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As a dietitian, I can no longer count the times I’ve heard the following phrase: “I want to lose weight, so I stopped eating rice.” And although my approach towards nutrition is directed towards health promotion and not on weight loss, I get many questions regarding the consumption of rice and body weight.
But does rice make you fat, or is it another food demonized by diet culture? Can it be part of a balanced diet? What is the healthiest type of rice? Find out everything related to this controversial food, right here!
Nutritional Properties of Rice
Rice is a cereal grain, and is considered to be the most consumed staple food by a large part of the world’s human population, especially in Asia. It is the agricultural product with the third highest world production, after sugarcane and corn. It grows in more than 100 countries. I, as a good Latina, adore rice: I grew up with it, I eat it almost every day, and there is nothing in the world that can make me eliminate it from my diet!
Rice, in its whole grain state, has the following components:
- Bran: A hard outer layer that protects the seed. It contains fiber, minerals and antioxidants.
- Germ: A nutrient-rich core that contains carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other plant compounds.
- Endosperm (or white rice): Most of the grain. It is composed almost entirely of carbohydrates and a small amount of protein.
Besides the fact that it tastes good and is super versatile when cooking, rice contains important nutrients. Specifically, it is a good source of magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, iron, folic acid, thiamine, niacin and selenium. In addition, it is naturally low fat and sodium free.
Although brown rice has more nutrients, fiber and bioactive compounds, white rice is the type most consumed worldwide. However, white rice can also be part of a healthy diet, as we will see later on.
There are more than 40,000 varieties of rice! Here, I will discuss the nutritional properties of the 2 most common types, white and brown, as evidence that rice is not the enemy!
White Rice Nutritional Benefits
White rice has its husk, bran and germ removed. This is known as the refinement process. If we look at the previous diagram, we’re talking about the endosperm. Refinement alters the taste, texture and appearance of rice and helps prevent deterioration and extend its shelf life. After being ground, the rice is polished, resulting in a seed with a bright white appearance. However, it loses all its nutritional parts in this process, which is why it is enriched with certain vitamins and minerals, as we will see later on.
One serving of cooked rice is ½ cup according to MyPlate, and ⅓ cup according to the American Diabetes Association. In the table below, I will present the most important nutrients of white rice, according to a ½ cup serving, since it is the recommendation for healthy populations. Remember that if you have diabetes or any other health condition that requires controlling carbohydrate intake, your recommended portion of rice may be different. Without further ado, here are the most important nutrients in ½ cup of cooked rice, medium grain, enriched:
|Nutrients||Amount||% Daily Value (DV) based on a 2000 calorie diet|
|Total Fat||0.2 g||0.5%|
|Saturated Fat||0.05 g||0.5%|
|Polyunsaturated Fat||0.05 g|
|Monounsaturated Fat||0.05 g|
|Total Omega-3 Fatty Acids||9.3 mg|
|Total Omega-6 Fatty Acids||42.8 mg|
|Total Carbohydrates||26.6 g||9%|
|Dietary Fiber||0.3 g||1%|
|Vitamin A||0 IU||0%|
|Vitamin C||0 mg||0%|
|Vitamin D||0 IU||0%|
|Vitamin E (Alpha Tocopherol)||–||–|
As we can see, white rice is low in fat, but it is also low in fiber, in fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K), in vitamin C and in minerals such as calcium and potassium.
However, it is high in water-soluble B complex vitamins such as folate and thiamine. Thiamine is an important cofactor in carbohydrate metabolism. In addition, it helps with protein synthesis and neurotransmitter production. For its part, folate is involved in the synthesis of DNA, RNA and protein metabolism. In fact, a folate deficiency can cause an indirect thiamine deficiency, and both deficiencies are involved in certain neuropathies.
White rice is also high in minerals such as manganese and selenium, plus it has some iron. Manganese is involved in the metabolism of amino acids, cholesterol, glucose and carbohydrates; in antioxidant activities; in bone formation; in reproduction; and in immune responses. Selenium is a powerful antioxidant that fights oxidative stress and helps defend your body from chronic health conditions.
So, let’s stop being afraid if white rice. As we have just seen, its nutritional contribution is not insignificant!
