Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Nutritional Revelation of the Day: White Rice Is Okay

Ever since I was 19 years old and lost 30 pounds through dieting and exercise (and, incidentally, first launched my poor body into no-GNRH land), I've been really interested in nutrition. I spent countless hours that summer making use of my parents' newly acquired high-speed internet and researching how to lose weight. I'm not sure if I was even using Google yet. Nutrition science is one of only two scientific fields that I believe I could actually endure studying (the other being food science--Alton Brown style).

My understanding of healthy eating has significantly evolved since that time, fortunately for me and for everyone who eats the food I cook. At 19, when I weighed in at 140 pounds (I'm 5'4") and decided some of that needed to go, my only point of reference for "healthy eating" was the low-fat craze of the 90s. The sudden will to lose weight coincided with a sudden desire I felt to learn how to cook, and my mom just happened to own Moosewood Restaurant's Low-Fat Cookbook. And so this was the first cookbook I ever really cooked out of, as my mother was more than willing to let me experiment on the family (especially since I quickly proved that I had a knack for cooking). For most of that summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college, I consumed almost zero fat. Seriously. I had no problem with sugar--I would still drink the occasional soda and fat-free dessert--but fats of all kinds were banned from my lips. If you want to lose fat, then stop eating it, right? (On a side note, I am very thankful that the Atkins diet hadn't really gained steam yet. I don't know if I would have survived that one, and my family would not have been nearly such good sports if they were served hamburgers with lettuce instead of buns.)

By the end of the summer, when I hadn't had a period in four months, I realized my eating might be a little out of balance. I had also lost more weight than I had even planned--I was down to 110 and still losing. In an effort to add a little more balance to my life, and as a result of a little more internet research, I decided to focus on calories instead of fats. My mother insisted that women need to eat some fat, so I figured that focusing on calories would allow me to eat a little of every food group and still keep it all under control. (If you haven't gotten this already, you should know that control is a key word for me.) Fat just happens to contain a lot of calories. So I started counting calories. The first day I counted, I got to the end of the day and realized I had only eaten about 800 calories all day. Can you say sub-clinical eating disorder? No wonder my body had stopped ovulating.

Thankfully, I did ease up on myself a little over the next six years. I maintained my weight (106 pounds), but allowed myself to consume the occasional piece of pizza or cookie. Basically, my diet focused on veggies, whole grains, and healthy meats and dairy. Fats were a necessary evil and a waste of my daily allotment of calories, but I consumed a few. A little 1% milk here, a tablespoon of olive oil in my salad dressing there. I thought I was balanced enough, and since my OB had gifted me with unlimited prescriptions for the pill to force my body into having periods, I had no clue how my hormones were doing. I decided to believe they had figured themselves out after I had settled into my new lifestyle.

Fast-forward to last summer, when I went off the pill and realized I still had lots of work to do. Through much angst and soul-searching (and, of course, googling), I finally admitted that my body was still starved for fat. So I loathsomely reintroduced full-fat dairy, cream, butter, cheese, 80% ground beef, etc to my lips. After I got over my long-held fear of fat, it was actually quite liberating. And I was surprised to discover that after gaining 10 pounds at the beginning and getting my cycles back (reluctant as they are), I've maintained my weight fairly easily without feeling like I'm restricting myself.

So now I have all my eating rules all reconfigured properly, right? Veggies of all kinds? Good. Whole grains? Good. Healthy fats? Good. Meats? Good (a rule for which my husband is eternally grateful). Any kind of white, refined carbs? Bad. So no white breads or pastas or white rice. These have become my biggest no-no now. Heck, I even grind my own wheat and make my own bread (sometimes) in order to get as much nutrition as I can out of my sandwiches.

But this latter point, about the white rice, has always bugged me. I religiously substitute brown rice for white when cooking at home, and I usually ask if brown rice is available at Asian restaurants when we go out. But I've been to China twice, and never have I seen a grain of brown rice there. The Chinese live on and swear by their white rice. And the Chinese way of eating overall seems brimming with wisdom and health. They have 4,000 years of uninterrupted history behind them, so I guess they've figured out how to eat well. So why are they stuck on white rice, when we in the West have figured out that brown rice is clearly better?

