Should Diabetics Avoid White Rice? (A Dietitian’s Perspective)


should diabetics avoid white rice

Many a doctor may tell you, “Just stay away from all white foods.” What about cauliflower? What about skim or low-fat milk? White onions or garlic?

People with diabetes can eat white rice, but should do so with caution. It has a high glycemic index, and can quickly raise blood sugar levels at times. By consuming smaller portions, combining it with lean protein and healthful fats, or using a low-starch cooking method, people with diabetes can include white rice in their diet.

The glycemic index (GI) is not a diet, but rather a tool that allows people to see how likely any given food will cause a large increase in blood sugars.

The higher the GI, the more likely the food will raise your blood sugar.

Understanding Diabetes And White Rice

Carbohydrates are the primary fuel source to our bodies. Carbohydrates break down to glucose or sugar in our bodies to be used for energy. When someone has diabetes, the body is not absorbing the glucose correctly or adequately. 

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are divided into two groups, simple and complex carbohydrates. Simple carbs have a high glycemic index when compared to complex carbs. People with diabetes should always aim to consume complex carbs.

White rice falls into the complex group even though it has a high glycemic index at 72. For this reason, a person with diabetes will need to pay closer attention to this food.

Understanding White Rice

Even though white rice is a complex carb, it is less suitable for diabetics because it is “refined.” The refining process involves the removal of the bran and germ from the rice grain.

White Rice: The Bran

The bran is an outer layer in rice that contains fiber, amino acids, vitamins, and minerals. Studies have shown that bran plays an important role in preventing and managing diabetes. 

Components of Bran

  • Abscisic acid plays an important role in managing glucose stability.
  • Chlorogenic acid exhibits an anti-diabetic, as well as a neuroprotective effect.
  • Salicylates also act as an anti-diabetic to lower blood sugars, and enhances insulin secretion.
  • Sinapic acid is another anti-diabetic. It reduces glucose concentration in type 1 diabetics and increases the cells sensitivity to insulin in type 2 diabetics. (National Institute of Health)
  • Syringic acid is an anti-diabetic that assists with insulin action.

White Rice: The Germ

The germ is the most nutrient-dense part of the rice grain. It contains 66% of all the nutrients in the grain. The white rice grain has less than 8% of the nutrients you find in the germ.

Advantages of the Germ in Diabetetes

The germ can offer a person with diabetes the following nutrients:

  1. 18% of the germ is made up of protein; one of the most common amino acid diabetics can find here is lysine, which is beneficial to people with diabetes.
  2. The germ also contains healthful fats, including monounsaturated and polyunsaturated, which help people with diabetes to control their blood sugars while benefiting the heart.
  3. 7% of the germ is made out of insoluble fiber that regulates sugar absorption.
  4. Rich in vitamin E and B vitamins.
  5. Rich in antioxidants.
  6. Great source of magnesium, which can help prevent type 2 diabetes. 

Drawbacks of the Germ in People with Diabetes

While the germ can offer many benefits for people with diabetes, there are some disadvantages:

  1. Other proteins in the germ can cause insulin resistance and promote increased blood sugar levels.
  2. The germ contains high amounts of iron, which can cause complications in people with diabetes. The mineral is easily oxidized, which is destructive to cells and affects glycemic control.

Overall, the health benefits outweigh risks. 

How Much White Rice Should a Diabetic Eat?

When including white rice with your meal, it is not a bad idea to treat your rice as the main starch of your meal. Try to make any other starchy foods low glycemic in value.

In general, diabetics consume 45-60 g carbohydrates per meal. One third cup rice has approximately 15 g carb and 67 calories.  One serving of Minute Rice is 1/2 cup, contains 36 g carbohydrate, and provides 160 calories. Only 1/3 cup of cooked, white rice counts as 1 carb choice (15 g carb, 67 calories) if you are counting carbs as a part of your diabetic meal plan.