Brown Rice Nutritional Benefits
This type of rice has the husk removed but is left with the bran intact. The bran is what gives brown rice its characteristic chewy texture and nutty flavor. In addition, since bran is a barrier to water, brown rice requires a longer cooking time. However, as mentioned earlier, it has a greater amount of nutrients and is higher in certain vitamins and minerals than white rice.
Some local varieties of brown rice have low glycemic index properties, and they could be useful in counteracting the development of type 2 diabetes. In addition, it has certain bioactive compounds that white rice loses when it’s processed.
As we did with white rice, we will explore the nutritional properties of brown rice, based on ½ cup of brown rice, medium grain, cooked:
|Nutrients||Amount||% Daily Value (DV) based on a 2000 calorie diet|
|Total Fat||0.8 g||0.5%|
|Saturated Fat||0.15 g||0.5%|
|Polyunsaturated Fat||0.3 g|
|Monounsaturated Fat||0.3 g|
|Omega-3 Fatty Acids||12.7 mg|
|Omega-6 Fatty Acids||276 mg|
|Total Carbohydrates||22.9 g||8%|
|Dietary Fiber||1.8 g||7%|
|Vitamin A||0 IU||0%|
|Vitamin C||0 mg||0%|
|Vitamin D||0 IU||0%|
|Vitamin E (Alpha Tocopherol)||–||–|
When comparing, we can see that brown rice is higher in fiber, magnesium and manganese than white rice. It is also slightly lower in carbohydrates, which translates to fewer calories per serving. However, white rice is higher in folate, iron and B vitamins. This is because in the United States and many other countries, white rice is generally enriched with additional nutrients, such as iron, folic acid, niacin and thiamine. Brown rice is usually not enriched.
Which is more fattening: brown rice or white rice?
OK, to start off, remember that weight gain happens when you consume more energy (calories) than is needed. The body stores excess energy as body fat. If we analyze the above tables, we can see that, per serving, both white and brown rice have about the same amount of calories (white has about 12 more calories).
White rice is considered as a refined grain, and many studies have linked diets high in refined grains to weight gain and obesity. On the contrary, whole grains, such as brown rice, are associated with helping with weight control and maintaining a healthy weight. This could be attributed to the fiber, nutrients and plant compounds found in whole grains. They can increase the feeling of satiety and help you consume fewer calories at a time. Therefore, everything indicates that white rice is the one that makes you gain weight, right?
Well, it’s not that simple. According to scientific studies, the results have been quite inconsistent when it comes to white rice. Let’s go to the evidence.
For example, this study did find a positive association between the consumption of white rice, kimchi, high-fat foods, sweets and coffee with obesity in Korean adults.
However, another study investigated the effect of replacing brown rice for white rice in a population in India. Interestingly, the group that consumed white rice unexpectedly experienced slight reductions in body weight, body mass index (BMI), body fat percentage and blood triglycerides. However, the differences were not statistically significant (remember what I said about the inconsistencies in the results?)
Similarly, in this other research paper, the authors concluded that replacing refined grains with whole grains “within a weight-loss diet does not beneficially affect abdominal [fat] loss, it appears to be effective at normalizing blood glucose concentrations “. Thus, we continue to see that we still do not have enough evidence that says that white rice causes weight gain compared to brown rice.
So, to summarize this point, white rice seems to be neither “good” nor “bad” for weight loss. However, whole grains are better for our overall health, and tend to help achieve a healthy weight more consistently than refined ones. Therefore, brown rice is the most favorable option, since it is higher in nutrients, contains more fiber and provides certain antioxidants that help fight disease. However, a bit of white rice here and there may also be part of a healthy diet, and it will not sabotage your efforts to staying fit😉.
Does eating rice at night make you gain weight?
There is a very common belief that eating at night (or after 6 pm) causes weight gain. This belief especially extends to the consumption of rice and other carbs, and many clients have told me that they do not eat rice for dinner to avoid weight gain.
