Is Shou-Ching to blame for our rice habit?

I thought I’d interrupt the lipid series to talk about the place of rice in our diet. This is also an opportunity to explain to those who haven’t read the book the logic underlying our diet.

The occasion: Cliff at PaleoHacks questioned our endorsement of white rice:

White rice is touted to be basically pure starch by Paul Jaminet on the basis that Asian people eat it so it must be healthy right?

Not exactly. Cliff goes on to express concern about phytate toxicity and low nutrient density. Rose (in the comments) was concerned about beriberi (thiamin deficiency disease).

There were a lot of great replies, especially Melissa McEwen’s. (Melissa found some statistics on the fraction of phytate destroyed by cooking, and improved Wikipedia’s data on phytic acid content of foods.) I got a laugh out of John Naruwan’s answer (which he intended to be humorous):

My theory on Jaminet’s apparent love of white rice is his Chinese wife. My own wife is Chinese (well, Taiwanese). When I explain that maybe white rice is not so good for optimal health, I get the speech about Chinese people eating rice for thousands of years, blah blah blah. Bottom line: you try telling a Chinese person that rice is anything less than good for you and you happen to be that person’s husband, well, basically you’ll be sleeping on the sofa for a week.

In fact Shou-Ching is as interested in good health as I am. She often makes the point that in traditional Chinese cooking rice was eaten more as a palate cleanser than as a staple calorie source. We like white rice, but if evidence showed it to be unhealthy we’d be equally quick to stop eating it.

And, John – Shou-Ching is so nice, when she gets mad at me she goes out and sleeps on the sofa!

The Logic Behind Our Diet

Although we consider our diet to be a “Paleo” and “Pacific Islander” diet (by the way – read Jamie Scott’s report from Vanuatu if you haven’t already!), we did not construct the diet according to the syllogism, “People (from the Paleolithic, or East Asia, or any other place or time) ate this way, and were healthy, so we should eat that way too.”

Rather, our approach is more reductionist and centered around nutrients and toxins. Our diet aims to simultaneously achieve two ends:

  • Obtain enough of every nutrient to be fully nourished. It shouldn’t be possible to improve health by adding further nutrients.
  • Eat so as to minimize the diet’s toxicity, by eating very little of any one toxin. Since “the dose makes the poison,” tiny quantities of diverse food toxins can be tolerated, but no one toxin should be abundant in the diet.

A third principle is that meals should be tasty and delicious. We believe our innate taste preferences evolved to help us be healthy, and therefore pleasurable meals are healthful meals. (This was our sticking point with Stephan Guyenet’s interpretation of food reward: see Thoughts on Obesity Inspired by Stephan, June 2, 2011.) Apart from healthfulness, however, we consider tastiness of food to be a positive value in its own right. Luckily we believe the most healthful diet is also the tastiest!

The Place of Rice in Our Diet

Any food which is low in toxins can be included in our diet. Low toxicity is the key, because a missing nutrient can be obtained from other foods – or from a multivitamin or supplement. But there are usually no antidotes to a toxic food.

Rice is very low in toxicity. Most rice toxins reside in the bran, so milled white rice is already low in toxins. The great majority of white rice toxins are destroyed in cooking.

As a result, cooked white rice is almost toxin free. Cliff worried about phytic acid, but the amounts in cooked white rice are small – lower than almost all other seeds, nuts, grains, and legumes, and about one-twentieth the level found in such foods as sesame seeds, Brazilnuts, and pinto beans, as Wikipedia (and Melissa) have pointed out.

Phytic acid is also not all that dangerous. It is a mineral chelator, which leads to minerals being excreted rather than absorbed. The primary risk is that it will induce a mineral deficiency. Because phytic acid preferentially binds iron, which can be dangerous, some advocate its supplementation.

We don’t agree with that, but we don’t consider the small amount of phytic acid in rice to be dangerous, especially given that we recommend a mineral-rich diet and supplementation with both a multivitamin and specific key minerals.

Optimize Diet, Not Foods

Nutrient density of an individual food is not an overriding concern. Only the diet needs to be optimized – not individual foods. It’s OK to eat a food that is low in nutrient density if other nutrient-rich foods make up for it.