Include a lean protein and healthful fat to help prevent a postprandial (after meal) spike in blood sugar.

Why Do We Refine Rice? 

Now you might be thinking, if unrefined rice has so many benefits to people’s health, especially to those dealing with diabetes, why would companies refine rice? There are several reasons:

Shelf Life

Dry, white rice can last about 2 years on the shelf.

Dry, brown rice will only last only about 6 months on the shelf before becoming rancid.

Cooking Time

Depending on your cooking method, white rice takes 15-20 minutes to cook. 

Depending on your cooking method, brown rice takes about 45 minutes to cook. 

Texture and Appearance

White rice gets light and fluffy after cooking, which is a favored texture. After milling, it becomes polished and white.

Brown rice remains firm after cooking and the rice remains separated. 

Taste

White rice is light, gentle, and tasty; pleasurable to many people.

Brown rice tastes more “earthy,” sometimes nutty. 

The texture of the rice can influence the perception of the taste, as well.

Why is Brown Rice Better than White Rice?

As previously mentioned, the germ and bran are removed from the regular brown rice grain to make white rice. You have left the endosperm, which contains high amounts of starch. This insoluble carb has a high glycemic index.

I describe white rice as “brown rice with most of the nutrients stripped away.”

Unrefined brown rice has a moderate glycemic index (GI) of 55-68, which is lower when compared to the high GI of white rice at 72.

For those people with diabetes who use the glycemic index as a tool, this is an important consideration point. 

Knowing the glycemic index in the food you are eating can help you predict how fast your blood sugar levels will increase after eating certain foods. The higher the number, the quicker your sugar levels will rise.  

Healthier Rice Options For People With Diabetes

Everyone knows that risotto wouldn’t be the same without rice; it is also true for many other dishes such as sushi, paellas, bibimbap, and jambalaya. Thankfully, there are rice options for people with diabetes, so you can still enjoy your favorite dishes without risking your health.

Alternatives To White Rice For People With Diabetes:

  1. Quinoa
  2. Couscous
  3. Sweet potato rice
  4. Farro
  5. Shirataki Rice
  6. Orzo
  7. Cauliflower rice
  8. Basmati Rice

See my article on the alternatives to white rice for people with diabetes.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is it possible to cook starch-free rice for diabetics?

Yes. You will start by rinsing off the rice with lukewarm water. Then you cook it with a ratio of 3:1, three portions of water per one part rice. Once you see the grain has fully cooked, remove the excess water along with the white foam that formed on top. That white foam is the starch.

I have a complete article on how to cook rice for people with diabetes for an in depth look.

Is brown rice better than white rice for diabetics?

Yes, it is. While brown rice is not the very best option for people with diabetes, it is much better than white rice because it contains all the nutrients and has a lower GI.

Which rice is better for diabetics?

As discussed, brown rice is a better option than white rice, but I recommend changing up your rice from time to time. Try using one of the other options mentioned above for a healthful change. 

As the English poet, William Cowper stated back in 1785, “Variety’s the very spice of life, that gives it all its flavour.”

My Closing Thoughts

White rice is a tricky food for some people who have diabetes. One cup of cooked, white rice is 45 g carbohydrate. 

Take a measuring cup and scoop out 1 cup of rice and you will see how easy it is to go overboard.

As I frequently mention, everyone’s body is a different body. Each person will respond to every food in different ways.

My advice is to test your blood sugar 2 hours after the first bite of your rice meal. Different people will have different blood sugar goals. Check with your provider or your diabetes care specialist to see what guidelines to follow. 

It is my position that there are no “bad” foods, including white rice. Just like you are not a “bad” person for eating it..

Some people with diabetes choose to avoid white rice altogether, and I respect that. 

If you feel deprived because you are avoiding white rice, try ⅓ cup and include it with a lean protein and non-starchy vegetable, try using the starch-fee cooking method, or try using one of the many alternatives to white rice.

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