Finally in 2010, the medical community has gotten hip to what Francis Lappe Moore, author of the cookbook Diet for a Small Planet, preached in 1971. Whole grains are better for you than refined grains…and in ways you might not suspect. In fact, recent studies confirm that, if you switch from white rice to brown rice, you can reduce your risk of diabetes significantly. According to a study led by Dr. Qi Sun, M.D., a nutrition researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health, in Boston, Massachusetts, eating two servings per week of brown rice instead of two servings of white rice will reduce your risk of contracting type-2 diabetes by 16 percent. And your risk will decline by 36 percent if you choose whole grains in general in place of those servings of refined grains.
The researchers looked at data from three long-term health studies involving over 200,000 nurses and health practitioners. The studies ran for 14 to 22 years, and during that time, roughly five percent of the subjects developed type-2 diabetes. The researchers noted a 17 percent greater risk of contracting type 2 diabetes in those who ate five or more servings of white rice per week, as compared to those who ate little or none. And in subjects who ate at least two servings of brown rice per week, the risk decreased by 11 per cent.
Even more interesting is the fact that the magic may not reside in the brown rice itself. Dr. Sun and colleagues theorized that brown rice eaters might simply be more “health-conscious” and have a better diet overall. In fact, the brown rice eaters were likely to have a number of advantages over the white rice eaters (and no this isn’t a variation on the Dr. Suess story about the Zooks who eat butter-side down versus the Yooks who prefer butter-side up). They were likely to be slimmer than their white rice counterparts, they were less likely to smoke, they were less likely to have a family history of diabetes, and they were more likely to be physically active. Certainly, these factors provide a recipe for minimizing diabetes risk.
But to be sure, white rice does have inherent disadvantages. According to nutritionist Alissa Rumsey, R.D. at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, in New York City, “White rice is digested much faster and converted into sugar in your blood much quicker, so your body puts out a lot more insulin in response to white rice.” In fact, instant and quick cook versions of white rice are off the charts on the glycemic index — coming in higher than table sugar. On the other hand, whole grains like brown rice are broken down into glucose a lot slower. Ms. Rumsey adds that whole grains have much more fiber, vitamins, minerals, and protein, “so you get a lot more nutritional bang for your buck than with refined carbohydrates like white rice or white bread.”
In 2006, separate studies by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health and at Tufts University supported the advantages of whole grains for people with diabetes. The Harvard study measured levels of insulin, hemoglobin A1C, homocysteine, and cholesterol levels in 1000 healthy, middle-aged adults. It also looked at their diets. The scientists found a significantly reduced risk of type-2 diabetes and heart disease among those who ate whole grains. Similarly, the Tufts researchers showed that fasting blood sugar levels in older adults decreased as their whole grain intake increased. Conversely, those with a high intake of refined grains had twice the risk for type 2-diabetes and heart disease compared to those who ate whole grains. These findings confirmed several earlier large-scale studies that showed eating whole grains could reduce diabetes risk by as much as 42 percent.
But the researchers may not have the whole story. I recently wrote about the impact of high-glycemic foods on risk of heart disease. The glycemic index of foods indicates their potential to raise blood sugar. The greater the potential for raising blood sugar levels, the higher the glycemic index of the food; the lower the potential, the lower the glycemic index. So if people with diabetes monitor the glycemic index of their food intake, they can help control their blood sugar levels. And although brown rice is a “medium” glycemic food that performs better than white rice in studies, it may not be the optimal choice for keeping blood sugar levels low. “It turns out that a two-ounce serving of cooked pasta, which has a glycemic index of 42, elevates blood sugar less than a serving of brown rice, which has a glycemic index of 55.”
In either case, grains of any kind (either refined or unrefined, rice or wheat) may not be your best choice for consuming in large quantities.
Which brings me to what is increasingly becoming a familiar refrain in my columns. If you want to reduce your risk for type-2 diabetes (and for heart disease while you’re at it), it’s hard to do better than the Mediterranean diet. While it is true that the rapid increase of blood sugar and the associated rapid release of the hormone insulin damages cells throughout the body, which leads to heart disease, diabetes, and other ills, all this nitpicking about high- versus low-glycemic foods becomes irrelevant if you stick to the Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes fresh vegetables, fruits, olive oil, a bit of fish and very little meat or grain.
And for those of you who insist on making grains a major part of your diet, check out my two-part series on grains, The Whole Grain and Nothing but the Grain.