Our diet derives only about 20% of calories from carbs. Even for rice lovers, rice is unlikely to provide more than half that, or 10% of energy. If rice is half as nutrient dense as alternative “Paleo” starches, it diminishes nutrient intake by only 5%. That’s easy enough to make up by eating more vegetables, liver, and eggs – or by taking a multivitamin.

Many Paleo dieters speak of “cheat” foods, as if it was somehow immoral, or a violation of the diet, to eat them. There are no “cheat foods” on our diet.

For instance, we’ll often eat strawberries with whipped cream sweetened with rice syrup. This is low in nutrients, but also low in toxins. It would not do as the primary food of the day, but as a dessert or snack it is quite healthy.

Glucose is a Nutrient

This is a point many low-carb dieters seem to forget. Macronutrients are nutrients too.

The body needs glucose. Glycoproteins and polysaccharide molecules like glycosaminoglycans are important structural components of the body; certain cell types rely on glucose for energy; and the immune system relies on glucose for generation of reactive oxygen species to kill pathogens.

If no carbs are eaten, the body has to generate glucose from protein. Glucose production may be insufficient or suboptimal. That was the point of our Zero-Carb Dangers series.

Of course, in excess glucose could become a toxin. But the same can be said for protein and polyunsaturated fats. We don’t exclude meat or salmon from the diet because they can be over-eaten. One shouldn’t exclude rice either.

Conclusion

A healthy diet should contain a diversity of foods. This will reduce the diet’s toxicity, improve micronutrient ratios, and increase meal pleasurability.

Rice should not provide a large share of dietary calories – probably not more than 10% – but there is no reason to reject it merely because it is a grain. True, it comes from a bad family. But it’s the good child. Don’t hold its relatives against it.

Leave a comment ?

139 Comments.

  1. btw, where’es some good info on consumption of alcohol and yeast/fungus? i am trying to figure out if i can still drink it.

  2. Thanks, Michael.

    Hi Darius,

    It’s dangerous. You should minimize alcohol as long as your gut is infected. Here’s one paper: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19793674.

  3. absjunkie: sorry but that’s BS

    When I trained Wushu in China most of the guys there had a six pack, especially the guys on the sanda team were pretty buff and defined on their very high carb, low protein diet.

    I myself have kept my abs with high carb as well as high fat, here are 2 pictures from my trip to Thailand last year were I ate rice and rice noodles 2-3 times a day + sticky rice sweets and fruit

    http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_Wujz80t9x0E/TIYvgklnd8I/AAAAAAAAADM/z7ncS-RPf9A/s1600/SDC13022.JPG

    http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_Wujz80t9x0E/TIYvvx3SI2I/AAAAAAAAADU/xq1BRdMut5E/s1600/SDC13024.JPG

  4. wow Chenzhen, looking good!

    Paul, i’ve been wonering about brown rice syrup recently. Does the fermentation process used to make it neutralize all toxins sufficiently? I usually eat it with grassfed cream and hope i’m not preventing absoprtion of the nutrients i get in the cream!

  5. Yes, ChenZhen, great pictures!

    Hi remo,

    I wouldn’t expect all toxins to be gone, but brown rice is relatively benign to begin with and it should be better in syrup form.

    It’s possible to get white rice syrup – we have one listed on our Recommended Supplements page – but brown rice syrup is in the local supermarkets, so it’s much more convenient.

    I wouldn’t worry about it!

  6. Sheep Counteress

    @phk: Yes, lard is the Taiwanese grandmothers’ secret ingredient! The thing is, lard is now the “unenlightened” fat of choice, and most Taiwanese would probably dispose of it altogether if it didn’t make things taste so darn good. (I occasionally brave a crispy pastry made with wheat flour if also made with lard mmm….) The fat of choice these days is “salad oil”, which is nothing but vegetable/industrial seed oil; it’s what everything has long been stir-fried, etc. in because somehow it became seared in our collective consciousness that “salad oil” is more healthful.

    So what I’m trying to understand is the role of fats in traditional Asian diets, because I’m pretty sure that what we’ve been eating for the past 2 generations or so has not been “traditional”. I think the only constant through time has been the place of rice in the diet: to have a meal in Chinese/Taiwanese is “chi fan/jia bung” – which is literally “eat rice”. Our understanding of TCM is that fats are considered very rich and used as a tonic, but in excess causes “damp/phlegm” conditions. But I know that in mainland China, TCM underwent some major changes after 1949 to put its principles in line with Communist ideology (I think some Taoist elements were suspect?). So I’d also like to learn what “traditional” TCM even means.

