When it comes to this low-fiber grain, the common advice for people with diabetes is to avoid it entirely. We break down the nutrition and look at the research for some answers.
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Tonight, you're eating rice. Instinctively, you may reach for brown rice because you've read and heard that white rice is bad for you, especially if you have diabetes. This refined, low-fiber grain is often considered taboo in Western diets for its high starch and low nutritional value. Still, rice makes up 20% of the world's caloric consumption, with most rice eaten as white rice. More importantly, white rice is the main staple among Asian, Latin American and some African diets. So, how can white rice be bad for you, particularly when it's so commonly eaten among different ethnic groups? Can you still eat it even if you have type 2 diabetes? We looked at the research for some answers.

White Rice Nutrition

Here's the nutrition for 1 cup of cooked enriched long-grain white rice:

  • 205 calories
  • 45g carbohydrates
  • 0.6g fiber
  • 4g protein
  • 0.4g fat

Similarly, here's the nutrition for 1 cup of cooked enriched short-grain white rice:

  • 242 calories
  • 53g carbohydrates
  • 4g protein
  • 0.4g fat

(*Info for fiber was not available.)

That's compared to the nutrition for 1 cup of cooked long-grain brown rice:

  • 248 calories
  • 52g carbohydrates
  • 3g fiber
  • 5.5g protein
  • 2g fat

White rice, whether short- or long-grain, is a starch-filled, low-fat grain that provides between 45 and 53 grams of carbohydrates per 1-cup serving. Although it has minimal fiber, it provides some protein, with 4 grams per serving. That said, brown rice offers a good source of fiber, while white rice has very little fiber.

Most white rice sold in the United States is enriched, meaning that it offers some thiamin, niacin, iron and folic acid. In addition, rice also provides manganese. This trace mineral, naturally present in rice, is essential for making energy, protecting cells and supporting the immune system, blood clotting, bone production and reproduction.

Can You Eat White Rice When You Have Diabetes?

Current dietary recommendations suggest eating fewer refined carbohydrates, including white rice, and replacing these foods with high-fiber, low-glycemic-index grains, such as brown rice. Yet a meta-analysis of seven trials, published in PeerJ in 2021, indicated that people with prediabetes or type 2 diabetes who replaced white rice with with brown rice did not see an improvement in their fasting blood sugar and hemoglobin A1C (a blood test that provides the three-month average of the blood sugar level). There were benefits to forgoing white: some participants who subbed brown rice for white also lost weight and improved their "good" HDL cholesterol levels.

More research is needed, however. Other studies show a link between white rice and diabetes. A perspective paper in Diabetes Care, for instance, recommends reducing white rice in your diet in favor of filling your plate with a variety of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes and nuts to decrease the risk of type 2 diabetes.

So, the short answer is—yes, you may be able to eat white rice when you have diabetes. If you're thinking about making it part of your meal, there are several factors to consider when it comes to blood sugar management, including the following:

1. The type of white rice you're eating

White rice comes in various varieties, differing in grain structure and the ratio of the starch present. These variations influence how quickly rice is broken down and digested in the body, resulting in a higher or lower glycemic index. Generally speaking, white rice is a moderate glycemic index food.

With so many different rice varieties, you may wonder which type of white rice you should choose more often. This will depend on your personal preference and how the rice is served.

For instance, long-grain white rice varieties, such as basmati and jasmine, pair well with mixed dishes. Despite containing 8 grams fewer carbohydrates per serving than short-grain white rice (like sushi rice), basmati and jasmine rice are unsuitable for making sushi. These rice varieties do not absorb as much moisture, and thus will not stick together like sushi rice does. Sushi pieces that use these two rice types will fall apart.

You may be surprised to learn that parboiled white rice (aka converted rice) has a lower glycemic index than polished white rice, where the bran and germ are removed during processing. Before parboiled white rice has its bran removed, it is soaked in water, then treated with heat and steamed, followed by a drying process. The parboiling process forces the nutrients in the bran into the germ and endosperm of the grain, not only retaining the nutritional value but also causing the starch to become more tightly packed, leading to harder kernels.

2. How the rice was cooked

How you cook white rice may also affect the amount of carbohydrates your body absorbs, and therefore may change your blood sugar response to the grain. Rice naturally contains resistant starches, a type of starch that does not get digested and absorbed in the small intestine. Research has found that rice that has been cooked, cooled and refrigerated before use, such as rice used in fried rice recipes or eaten as leftovers, contains more resistant starches than freshly cooked rice, such as boiled rice, rice made in a broth and rice made in a rice cooker. This is due to changes in the structure of the starch molecules that affect the starch's digestibility and reduce its glycemic index.

3. What portion size you're eating

Even if you choose lower-glycemic-index rice, it's important to remember that the amount of rice (along with other carbohydrate-containing foods) you're eating matters. Overeating carbohydrates has been linked to poorly managed diabetes and the increased risk of type 2 diabetes. The American Diabetes Association recommends following the Diabetes Plate Method way of eating, where you use a 9-inch plate and fill at least half the plate with vegetables, one-quarter with lean proteins and one-quarter with carbohydrate foods. Setting up your plate like this is an easy (and visual) way of keeping your portions of carbohydrates, including those from white rice, in check.

4. Whether your diet is balanced

A 2018 study from Japan published in Nutrition noted that while white rice is a mainstay in the Japanese diet, total diet quality also plays a role in determining blood sugar levels. A diet that included white rice, fruit, low-carbohydrate vegetables and dairy products was not linked to increasing one's glycemic load, which is the amount of total carbohydrates absorbed, a factor that plays a role in blood sugar response.

Most importantly, not all studies have proven that eating white rice increases the risk of diabetes, despite the consensus that eating whole grains may reduce the risk. And the presence (or lack thereof) of white rice in your diet doesn't determine whether your diet is healthy and balanced overall. The types of foods included, whether the foods are part of one's culture, their nutritional qualities and the amount of sodium and saturated fats are some factors to account for when assessing if your diet is health-promoting for you.

How to Include White Rice with Your Meals

Rice is typically paired with other foods rather than being eaten on its own. You may be less likely to have sudden blood sugar spikes after a meal when you combine white rice with lean proteins, vegetables and healthy fats. Here are a few ideas for pairing white rice with your meals and snacks:

Bottom line

Overall, all foods can fit into a healthy meal pattern when you're eating to manage diabetes or reduce your risk of developing it. Eating a balanced diet with a combination of whole and refined grains, vegetables, fruits, low-fat dairy products and lean proteins is key to keeping blood sugars well managed. Maintaining a nutritious and balanced diet where half of your grains are whole grains allows you to enjoy some white rice, too.