Group meets monthly! Contact her if you have a food, nutrition or health question or would like to join the group. Write to her at


Susan Burke March

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