    PHD really seems like the optimal dietary framework (I believe in the TCM concept of different body constitutions), but I need to sell the whole butter-is-good-wheat & vegetable-oil-are-bad thing to the rest of my family, and I don’t know if I could appeal to TCM there….

  7. Sheep Counteress

    An illustration of the current Taiwanese generations’ fear of animal fats: when my grandfather suffered a fatal stroke before the age of 70, everyone – I mean everyone – in the family attributed it to his love of fatty meat. He was not overweight, and definitely active; he still rode his bike every day to meet up and chat with colleagues after he retired. He on occasion enjoyed food like the lu rou fan that Paul mentioned (http://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Lurou_fan%28Taiwanese_cuisine%29.jpg). Only recently has the thought of everyone’s reaction really jarred me. Because no one questioned that it was the fatty meat, and not something like you tiao (fried dough; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Youtiao) – which is actually a pretty common (maybe even daily) breakfast item.

  8. Hi Sheep Counteress,

    Shou-Ching has a pretty good perspective on those dietary changes. Her father fled China in 1949 during the civil war. At that time in Korea Chinese were allowed few occupations, so he established a restaurant, though he had been an architect in China. His restaurant became very popular and Shou-Ching remembers the incredibly tasty food he made. She later realized that cooking in animal fat and following traditional recipes was the key.

    Unfortunately he died when she was young, and she grew up believing all the standard ideas that fat is bad, soy is good, and couldn’t understand why she couldn’t make tasty food like her father. Now with PHD she’s realized that we’re really going back to something akin to traditional cuisines.

    It’s amazing how quickly and thoroughly knowledge that had been built up and passed on for tens of thousands of years, maybe hundreds of thousands, was lost!

  9. Paul, re:alcohol
    NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO….
    there must be a way…

  10. Thanks guys!
    At the university I saw guys that were ripped as Bruce Lee and the only thing they did was playing some basketball in their free time. None of them cared if they ate too much carbs or too little protein. Having a cake and soymilk is a pretty common breakfast for the students (not that I would eat that ;)).

  11. Hi Paul

    You mention in your book that sweet potatoes, taro and rice are good to eat to get starches. I’m a diabetic and rice and potatoes spike my sugar, but I do eat a lot of beets, rutabaga, parsnips, and turnips.They don’t spike my sugar. Are they starchy enough to replace rice et al?

  12. Hi stephen,

    Most of those have very little starch – their carbs are in the form of sugars.

    So one reason they don’t spike blood glucose is that half the carbs are fructose, which goes straight to the liver.

    They’re fine foods but I wouldn’t completely replace the starches with sugary foods. I think you should aim for a glucose:fructose ratio of 2:1 and therefore get at least 1/3 your carbs from starches, at most 2/3 from sugary foods. This is because glucose is safer than fructose for the liver and because glycogen storage is fastest when there is more glucose than fructose. You have to balance the harm fructose does to the liver against the harm hyperglycemia does to the periphery.

    Basmati rice is considered “Medium GI” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glycemic_index) and might work better for you than the Asian rice varieties.

    Best, Paul

  13. Thanks Paul,

    The advice is taken. The explanation was so easy to understand.

    Steve

  14. Hey Paul is it Ok for me to use large quantities of white rice to help me bulk up while playing sports. I tried going high fat,close to 400 grams daily, but it just made me feel heavy and sluggish. I then attempted a high amount of sweet potato, but my lower intestine wouldn’t stop rumbling, potatoes don’t seem to give me any digestive distress but in high amounts they give me joint pain and palpitations. I was thinking of maybe eating about 2 pounds of potatoes and a couple cups of white rice daily? I estimate I need close to 500-600 grams of carbohydrates to meet my goals.

    I was also wondering if you have any idea of what digestive troubles with the lower intestine are associated with? Fruit and sweet potatoes, especially in large amounts give me lower colon pain and rumbling. I have solved all acid reflux issues and bloating, but my lower colon problems persist, and I can’t seem to pinpoint what causes it.

