A few of my friends recently asked me why I recommend white rice over brown rice in my fat loss and physique transformation plans. I’ve written about this topic in bits and pieces in various publications in the past. But after having to send my peeps to like 8 different places to give them the full explanation, I realized I needed to gather all of the info, streamline it down, and put it into one comprehensive piece for educational efficiency. That process led to the following post…

When The Rice Master Speaks, You Eat It

“You don’t like white rice?!!?”

With the rise in popularity of Paleo-style diets these days — which I am mostly a proponent of as a starting template for certain demographics, if not taken to dogmatic extremes — I find myself asking this question often.

Especially to the flabby, no-carb hipsters that seem to always be looking down on really shredded athletes, strength trainers, and physique peeps for eating white rice, almost as if they were clueless buffoons munching on a box of maggots.

I don’t know man. I think spending all of your time pontificating about bio-hacks vs. actually training, and testing and assessing shit out in the real world is the ridiculous act. All it does is lead to smugness and the feeling of intellectual superiority vs. actually developing a healthy, fit, and ripped physique.

Damn, I woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning. Must be because I’m in the final stage of a peak fat loss phase for a photo shoot, and could only eat a paltry 4 cups of rice last night because of that.

Current condition with 275-300g of carbs a day.
Current condition with 275-300g of carbs a day.

Anyways, there is this scene in the movie The Lost Boys where a group of vampires and a new human recruit are sitting around eating rice. If you are a millennial, and have no idea what the hell I’m talking about, you need to put that cinematic classic into your Netflix Queue and watch it.

For shits and giggles, the leader of the crew David plays some vampire mind tricks on the new recruit Michael. One minute Michael thinks he is eating good old rice. The next minute he looks down and that rice has turned into a box of live maggots. Michael spits it out in disgust.

The takeaway point, at least for this article’s purpose, is that whether or not white rice is a “good food choice” depends on the perspective through which you are viewing it.

If you are a sedentary, de-conditioned, severely overweight, or metabolically diseased human, white rice very well may be no better for you than a box of maggots.

But if you are an anaerobic athlete or iron warrior that is consistently leaving some blood, sweat, tears, and many years under the bar; white rice can be a great carb source you can use to fuel and recover from your high-intensity workouts, without some of the potential drawbacks of other sources — food allergy symptoms, GI distress, micronutrient mal-absorption, etc.

Carb Creeds vs. Specific Carb Needs

Lets take a step back before we dive into the ongoing debate over this delectable delight.

First and foremost, we need to assess a person’s carb needs in general before we decide whether or not white rice is all right for them. This is key to understand. There is no one Universal Diet, diet numbers, or food templates that work best for everyone, everywhere, despite many cults’ creeds preaching differently.

That’s like saying everyone should have sex in the same position regardless of their strength levels, mobility, flexibility, anaerobic conditioning, number of participating partners, the sense of adventure or the blood alcohol content levels of all participants involved, etc.

Gotta love the principle of specificity. It’s not just for geeks.

I’ve been saying it since day one and will until the time I’m done — the dietary needs of athletes are different than that of the sedentary, deconditioned, and sick. Hopefully that eventually sinks in.

Sedentary & Sick = No Rice For You

Lower carb diets may be the best approach for improving body composition and biomarkers for sedentary sucka’s (in a non-ketogenic state, it only takes about 100-125g of carbs to support normal liver glycogen stores, which in turn, regulate normal blood sugar and brain function) and insulin resistant individuals (if your body can’t properly process and store carbohydrates in its cells, it makes good sense to limit them).

A good strategy for these demographics is to get in a calorie deficit (which is still the most important fat loss step), optimize protein intake for the maintenance of lean muscle mass and for satiety, and then limit carbs to about 100g or so.

Soup Nazi
No Rice For You!

In this case, white rice, while not totally off limits, is probably not the best food choice for you? Why?

Well, in an aggressive calorie deficit geared towards fat loss, you want to be maximizing the nutrient density of your diet, as well as emphasizing the highest satiety foods possible. Better carb choices that fulfill that strategy include vegetables, whole fruit, and root vegetables (sweet potatoes, potatoes, taro, squash, etc.).