There is some truth in this belief, but the evidence is inconclusive. For example, in this paper from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, it was found that “the consumption of food during the circadian evening and/or night, independent of more traditional risk factors such as amount or content of food intake and activity level, plays an important role in body composition”. In other words, the researchers found that eating later in the day can result in weight changes. However, these observations were more associated with circadian time than with clock time. OK, what am I talking about? Let’s see…
Circadian cycles, thermal effect of food and weight gain…say what?
Circadian rhythms are the cycles that tell the body when to sleep, wake up and eat. They are the biological and psychological processes that oscillate in predictable patterns every day. They form our internal clock, and are influenced by external signals, such as sunlight and temperature. In addition, they help determine if you feel energized or exhausted at different times during the day. These rhythms also regulate the production of the hunger and satiety hormones (ghrelin and leptin), as well as other hormones such as corticosterone and insulin.
The research paper I mentioned above investigated the relationship between circadian rhythm and the thermal effect of food (TEF). The thermal effect of food is the energy required for the digestion, absorption and elimination of ingested nutrients. That is, the body “burns” a certain amount of calories when we eat, due to digestive processes.
Commonly, the TEF is estimated as an expenditure of approximately 10% of caloric intake, although the effect varies according to the different components of food. For example, the thermal effect of digesting proteins is greater than that of digesting carbohydrates, since protein is more difficult to process.
Nutrition in action: For someone who consumes 2,000 daily calories, applying a TEF of 10% results in about 200 calories a day “burned” during the digestion process.
Considering the results of the paper mentioned above, the authors propose that eating later in the day may result in a decreased thermal effect of food (TEF), and that this is related to the circadian phase. Let’s see how this works…
A marker that is used in the circadian phase to determine the onset of biological night is dim-light melatonin onset (DLMO). Melatonin is the hormone that tells your body when it’s time to sleep. Its secretion varies in each individual, and this is largely genetically influenced.
The authors of this research were able to show that there is an association between body composition and meal times in relation to the circadian phase and not with clock time. Apparently, “the morning-evening difference in the TEF was caused primarily by the circadian system .” Therefore, a possible consequence of eating closer to or after melatonin secretion (which varies by individual) may be a lower TEF response. With a lower TEF response, a positive energy balance occurs and therefore, weight may increase over time.
However, according to this paper, “the lack of homogenous study designs to date precludes firmer conclusions being made. Currently, only a cursory consideration has been given to diurnal and/or circadian changes…” Therefore, no concrete conclusions can be reached on how meal times, circadian rhythms and the thermal effect of food influence weight gain. In addition, we must take into account other factors such as the secretion of other hormones, sleep and intestinal microbiota: factors that we do not have enough evidence of yet.
The same authors also express that the actual energy spent during the day compared to that spent at night in relation to the TEF “would not provide a substantial weight loss and caution should be taken when drawing these conclusions.” 🤷♀️
Ok, so when is the best time to eat to lose weight?
What you really have to consider with respect to whether you gain, lose or maintain a specific weight, regardless of the meal timing, is:
- Which foods are usually consumed. If foods that are high in calories and low in nutrients (for example, “junk” food), are frequently eaten, weight gain will occur no matter what time of day they are consumed.
- How much food is being consumed regularly. If more energy (calories) is being consumed than necessary, the body will store it as fat and weight gain will occur, regardless of meal timing.
- How much physical activity you do throughout the day. Frequent and consistent physical activity is a vital key to achieving a healthy weight (in addition to overall health benefits).
In addition, many people eat at night for reasons that have nothing to do with hunger (such as satisfying cravings, boredom or stress). And, if after-dinner snacks tend to consist of large portions of high-calorie foods (such as chips, cookies, candy), there is a greater chance of unwanted weight gain to ensue. Also, if you tend to snack on these foods in front of the TV or computer, it will be way too easy to consume the entire bag or container before you even realize it. In addition to these extra calories, eating too close to bedtime can cause indigestion and sleep difficulties.
So, although there is no specific evidence on whether eating rice at night (or eating at night per se), has a direct effect on weight gain, it’s more useful to consider our overall diets and our physical activity habits when it comes to achieving a healthy weight.
Does rice make your belly fat?
