Is Brown Rice Healthy? Here's What a Dietitian Says
Is eating brown rice a better choice than white rice? Maybe not always. Here we break down the nutritional differences and talk about the importance of more than just nutrients when it comes to what's on your plate.
As a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Haitian American, I'm often asked about which is the better option—brown rice or white rice. The truth is I had trouble with this question myself as I sat in school learning about how to eat more foods that were rich in nutrients over those that weren't. Think more whole grains, like brown rice, and fewer refined grains, like white rice.
But, white rice is life! Taking that away is almost like telling a person not to breathe. Telling a Haitian person, or really anyone from the Caribbean (and plenty of other places too), to substitute their white rice for brown rice is pretty blasphemous. While I've decreased the frequency I serve white rice with my family, it absolutely continues to be a staple in our home.
There are so many ways that rice is prepared and enjoyed around the world. From Jollof rice in Ghana and sticky white rice in China, to Arroz Pollo in Mexico, rice is among the most versatile of foods. My favorite, of course, are Haitian dishes of rice and beans, rice and peas, or white rice cooked with a side of bean soup or chicken stew. So many dishes to choose from. I would not be a true island girl if I didn't love rice with some variation of beans! (Try EatingWell's recipes for rice and beans if you're looking for an easy, healthy dish.)
Fast forward to college, where I was studying nutrition and learning that brown rice is usually recommended over white rice because it is more nutrient dense. I actually used to feel ashamed to say that, as a dietitian, I loved white rice and continued to eat it even after learning all the benefits of brown rice in school. So, the question is, is brown rice truly better than white rice when you look at the nutrients?
Nutrition of white rice vs. brown rice
Brown rice is a whole grain that still has the hull, the bran layer and the germ still intact, allowing it to have high levels of fiber. White rice, on the other hand, does not have any of the aforementioned, which makes it less nutrient-dense.
1 cup of cooked long-grain enriched white rice has:
- 205 calories
- 4g protein
- 1g fiber
- 45g carbohydrate
- 0.5g fat
1 cup of cooked long-grain brown rice has:
- 248 calories
- 6g protein
- 3g fiber
- 52g carbohydrate
- 2g fat
There are also some vitamin and mineral differences, with brown rice edging out white rice in B vitamins and phosphorus. Brown rice is slightly higher in calories and carbs, but also has more protein and fiber. It's worth noting that 1 cup of cooked rice is actually two grain servings, per the USDA. You might be eating a little bit more or a little bit less depending on your hunger levels.
There is nothing wrong with preferring brown rice over white or vice versa. Some may like the heartier texture of brown rice while others may prefer the smoother texture of white. Those who did not grow up eating rice regularly may actually prefer brown over white. Brown rice does also take longer to cook so for busy weeknights, you may reach for white rice.
Now, if you're like me and grew up eating white rice, you may be wondering if you now have to substitute white rice for brown rice? The answer is, absolutely not! There is no reason for you to drop your cultural foods and what makes you feel at home. Trying to remove your culture might feel like trying to remove your identity—it's not sustainable. Personally, I could not go too long without having white rice as part of my cooking. The differences between the two aren't really that significant that it would cause you to be deficient in important nutrients as long as you're serving white rice with other healthy foods.
How to eat rice as part of a healthy diet
There are ways to incorporate fiber and protein in the white rice dishes that you are eating that will help make your meal healthier. Pairing rice with black beans or red kidney beans (which is done often in the Caribbean) adds a significant amount of fiber to your meal. Adding non-starchy vegetables (cooked or raw) as a side also adds the nutrients that are missing from the white rice.
Plating your meal is a critical, yet often overlooked, component of healthy eating. In my culture, what I often observe is that rice takes up a large majority of the plate. To ensure variety and a more wholesome meal, half of your plate should be made up of the non-starchy vegetables while the rice and beans should make up a quarter, and the other quarter can be fish, chicken or whichever meat you choose. If you're vegan or vegetarian, the rice and beans can be the entire other half. That combination forms a great plant-based protein. (Try these easy plate method dinners to get some ideas.)
It's important to remember that the dietary guidelines recommends making half of your grains whole grains. So if you prefer white rice, try and add whole grain to your diet in other ways. Maybe you'll go for whole-grain bread or whole-wheat pasta. Or you can cook with barley, quinoa or polenta. This will help you get important nutrients in your diet, including fiber, which most of us don't get enough of.
So, to answer the question, "Is brown rice healthy?", the answer is absolutely, given the amount of nutrients it packs. But the decision to substitute it for white rice doesn't have to be based only on the nutrients it contains independently as white rice can be paired with other foods, as it is normally done in most cultures, to make it just as nutrient-rich. You should always look for ways to mesh your culture with general nutrition guidelines so as to allow your eating to remain enjoyable and not become a burden.