  15. Hi Robert,

    Yes, it’s fine to eat plenty of rice. A couple of cups isn’t that much. When you get tired of potatoes you can eat more rice.

    Fruit and sweet potatoes – it sounds like fructose malabsorption. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fructose_malabsorption.

    Best, Paul

  16. Paul,

    Apologies if this has been talked about extensively elsewhere. If so, please show me the link.

    Sally Fallon in Nourishing traditions recommends that we eat brown rice (unshelled), because of the vitamins that are present. However, she also counsels that we try to ferment it in whey or something similar.

    I have been eating considerably more brown rice ever since. Sometimes I ferment it, sometimes I do not. (The latter being due to laziness.)

    I don’t have any health issues that I’m aware of, and I believe to be in pretty good health, ideal weight for my height, next to nothing body fat, etc. I’m just trying to be healthy. That’s all. I could easily return to white rice in a heart beat as there are no issues preventing me from consuming it.

    Just wanted your take on brown rice, to see if there’s anything there that I’m missing.

  17. Hi John,

    Brown rice is acceptable but, we think, not as good as white rice because of its higher toxin content.

    Now with soaking and fermentation, maybe brown rice becomes the superior grain. But most people don’t have time for that.

    Best, Paul

  18. My question centers on viewing vegetables only as fiber (and therefore fat once the fiber is digested in the gut). My wife is diabetic and can cause her blood glucose levels to go high by eating too many vegetables. (She has done this by eating an entire head of cauliflower, for example.) Doesn’t this suggest that vegetables provide glucose, especially when higher amounts are eaten?

    It’s common for diabetics to track “net carbs” (which subtracts any carbs from fiber). Obviously you wouldn’t want to include any carbs from fructose, but I’m wondering whether the net carbs from (non-sweet) vegetables might not actually be converted into glucose, based on her experience.

  19. Hi Pia,

    Vegetables do provide some glucose, but their digestion also consumes some glucose. However, these don’t happen at the same time. Their glucose is digested and enters the blood right away, but the extra glucose consumed by the digestive tract goes away over many hours.

    So they don’t contribute much to net daily glucose intake, although they can impact diabetics’ blood sugar levels.

  20. Paul,

    Wondering you opinion on whether starch increases endotoxin in a low fat or a high fat diet (both). Mainly a starch with little fiber such as white rice or russet potato, that is primarily digested in the small intestine.

  21. Hi Bob,

    Any dietary change toward equal amounts of starch and fat will tend to increase endotoxin influx. However, the immune system and gut cells adjust to the endotoxin flux to reduce it. So actually such a diet may lead to reduced gut permeability, higher immune surveillance, and better health.

    So this phenomenon is really important to know about more as an explanation for short-term symptoms, rather than as guidance toward optimal long-term diet.

  22. Does one or the other have more of an impact on endotoxin (high carb vs high fat)?

  23. Carbs feed bacteria and enable them to reproduce, which sooner or later causes bacteria to die which releases endotoxins in the gut. Fat carries the endotoxins into the body. So they both are needed to bring endotoxins into the body.

  24. Does this mechanism with carbs help agaisnt fungal infections? If glucose is needed for the immune system agaisnt fungal infections and carbs feed bacteria, a higher carb diet would be better, especially when combined with fermented foods and probiotics?

    What if one has both fungi and bacteria? Which one should be eliminated first… the one causing the most symptoms?

  25. Sorry my explanation for the favoring of glucose was not complete… the new and fed bacteria species would replace the fungi.

  26. Hi Bob,

    Yes, but … the carbs can feed the fungi too. So simply eating starch won’t clear the infection. In general I think moderate carb consumption, ~600 calories/day, is best against fungal infections. This supports immunity and bacterial replacement but doesn’t give the fungi a rich banquet of food.

    If you have both fungi and bad bacteria, well, it’s a judgment call … Fungi can create biofilms that shelter the bad bacteria from antibiotics … On the other hand bad bacteria will create worse symptoms than fungi … You can attack the fungi with relative safety, attacking the bacteria hurts probiotic bacteria, so usually starting with fungi may be better, but if symptoms are severe there may be no choice but to go after the bacteria.

