I love bringing together my fascination with science and medicine and my outright adoration of delicious food! So I'm constantly looking for simple swaps and tweaks to make the food I love to eat even healthier.
And I'm constantly tweaking recipes that use white rice!
Why tweak recipes that use white rice?
White rice is a pantry staple for most people. It's filling, simple to prepare and works with so many cuisines and recipes. But white rice is high in refined carbohydrate, low in fibre and has a relatively high glycemic index, which means it can rapidly spike your blood sugar and insulin levels.
100g of boiled short-grain white rice has a high glycemic index of 72, contains approximately 29g of carbs, 2g of protein and less than half a gram of fibre.
While studies support the health benefits of whole, unprocessed grains, white rice is actually a processed grain as it has been milled to remove its husk, bran and germ, and then polished which removes the aleurone layer of the grain, along with most of its essential fatty acids. As a result, most of the fibre and micronutrients are removed. So rice's nutrient profile is diminished when it is processed into white rice.
So it's not a huge surprise that studies have highlighted a link between consumption of white rice and metabolic syndrome, and risk of type-2 diabetes. It makes sense given its status as a processed, refined carbohydrate, its carb-to-fibre ratio and its glycemic impact.
Now I'm not going to demonise white rice or put it on a list of verboten foods. But as it is a processed grain and refined carbohydrate there are better nutritional choices out there. My own personal nutrition rule-of-thumb is that if there is a simple tweak that makes my meal healthier without sacrificing flavour, I will give it a try.
So when a recipe calls for white rice, I like to bust out one or more of the following "nutritional upgrades" to lower the glycemic impact and boost the fibre and nutrient content of our meals:
1. Swap White Rice for Brown, Red or Black Rice
Brown rice is much less processed than white rice as it only has the hard outer husk removed. As a result it is much higher in antioxidants and micronutrients including phosphorus, magnesium, selenium, manganese, iron, folic acid, and B vitamins, as well as fibre (which means its glycemic impact is lower). Replacing white rice with brown rice has been shown to lower risk of type 2 diabetes, and is also associated with lower inflammatory marker levels.
Red rice has a gorgeous red hue and comes in a few different variants according to the region in which it is grown. I'm most familiar with Camargue Red Rice, which is traditionally grown in the marshes in the Camargue region of Southern France. There are also Himalayan and American (Californian Colusari) varieties which I am yet to try but which have very similar nutrient profiles to their French cousins. The taste and texture of red rice is similar to brown rice, but a little "nuttier", and its red pigment means that it also contains anthocyanins, although not in the same high levels as...
Black Rice is one of my all-time favourite "nutritional supercharging" ingredients and I use it as much as I can! It is also known as "Forbidden Rice," since in ancient China it was reserved for the emperor and nobles, and commoners were prohibited from eating it. Black rice is very high in super-healthy anthocyanins, powerful phytonutrients which have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and circulatory system benefits. You can read all about the health benefits of anthocyanins HERE! In addition to its anthocyaning content, black rice is an excellent source of fibre, minerals including iron and copper, and has a higher protein content than brown rice. It has a delicious nutty taste and texture and I just LOVE it!
2. Swap out half of your rice for lentils
I have been doing this for years. It just made great intuitive sense to use a lentil-rice mix in place of plain rice my recipes as it boosts the fibre content and nutrient profile, and lowers the glycemic impact. And combining legumes like lentils with grains like rice means your meal will contain all of the essential amino acids, often referred to by nutritionists as forming a complete protein.
It's always great when a study comes out which tangibly demonstrates the health benefits of recommendations I have been making for years. A study was published in April which actually measured the glycemic impact of rice versus a 50/50 mix of rice and lentils. Investigators found that the rice-lentil mix had a much lower glycemic impact, which over time could lower our risk of insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes and even cardiovascular disease! Green lentils had a slightly better impact than red lentils, but both varieties of lentils significantly improved the glycemic impact of rice, so if you are going to try this tweak, choose whichever type of lentil you prefer.