White rice is really on the outside looking in here. It is basically just a source of pure starch (which as you’ll soon see can be great for athletes burning through glycogen stores on a daily basis). While it’s a great source of pure high-octane fuel for those with high-energy demands, it really doesn’t provide much additional nutrient density to the diet. And it is not as high a satiety food as root vegetables.

So if you are just trying to fix a broken down station wagon and get it running again, there are better fuel sources you can use.

But, and I mean a big ol’ beautiful, bodacious, Its All About the Bass Butt…If you are driving a Ferrari around town fast and furiously on a daily basis…

Carb Considerations For Athletes & Regular Exercisers

While looking at diet through the lens of evolution can provide us with a lot of useful clues we can use, sometimes you have to take off those bifocals and look at it through the pair of “shades” that is Exercise Physiology & Sports Nutrition.

Kicking it with cavemen is not the same thing as crushing the competition. Surviving in the wild is not the same thing as athletically thriving in the arena or getting shredded for the summer.

An athlete’s diet not only needs to provide baseline essential nutrient needs (essential amino acids, essential fatty acids – can you say animal protein) and micronutrients (animal and plant foods). It also needs to provide adequate fuel for intense training.

Now the truth is that once you account for essential nutrient needs, a variety of macronutrient amounts and ratios can be used to fuel the body (from low carb/high fat diets to low fat/high carb diets, to a moderate intake of all of the macronutrients). There is a lot of individual flexibility within that framework.

But I believe carbs are conditionally essential for anaerobic athletes and strength trainers, and advocate keeping at least some in the diet for several reasons:

  1. While sedentary populations and those who only perform low-intensity endurance activity can become “fat adapted”, low-carb diets definitely impair anaerobic performance. Just ask the Lebron James of earlier in the basketball season before he ditched his no-carb diet, and The Lakers pretty much all year.
  1. Carbs help restock glycogen stores that can be depleted through hard training (the rate at which the liver burns glycogen can increase 10x with intense training, and one hour of strength-training can deplete muscle glycogen stores by 40-50%).
  1. Adequate carb intake in response to training can support the immune system. Do you catch every cold that comes around town on your no-carb diet? That murky discharge in your nether region is for a whole different reason. Might want to get that checked out.
  1. Adequate carb intake supports natural hormone production and metabolic rate (free testosterone: cortisol ratio, thyroid, leptin). If you are hitting up the juice, TRT, or other exogenous hormones to compensate for these down regulations during a diet, that doesn’t matter so much. But to the natural dude or diva, it does.
  1. Adequate carb intake effects serotonin and sleep, as well as dopamine and mood. Are no carb diets the cause, or just correlated with, the growing number of insomniac dicks in the fitness industry?

Anyways, this article is about white rice, not the Great Carb Debate. So lets just leave that behind for now, and assume you’ve come to the conclusion that some carbs in your diet may be a wise strategy.

Carb Quality Control

I’ve always believed that carb quality matters just as much as quantity. Maybe not so much in the short-term (yes, I understand you can get ripped following even the most extreme if-it-fits-your-macronutrient – IIIFYM – plans), but definitely in terms of the long-term sustainability of a diet, and the long-term effects on digestive, metabolic, and overall health.

Carbs in general get dissed these days because of the typical sources in the Y2K Diet. Or as I think Bon Jovi once said, the modern American diet “gives carbs a bad name”.

Y2K, you give Carbs a Bad Name
Y2K, you give Carbs a Bad Name

When you compare a low-carb diet to a carb-based diet full of refined sugar, flour, fast and packaged food — and a surprising one that we will talk about in a second, whole grains — of course it is going to come out looking like the king.

But when you compare it to carb-based diets from other cultures that eat mostly natural carb sources, the results are much different.

For example in Japan, diabetes and obesity rates were never greater than 3 percent of the population pre-1991 (when Western habits started to replace traditional dietary patterns).

If carbs in general are the enemy, with their high starch intake via root vegetables and white rice, the Japanese would have been the fattest, most diabetic and unhealthy population on the planet. However, that was not the case.

Condemning all carbs as evil and cutting them across the board is an irrational, uniformed approach. And I’m not just trying to get you to “turn Japanese”. The majority of the healthiest cultures in the world eat a starch-based diet. But like I said, carb selection strategies are key. There is some newer research that has come out that supports this stance.