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  29. Are we losing any significant starch amounts when rinsing rice (until the water clears) ? Or am I just being paranoid ? 😀

  30. Hi Mik,

    I don’t think you lose anything of value by rinsing rice.

  31. I am questioning why you have differing amounts of rice which are optimal. You state above:

    Rice should not provide a large share of dietary calories – probably not more than 10% – but there is no reason to reject it merely because it is a grain. True, it comes from a bad family. But it’s the good child. Don’t hold its relatives against it.

    and in your other diet recommendation you say 20% of calories or 100 gms. Which is optimal

  32. Hi John,

    The diet as a whole should have 20-30% carbs. Of that, maybe 20% of calories from safe starches and up to 10% from fruit, berries, beets, carrots, squash, and other sugar sources. But it’s good to vary plant food sources a bit, so that you don’t get a huge exposure to whatever toxins may be in any one food. So ideally you would eat a diversity of safe starches and no one of them would provide more than half the safe starch calories. That would argue for 10% of calories from rice.

    But these are just guidelines, if you want to eat more rice than that it should be just fine.

  33. thanks Paul that clears up the question. Having come from a very low carb diet I’m not in the habit of eating fruits of sweets (I don’t like them). I only eat vegetables with very few carbs like salads, greens etc but with lots of good fats. I do want more glucose as I have had the same poor response as many very low carb dieters. I have been adding 100grams of either white rice or white potato. (both of which I like). It seems this is within optimal guide lines.

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  35. Hi Paul
    I had been on a Paleo diet for about six months when it dawned on me that I needed the rice to avoid constipation. Addition of starchy roots and a bit more animal fat did not help the situation. Once I reintroduced rice ( 1 cup on a daily basis) , the problem was solved.
    Robin

  36. Hi Robin,

    Thanks for letting us know, your experience is very interesting. 1 cup of rice is not a lot but it’s enough to significantly increase mucus production of you’re very low carb.

    Best, Paul

    • Hi Paul,

      Could you explain why rice can cure constipation better than starchy tubers like potatoes, taro, or yam ? With all the experiences encountered through the bloggers , could you tell white rice is better than potatoes as a regular starchy source ? Thanks,
      July

  37. Rice isn’t resistant starch either. I do better on it as well.

  38. George Henderson

    Two ways to make rice more nutrient-dense:
    1 – cook it in coconut cream instead of water
    2 – stir in lard after cooking; apparently this is an old chineese custom. But the lard has to be tasty; bacon fat or organic free range lard. Commercial lard doesn’t cut it.

  39. George Henderson

    Phytates aren’t actually a toxin. There are issues around mineral availability, but no toxicity. It seems that the more the digestion is phytate-adapted, by increase of phytate-fermenting bifidus and possibly increased phytase levels, the more the form of phytate left will be the specifically iron-chelating metabolite.

    http://www.lucastafur.com/search/label/Phytic%20acid

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  41. What about the glycemic index and white rice. Won’t it cause diabetes if we eat it on a regular basis?

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  45. Dear Mr. Paul,
    I have just started adding white rice to our diet. What type? Med grain sticky? Jasmine? Long grain? What do you suggest. Thank you in advance.

    • Hi Samantha,

      They’re all good. I would avoid brown rice. Some have higher glycemic indexes than others, but glycemic index is not a problem if you eat them with fat, vegetables, and vinegar or other acids. (See “How to Minimize Hyperglycemic Toxicity”)

      We mostly use medium grain.

  46. Hi Paul,

    You suggest taking a multivitamin if you’re not getting sufficient nutrients while consuming rice (to avoid deficiencies), but in your book you say no to multivitamins and to instead stick to single vitamins or just eat a variety of foods. Is this still correct?

  47. Hi Paul,
    Could you explain why rice could cure constipation better than starchy tubers like potatoes, taro, or yam (as one of us mentionned here above)? With all the experiences encountered through the bloggers , could you tell white rice is better than potatoes as a regular starchy source ?
    I’m particularly sensible to the odd and habits of traditionnal culture. White rice is such a basic food for asian people (moreover healthier ones !), that I’m curious to understand why ,in this post, it is said :”Rice should not provide a large share of dietary calories – probably not more than 10% – ” : What if rice becomes our main source of carbs ?
    Thanks a lot,
    July

  48. Are rice noodles ok to eat?

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