December 22, 2014 Update: Since this post was first published, Paul Jaminet has a fresh take on Paleo with his book Perfect Health Diet. It’s by no means perfect but is a beautiful approach. Russ Crandall published his cookbook The Ancestral Table which is based off of Paul’s approach and thus recipes include white rice.
Hello to all the Primals out there on the interwebs! When I was asked to do a guest post, I was both flattered and intrigued. When I heard that the topic would be focused on the highly controversial topic of white rice, I couldn’t say no, and believe me when I say this: I LOVE me some controversy! But first, a little about myself.
Who am I?
To be honest, I’m probably a lot like you. I’m not famous, I don’t have a product to sell, I don’t have a website dedicated to the Primal/Paleo community and you’ve probably never read anything I’ve written anywhere else. My name is Anthony Barbetto, I’m 25 years old and I come from a big Italian family that grew up eating a lot of bread and pasta. I’m an electrical engineer by trade with a job that’s more sedentary than I’d like it to be. I usually find myself chained to a desk for most of the day. I began my Primal journey 6 months ago in a quest for better health, and I post a lot about my experiences under the username ChocoTaco369 on Mark’s Daily Apple. That’s about as big as my claim to fame gets. I’ve never been a fan of following “the norm” and always like to stir the pot, and in typical fashion, I haven’t had the “standard” Primal conversion, but we’ll get into that later. Onto the question at hand!
Yes! I want to know if the only negative of rice is it’s high carb load or not. Sisson is vague about it in the Primal Blueprint. So, should it simply be avoided due to the high amount of carbs, or does rice cause systemic inflammation and insulin resistance like wheat does? Thank you Toad!
Don’t eat wheat.
Don’t eat corn.
Don’t eat added refined sugars.
Don’t eat refined polyunsaturated oils.
These are four of the big Paleo/Primal principles that we can all agree with. Outside of maybe a fresh ear of corn at the big family Fourth of July BBQ once a year or a week-long trip to Italy, there is little reason to violate these principles. If we do, we almost certainly regret it later by how lousy we feel. The hours of ensuing discomfort just aren’t worth the few minutes of pleasure, so these rules are pretty black and white. However, with any lifestyle choice, there are gray areas. White rice is one of them. So, what exactly IS the deal with white rice?
Brown rice is the “whole grain” of the rice. It consists of three parts. The outer layer is known as the bran. It has a high concentration of both fiber and nutrients. The rest of the grain consists of the germ and the endosperm. The germ is a small concentration of vitamins, folate, EFA’s and other nutrients whose purpose is to provide sustenance to the grain as it develop. The remainder of the grain is the endosperm. The endosperm contains comparatively little nutrition next to the bran and the germ and is mostly starch. White rice is the rice grain with the bran and the germ removed, leaving only the endosperm. Now, you may be wondering why anyone would possibly eat white rice versus brown rice at this point. It’s basically just starch with all the nutrition removed. Why would anyone want to eat that? Well, read on!
While the bran and the germ contain the majority of nutrition found in a whole rice grain, brown rice is still relatively weak nutrition-wise. 100g of cooked brown rice contains 111 calories, 0.9g of fat (with about 1/3 coming from omega 6), 23g carbohydrate, 2g of fiber, 3g of protein and a respectable dose of manganese, magnesium and selenium. Compare that to, say, 100g of raw cauliflower, which not only can be turned into a great rice substitute, but contains only 25 calories, 0.1g of fat (with 1/3 of that coming from omega 3), 5g of carbohydrate, 3g of fiber, 2g of protein and a nice shot of vitamin C, vitamin K, vitamin B6, folate and a myriad of other nutrients. Brown rice isn’t exactly nutrient dense, so using it as a dietary staple to achieve RDA’s of nutrients could be disastrous. While white rice may be even less nutrient dense, since we’re not eating any kind of grain as a means of ingesting vitamins and minerals to begin with, that argument slips through the cracks.
The biggest issue with brown rice is it is loaded with anti-nutrients. According to the Weston A. Price Foundation, approximately 0.84-0.99% of the dry weight of brown rice is phytic acid. That may not sound like a lot, but compare that to wheat flour, which contains 0.25-1.37% phytic acid per dry weight. Since white rice has the bran and germ removed, the phytic acid content is roughly on par with white potatoes, which rank in at 0.111-0.269%. If that sounds high, compare it to the precious almond, a darling of the Paleo/Primal community. The almond ranks in at 1.35-3.22% phytic acid, making it one of the worst offenders on the list. In fact, most nuts are higher in phytic acid content than grains. In short, the phytic acid content of white rice is rather negligible and does not require soaking. Levels will be even lower after boiling. In essence, white rice is a relatively “clean” starch and I consider it to be benign, or at least as benign as Paleo/Primal starches such as potatoes and yams.
Now that we’ve established white rice as a clean starch that isn’t going to destroy your body’s ability to absorb food’s nutrition, we have to tackle the bulk of the question: should rice be avoided or not? The answer to that question is, “It depends on YOU!”
The beauty of the Paleo/Primal approach is this is NOT a low-carb lifestyle or necessarily a high dietary fat lifestyle. What it is is a low-toxin, low-inflammation lifestyle, and this is what leads to the bulk of the health benefits. Regularly eating carbohydrate can be both healthy and beneficial, but it depends on the needs of the individual. Here is the real deal on this lifestyle as I see it:
1.) If you are young, insulin sensitive and active, you may get leaner on a higher carbohydrate, more moderate fat diet.