Hsu, et al. Improvement of insulin sensitivity by isoenergy high carbohydrate traditional Asian diet: a randomized controlled pilot feasibility study. PLoS One. 2014 Sep 16;9(9):e106851.

Despite efforts to maintain isoenergy state and consumption of similar energy, TAD (Traditional Asian Diet) induced weight loss and improved insulin sensitivity in both groups (Asian Americans, Caucasian Americans), while TWD (Traditional Western Diet) worsened the metabolic profile.

There are some obvious things that jump out here. There is a big difference between the majority of carbs coming from Fruity Pebbles vs. fruits and roots. Or, whole fruit and root vegetables are better food choices to base your diet around than refined sugar and flour.

But one thing that seems to be a stickler for my health and physique peeps, is why I believe white rice is a much better choice than brown rice and other “whole grains” if it is one of your dietary staples. Allow me to explain.

Fun Facts About Phytic Acid

I think the goals of any good Sports Nutrition Diet, at least one that tries to merge performance and/or physique enhancement with longevity and long-term health, is three-fold:

  1. Provide the body with all of the essential nutrients and micronutrients it needs for optimum health, normal functioning, and growth/maintenance of structural tissues, including lean muscle mass.
  1. Provide the body with adequate fuel for intense training, but not so much that excessive body fat is stored (yes calories and macro amounts matter).
  1. Accomplish the first two while limiting exposure to food sensitivites and/or a high amount of “anti-nutrients” in the diet, which can lead to some negative side effects.

That last one is why I believe that despite the verdict from the court of public opinion and most dieticians, white rice is a superior food choice to brown rice, and other whole grains.

You see, brown rice is like most other whole grains in that it contains a compound called phytic acid. What the hell is that? Here is what the people at the Weston A. Price Foundation have to say about it. If someone else has already said it better than you can, then the appropriate thing to do is simply point that out, and then step aside:

Phytic acid is the principal storage form of phosphorus in many plant tissues, especially the bran portion of grains and other seeds. It contains the mineral phosphorus tightly bound in a snowflake-like molecule. In humans and animals with one stomach, the phosphorus is not readily bioavailable. In addition to blocking phosphorus availability, the “arms” of the phytic acid molecule readily bind with other minerals, such as calcium, magnesium, iron and zinc, making them unavailable as well. In this form, the compound is referred to as phytate.

Phytic acid not only grabs on to or chelates important minerals, but also inhibits enzymes that we need to digest our food, including pepsin, needed for the breakdown of proteins in the stomach, and amylase, needed for the breakdown of starch into sugar. Trypsin, needed for protein digestion in the small intestine, is also inhibited by phytates.

Through observation I have witnessed the powerful anti-nutritional effects of a diet high in phytate-rich grains on my family members, with many health problems as a result, including tooth decay, nutrient deficiencies, lack of appetite and digestive problems.

The presence of phytic acid in so many enjoyable foods we regularly consume makes it imperative that we know how to prepare these foods to neutralize phytic acid content as much as possible, and also to consume them in the context of a diet containing factors that mitigate the harmful effects of phytic acid. – Weston A Price Foundation

white rice vs. brown rice

White Rice to the Rescue

So high amounts of phytic acid through whole grains in your diet may impair protein digestion, mineral absorption, and lead to general GI distress.

But here’s the thing. The phytic acid that is problematic for digestion and nutrient absorption is located in the bran of the grain. This is removed in the milling process that essentially changes brown rice to white rice. It is one of the few exceptions where I believe food refining can actually be beneficial for human health.

When you remove the bran, what you’re left with is an easily digested, “safe starch” without the “anti-nutrient” component. This is why white rice can be one of the best carbohydrate sources for athletes. It isn’t associated with stomach distress, allergies, bloating, and other side effects associated with so many other carbohydrate sources.

Let’s phone a Weston A. Price foundation friend again:

Brown rice that is not soaked and fermented, as was done traditionally in India, may block mineral absorption and cause intestinal problems. The Japanese prefer the taste and texture of white rice and this preference may reflect a profound intuition that when rice is consumed on a daily basis, it should be refined not whole, unless a long and careful preparation is observed. – Weston A. Price Foundation

Now the purpose of this piece is not to go full-on fear mongering on you, and make you OCD about food. I don’t believe a bowl of brown rice is going to make your bowels come popping out.

dumb & dumber bathroom scene

But if rice is a dietary staple like it is for me (4-7 cups per day to fuel my little rice noodle) you might want to consider the above factors. Problems certainly can arise when whole grains become the major dietary sources of carbohydrates and calories, especially when consuming little animal and plant foods that provide an abundance of micronutrients.