Another common belief suggests that eating rice increases abdominal fat. Rice, especially white, is considered to be a food with a high Glycemic Index (GI). There is research that proposes that eating foods with a high GI can cause a sudden increase in blood glucose and insulin levels. This in turn increases the amount of glucose entering body tissues, which may promote fat storage and weight gain.
However, the authors of this paper could not find any significant association between the frequency of white rice consumption and body mass index, central (abdominal) obesity, or waist circumference.
Although the jury is still out as to whether rice consumption increases abdominal fat, we do have evidence that dietary fiber affects hunger and satiety by decreasing gastric emptying–which in turn helps avoid eating excess calories. Other benefits from whole grains, such as their magnesium content or the particle size of whole foods, can improve insulin sensitivity and, therefore, prevent the accumulation of body fat. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that at least half of your daily grain intake be whole grains.
How much rice should I eat a day?
Rice can be part of a healthy diet, as we have seen. However, how much and how often you can eat it depends on individual factors such as:
- Individual daily energy (caloric) needs.
- Existing health conditions such as diabetes, hypoglycemia, metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular conditions, gastrointestinal conditions, etc.
- What other foods the rice is served with.
We all have different caloric needs. This depends mostly on age, sex, physical activity levels, body structure, life stage and the presence of specific health conditions, among other factors. For example, one person, due to the above factors, may need fewer calories and may eat a serving of rice (½ cup cooked) per meal, and maintain a stable weight. While another more active or larger person requires more calories, and can eat 1 cup or more of rice per meal.
To get an idea of the daily calories you need, you can use the MyPlate program calculator below. It will give you an estimate of the calories you need, as well as the daily portions of the different food groups in order to carry out a balanced diet.
Remember that this tool is for healthy populations, and if you have diabetes or another health condition, the recommended portions may be different. ALWAYS consult with your health care provider before making any changes to your diet or lifestyle.
Finally, we must consider what we are accompanying the rice with. In general terms, I recommend avoiding serving it with other carbohydrates, such as pasta salads, breaded meats, potatoes, fried plantains, corn, etc. It is much more balanced to combine it with some source of protein (either animal or vegetable), and with non-starchy vegetables, such as spinach, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, etc. Again, the MyPlate model can be very useful for visualizing those portions. However, remember that this depends on your individual food needs, and to know how much rice YOU specifically can eat, it’s necessary to consult with your health service provider.
So, can I still lose weight eating rice?
Of course! As we saw, rice has nothing particularly “fattening” about it, from a nutritional point of view. Therefore, its effects on weight are basically associated with serving size and overall quality of your diet. Let’s look at some examples with their corresponding scientific evidence.
In this research study, data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2007–2008 (NHANES) was analyzed. Interestingly, it seemed that rice consumers had a lower waist circumference, lower triceps fold measurement and were significantly more likely to have a body mass index (BMI) less than or equal to 25 (which is considered to be “healthy”-I put this in quotes because I personally believe that a healthy weight goes beyond numbers). Although rice consumers had a significantly higher energy intake, they had a lower calorie intake of fat and saturated fat. Rice consumers also had a significantly higher intake of a variety of nutrients, which=better health.
In fact, in countries where rice consumption is customary, there is less weight gain, especially compared to those countries where more wheat flour is consumed than rice. Apparently, compared to wheat flour, “rice absorbs more water when cooked … steamed rice contains twice the amount of water and half the energy compared to steamed bread.” So, the caloric density of rice is less than a more wheat-based diet. For example, in Asian countries, rice is consumed up to six times a day, but it seems to protect against weight gain.
In short, any food can cause weight gain if eaten along with an unhealthy diet and without controlling portion size. However, all foods can be part of a balanced diet when consumed in adequate portions and combined with a wide variety of foods that promote our health.
And now it’s your turn: do you think eating rice can be part of a healthy diet, or do you think it’s better to eliminate it? Do you think it can cause unwanted weight gain, or that you don’t have to stop eating it altogether? Leave all your observations, and all your questions about rice, below in the comments section!
Hi! I’m Melissa, Registered Dietitian and mother of two dragons. When I’m not talking nutrition you can find me rolling around the floor with my kids, sewing, crafting, cooking or missing the 90s (seriously, music just isn’t the same). Read More…