Carbohydrates, unlike most fats (MCT’s seem to be the exception), are thermogenic and raise your metabolism when you eat them. If you are active, you also get to take advantage of empty glycogen stores to store the carbohydrate instead of storing it directly as fat, which will happen with dietary fat. There’s a reason why athletes and body builders restrict fats the most and enjoy carbohydrates in a “cyclic” fashion. For the active, insulin sensitive individual, carbs could give you a metabolic advantage. Of course, your fats should be good fats – lean beef, omega 3 rich fish, free range eggs, MCT-based fats like grass fed butter and coconut oil/coconut milk and palm oil, extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil and the like.
2.) If you are more sedentary, your idea of exercise is walking, you don’t lift weights much or very intensely, you’re not particularly insulin sensitive or your metabolism is damaged from years of poor dieting, you will probably become leaner and feel better on a diet where fats make up around 50-70% of your calories and carbohydrates make up around 10-20% of your calories with little to no starch, little to no fruit and ample protein.
People with poor metabolisms who aren’t very active and are less insulin sensitive are more likely to store carbohydrate as body fat instead of as glycogen for fuel. This is the cost of years of eating refined carbohydrate and omega-6-based oils, or possibly poor genetics that tend to push carbs towards fat storage, even in the presence of empty glycogen stores. These people will get a metabolic advantage from eating higher levels of dietary fats as their bodies will be more efficient at using stored fat as fuel.
When you restrict carbohydrate very low, your body will be forced to efficiently use dietary fat as fuel. However, if you eat more dietary fat than you burn, you will not lose weight and you could even gain weight. I have seen plenty of people complaining about how they’ve “gone Paleo/Primal” and can’t seem to lose any weight. Simply put, they may be too insulin sensitive and too active to perform well on a low carbohydrate diet, and cutting fats and adding starches would do them wonders.
I am one of the people in Category #1. Before I ever heard of the Primal Blueprint or the Paleo lifestyle, I was a pretty active guy. I exercised a lot in typical CW fashion (higher repetition weight lifting and chronic cardio), I cooked all my own meals and avoided fast food, but after I graduated college and began working a steady, sedentary job, my weight crept up to 165 lbs on my 5’7″ frame. One day, I stumbled across literature on the ketogenic diet and dove right in. In 7 weeks, I dropped to 150 lbs. I continued eating low carb for about a year after and slowly dropped to 145 lbs. After finding the Primal Blueprint, I thought that I had finally found the solution to getting the physique I wanted. I ditched all grains, sugars, legumes and vegetable oils and only ate whole foods with a fat/protein/carbohydrate spread of 60%/30%/10% of daily calories.
After 12 weeks following the Primal Blueprint, I felt fantastic. However, I didn’t lose any significant amount of body fat. This is when I began experimenting with carbohydrate refeeds, or as most bodybuilders call it, “carb cycling”. The quick and dirty explanation is, on cardio or off days from exercise, one sticks to a higher fat, low carb diet while on heavy weight training days, a person refeeds with significant quantities of carbohydrate after the workout and keeps fats low throughout the day (<50g). White rice is one of my favorite foods to refeed with because it is a very clean starch and has a high glycemic index.
But wait, Anthony! Carbohydrate may be good for some, but why would you want a high glycemic index starch? Isn’t spiking your blood sugar and insulin bad?
Again, it depends on the person. For an active, insulin sensitive person, using a high glycemic index starch immediately post-workout can be very beneficial. For example, whey protein is the post-workout protein of choice because of how fast-acting it is. It immediately hits the blood stream and begins working on repairing muscle tissue. Casein or egg proteins, on the other hand, are slower acting and would be more beneficial before bed or as a meal replacement shake. White rice, because it is so fast acting, is more beneficial post-workout because we’re at maximum insulin sensitivity and the larger insulin spike is more beneficial to our growth and recovery. Lower GI carbohydrate such as sweet potatoes, in my opinion, are more appropriate for a pre-workout meal if you know the workout won’t be for a few hours.
Using this approach, I have cut my weight from 145 lbs to 133 lbs while greatly increasing my strength in every exercise. In addition, my performance at the gym is much better because of the increased carbohydrate consumption. I have seen no signs of inflammation from eating white rice – my skin stays clear, my allergies have remained under control and I do not feel in the least bit tired, even after eating 100-150g of carbohydrate from white rice in a single sitting.
So where do you fit in? Are you an active, insulin sensitive individual that lifts heavy and is looking to gain muscle, lose fat or do both at the same time? If you are, white rice may be one of the best, cleanest and cheapest forms of carbohydrate for you to do so, and you should seriously consider using it to your benefit. Are you a more sedentary individual with impaired insulin sensitivity that tends to crash after eating carbohydrate? If you are, it’s best to avoid rice, if not most or all starches in general until your body heals and you become more insulin sensitive again.
One important thing to note is that I have heard of some people having issues with white rice. While these issues are rare, white rice is not 100% toxin free. However, every fruit and vegetable has anti-nutrients and toxins in it. Coconut, strawberries, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cucumber, squash – there are people out there that have issues with all these and much more. This is where the “Listen to your body” rule comes into play. The only way to find out if white rice is right for you is to give it a try. Just be smart about it and time it for when you’re most insulin sensitive and least likely to store carbohydrate as fat – this is usually immediately post-workout, pre-workout or close to bedtime.
The final thing to take from this post is that while white rice may be a grain, it is not the antagonist that wheat, corn and brown rice are. It could fit very well into your active lifestyle, and even those that are not particularly active may be able to indulge in smaller servings as part of their 20% with no negative effects. If sweet potatoes, white potatoes or fruits don’t give you any issues and you eat them on occasion, chances are white rice will not give you trouble as well. Just add it in as part of your daily carb allowance and enjoy your meal!