And if you are suffering from any food allergy, food sensitivity, or GI distress symptoms despite “eating healthy”, why not test and assess cutting back on the whole grains and giving white rice a shot? Why keep foods in your diet that are potentially problematic when there are alternative options?

B.S. Reasons Hippies Push Brown Rice

Now, the Whole Foods Hippies will still insist you eat brown rice for several reasons, but I’m not buying any of them, especially for the athlete.

  1. Protein Content — Grain proteins are of inferior quality and bioavailability than animal proteins. You should be getting the bulk of your protein needs from animal sources. Any protein in grain foods is incidental, not necessary.
  1. Fiber — Fiber is indeed invaluable for overall health. But I believe you are better off getting the bulk of your fiber from more natural, nutrient dense plant sources — fruits, root vegetables, and other vegetables. Here are a few good articles on that topic by Chris Kresserhttp://chriskresser.com/myths-and-truths-about-fiber/

http://chriskresser.com/got-digestive-problems-take-it-easy-on-the-veggies/

  1. Glycemic Index – This is probably the most misunderstood reason that people push brown rice, and would take a whole other article to cover in depth. So lets see if we can summarize it for now.

There is a huge difference between short-term rises in glucose and insulin (an absolutely normal response to eating pretty much any food — yes protein raises insulin levels too) and chronically elevated levels.

Chronic elevations definitely can be problematic, and can lead to a host of diseases including insulin resistance, diabetes, obesity, and Man Boob & Muffin Top Syndrome.

But short-term (acute) elevations under certain physiological conditions can be highly beneficial to the athlete. Insulin can be anti-catabolic and anabolic. It helps transport amino acids and glucose into the muscle cell, aiding in the recovery and re-fueling process from intense training.

Carbs & Physique vs. Paleo Peeps & Calorie Creeps

For those who fear white rice, or starchy carbs in general, during fat slashing phases, just remember that total calories are still the most important step for fat loss. If you strength train while maintaining a relative calorie deficit, you can still include some starchy carbs in the diet while losing significant amounts of body fat.

The majority of the leanest people on Earth–natural bodybuilders and fitness models (yes, even the non-juiced up, non-crazy, non-OCD, perfectly healthy ones)–diet this way. Pre-contest diets include animal proteins for essential nutrients, and some starch to support anaerobic training. Meals like steak and sweet potato, and chicken and white rice have been staples for decades.

You shouldn’t learn everything from gifted athletes, because genetics and drugs often play a factor. But you can’t completely ignore them either. The percentage of people who achieve success with this approach is more than just coincidence. It is statistical significance.

And if you are an athlete, you shouldn’t try to completely re-enact the caveman life just because it is currently cool. I mean no one I know in the modern era — neither man from a workspace perspective, nor woman from a maintenance perspective, nor vice versa, nor either from a cosmetic perspective — likes to deal with a Wooly Mammoth Muff or Pre-Historic He-Beaver (credit to Deuce Bigalow, I think…)

Deuce Bigalow

In other words, take some of the useful principles, and discard the rest of the dogma.

Here is one mistake, however, that I see happen time and time again in today’s Low Carb Era. Someone is following a lower carb/higher fat/Paleo-style diet and combining it with consistent anaerobic training. They are suffering from some symptoms like poor performance, bad mood, anxiety or depression, muscle loss, stubborn fat, skinny-fat syndrome, insomnia, and lowered testosterone and/or thyroid production.

They decide to add some carbs like white rice back into their diet to see if it better supports the fueling and recovery demands of their training sessions. But they don’t change anything else.

Here is what they’ve missed. Adding carbs adds calories to their diet. So with the addition of carbs to their diet, they are now eating in a calorie surplus. What happens? They gain fat.

They falsely attribute this fat gain solely to the carbs (but it was actually because of an increase in total calories), condemn carbs as the starchy root of all evil, further increase their Nightmare on No-Carb Street, and go back to suffering through a mismatched diet.