I found my answer today as I was sitting in my acupuncturist's office, waiting for my bring-on-the-ovulation session, and picked up a book called The Asian Diet. I read through the first chapter quickly and got to the second: "Grains." The second paragraph began with this: "Of the grains, white rice is the best." I nearly fainted into the couch at that point. White rice better than brown? How can this be? Is one of my food rules being threatened yet again?

The author went on to explain that we in the West have mistakenly lumped white rice in with white breads, white sugar, and white pasta as food "devoid of value." It's true that whole foods and whole grains are definitely more nutritionally valuable than their refined counterparts, but white rice should apparently still be considered a whole food. Brown rice kernels come in their outer germ layer, which we think is better because it contains more nutrition and fiber. But this author argues that our bodies can get just as much, if not more, nutrition out of white rice than brown. Because the germ layer is so high in fiber, it actually sweeps the food through our bodies for us to be able to effectively digest all the nutrition in the rice kernel. At least that's my understanding of his explanation. Might I remind you that I was an English major, not a nutrition science major. Please don't judge the poor author's science based on my explanation.

The argument only makes sense in light of what he has put forth in the first chapter--that the Asian diet works because it gets our bodies to digest food properly. The average Chinese apparently consumes 25-40% more calories a day than the average American (which seems hard to believe), but they obviously weigh less on average. They simply eat a more appropriately balanced diet, which helps their bodies to digest food more efficiently and maintain a healthy weight and overall well-being.

I'm not totally sure if I buy all those claims. I need to check the book out for myself and read the rest of it. In any case, his claims about white rice answer a lot of questions for me. Maybe next time I make jambalaya, I won't go to all the extra work of converting the recipe to work with brown rice instead of white. And I'm thrilled with the idea that I could eat risotto without feeling guilty and angry that brown arborio rice doesn't exist.

My husband was as thrilled to hear about the white-rice-is-okay revelation as he was to hear the more-fat-is-good revelation. He loves his white rice, and even though I've gotten really good at making brown rice that is just as sticky and fluffy, he insists it just isn't the same. Now he's hoping I find an article or book somewhere that argues that white flour is actually just as good as whole wheat flour.


Leslie said...

Very interesting. I guess you could directly compare the nutritional info in white vs. brown rice to get a better sense of why white is better. It does seem odd...

Way to go with the weight gaining. I know it is hard, but I definitely think it is the best idea. My OB thought I might be a little on the thin side, which might have contributed to my miscarriage, so I immediately gained 10 lbs. I hate the added cellulite, but it will be worth it if it gives my reproductive system a boost.

Goodyear Family said...

That so makes me happy! Yay!!!

Alex said...

Very interesting! I loved hearing about your weight history and the things you have done. You keep taking care of yourself!!!

Anonymous said...

Yay! I love white rice.

Adele said...

It's amazing, isn't it, how much nutritional thinking has changed? I love Michael Pollan for his views on things. And I think the white rice thing makes sense. We do have a tendency to demonize things whereas the truth is a lot more complicated than that. Not sure about the white flour either, though:)

sienna said...

oh, this is good to know about white rice. i've cut back on my carbs to just a few bites of rice with dinner, but my one refusal has been to convert to brown rice. call it years of growing up eating white rice twice a day!! just be sure when eating white rice to rinse it several times. that makes it healthier as well :o)

Hope & Happiness said...

So interesting! The 'previous you' sounds exactly like me. I had every calorie counted like clockwork. I think becoming more flexible about what we think is 'bad' and 'good' is a good thing. Bring on the sushi! :)

Valerie said...

I love the Moosewood cookbooks. My parents own two that I was looking through today and I ordered one of my own last week.

Laury Ann said...

That is VERY interesting about the rice!

I can relate...100%...when it comes to the "low-fat," "No fat" diet! That was my entire adolescence. Everything was fat-free this, or low-fat that...I have come a long way since, but regretfully admit to buying into 1 too many "fad" nutrition/ diet trends.

Nutritional science is extremely complex.. Most nutritional science involves studying one nutrient at a time, an approach that even nutritionists who do it will tell you is deeply flawed.

I think The Asian Diet, The China Study and Michael Pollan are all on the right track!

Laury Ann said...

I wanted to follow up further on this subject, and write my thoughts...thanks for the inspiration!!/notes/body-sculpt-sports-fitness-llc/could-white-rice-be-better-than-brown-rice/427676512032