You must keep calories the same if you want to truly test whether carbs like white rice are the bad guys, or perhaps your best friends. Remember, once you are in a calorie deficit, a variety of macronutrient amounts and ratios can work for fat loss.

Protein should stay constant to support lean muscle mass. That’s why your carb and added fat intake must be inversely related. If you add carbs into your diet, you should remove an equal amount of dietary fat to stay within a targeted caloric deficit.

Practical Stuff & The Test & Assess Strategy 

Sorry for the length of this piece. I know short articles are today’s trend, but I felt I needed to include the big picture view so you could fully understand where I’m coming from with this one. To summarize:

  1. I believe a carb-controlled diet is the best approach for sedentary and sick populations. Limiting carbs to 100-125g a day, and emphasizing nutrient dense, high satiety sources like vegetables, whole fruit, and root vegetables is a good play call for this down and distance situation. But I’m not a doctor or medical professional. Check with yours to see if that approach is the right fit for you.
  1. If you are an anaerobic athlete or strength train on a regular basis, you may need to add more carbs into that baseline diet in order to properly fuel and recover from your training. A decent starting point is 1-2g/lbs of lean body mass or target bodyweight.
  1. Take care of the majority of your essential nutrient needs with animal proteins, and micronutrient needs with plant foods (the above mentioned vegetables, fruits, and roots).
  1. White rice is an awesome carb source you can add back into your diet to hit your targeted carbohydrate numbers. It is basically pure starch without the anti-nutrients and potential food sensitivities of other carb sources.

And as always, with food choice recommendations like these, and any dietary principles to be honest, take some frickin’ personal accountability and test and assess in the real world to find what works best for you. In an era of mysticism and blindly clinging to dogma and gurus, this advice brings back some simple dietary common sense.

Beyond science and theory or systems, the real world results FOR YOU provide the real world answers FOR YOU.

Personally, I side with David on this one, and am rolling with white rice as one of my dietary staples, “Tell me Michael, how could a billion Chinese people (and billions of other people from a bunch of different cultures that exhibit immaculate biomarkers of health, and low obesity and diabetes rates) be wrong?” – David, The Lost Boys.

But maybe I’m just a vampire with some elaborate scheme trying to trick you into eating maggots and drinking blood. I do have a weird sense of humor like that.

ADDITIONAL READING, REFERENCES, & RESOURCES

The Weston A. Price Foundation. (2010, March 26). Living With Phytic Acid. Retrieved from http://www.westonaprice.org/health-topics/living-with-phytic-acid/

Colpo, Anthony. (2010, Dec 11). The Whole Grain Scam. Retrieved from http://anthonycolpo.com/the-whole-grain-scam/

Miyaki, Nate. The Truth About Carbs. Archangel Ink, 2014. Print. (As the People’s Physique Champ, hell yeah I’m quoting, referencing, and recommending myself. But at least I put it third).

Hsu, et al. Improvement of insulin sensitivity by isoenergy high carbohydrate traditional Asian diet: a randomized controlled pilot feasibility study. PLoS One. 2014 Sep 16;9(9):e106851.

Cheryan. 1980. Phytic acid interactions in food systems. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr 13(4): 297-335.

Reinhold JG, et al. Effects of purified phytate and phytate-rich bread upon metabolism of zinc, calcium, phosphorous, and nitrogen in man. Lancet, Feb. 10, 1973; 1 (7798): 283-288.

Torre M, et al. Effects of dietary fiber and phytic acid on mineral availability. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 1991; 30 (1): 1-22.

Gilani et al. 2005. Effects of antinutritional factors on protein digestibility and amino acid availability in foods. J AOAC Int May-Jun;88(3):967-87.

Miyoshi, et al. Effects of brown rice on apparent digestibility and balance of nutrients in young men on low protein diets. J Nutr Sci Vitaminol (Tokyo). 1987 Jun;33(3):207-18

Hotz et al. 2007. Traditional food-processing and preparation practices to enhance the bioavailability of micronutrients in plant-based diets. J Nutr 137:1097-1100.

Torre M, et al. Effects of dietary fiber and phytic acid on mineral availability. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 1991; 30 (1): 1-22.