And there's another great benefit of adding lentils to your rice. It's called The Second Meal Effect. I'll be writing in more detail about this soon, but in a nutshell, when you eat legumes like lentils in one meal, your glycemic response in a later meal will actually be lower! So if you add lentils to your lunch, your blood sugar will spike less at dinner than if you didn't add them. Amazing, right???
Want to try this tweak? Try my Mexican Green Rice and Lentils, or my Magical Miso Mushrooms with Brown Rice and Lentils or my Capsicums Stuffed with Lamb, Rice and Lentils.
3. Try Cauliflower Rice
This is one of those tweaks that you will either love or hate. It works better for some recipes than others, and it can take a few attempts to learn how to prepare a nice, aldente cauliflower rice and not a pasty mush. But it is well worth persevering as swapping regular rice for cauliflower rice not only lowers the carbohydrate content of your meal, it also increases the veggie content of your meal along with vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients including sulfur-containing compounds known as glucosinolates.
4. Cool your Carbs!
This is my all-time favourite carb tweak! I love it because not only does it lessen the blood sugar and insulin impact of my carb-containing meals, it also boosts the resistant starch content which is food for the super-healthy cancer-fighting bacteria in my large intestine!
You can read about this HERE and HERE, but in a nutshell, when you refrigerate cooked carbs like rice for 12 hours or overnight, a process called retrogradation takes place. A proportion of the carbs convert to Resistant Starch, which is not digestible in our small intestine. That means means that the glycemic load of the food is lower, your blood sugar won't surge as high after you eat these foods, and there will be a lower insulin response too. But there's another benefit: that undigestible Resistant Starch then travels to your large intestine, where it becomes food for your healthy inner bacteria! So that's a win-win!
5. Serve healthy foods with your rice
We rarely chow down on a whole bowl of plain rice. It's usually one component of what nutritionists refer to as a "mixed meal".
As rice is usually only one component of most recipes, the other components can make a huge difference to the nutritional impact of your meal. When the great majority of your meal is highly refined, low-fibre carbohydrate like white rice, then you can expect that your blood sugar and insulin levels will spike. But when you add in protein, healthy fats and veggies you will lower the glycemic index - and impact - of your meal.
Are you having your rice with ingredients that are low in fibre and high in saturated fat? Or is your rice part of a meal that includes lean protein, healthy fats and a rainbow of veggies?
6. Serve sensible portions
There is usually a HUGE difference between a portion size recommended in the Australian Dietary Guidelines and the portions we regularly dish out at home. And over time, day-by-ay and meal-by-meal, that can have a significant damaging effect on our metabolic health, not to mention our waistlines.
Here's a fun fact: When it comes to rice, one serve is actually only half a cup of boiled rice.
And to make things more complicated, the size of our bowls and plates has increased significantly over the last 20 years. And sensible, portion-controlled meal can look meagre on huge dinner plates... So definitely take a few moments to consider how much rice you are actually portioning out and eating, especially if you are insulin resistant.
In addition to choosing unrefined brown or black rice, I prefer to keep the rice in my recipes to less than 1/3 of the volume of my meal, and to ensure I have at least the same amount of veggies, herbs and protein as rice in your meal.
7. Don't forget food safety
Not many people realise that rice can cause food poisoning!
That's because rice can often be contaminated with the bacteria Bacillus cereus. And there is no way of telling if rice has been contaminated as Bacillus cereus does not alter the look, taste or smell of rice. The spores can germinate, grow and produce a toxin that causes vomiting. And they can survive the cooking process, which is why it's very important to keep cooked rice hot (above 60°C) or cool it as quickly as possible and store in a refrigerator below 5°C. If you have left a rice dish out at room temperature for over an hour or two, it is probably best to throw it away rather than keep it for leftovers.
Click here for more info on how to cook and serve rice safely.
8. Abandon the Absorbtion Method: Cook your rice in lots of water
Different plants are known to absorb different amounts of minerals and other elements from the soil in which they are grown. And rice is a known "arsenic accumulator". Now don't panic! This does not mean that rice is "contaminated with arsenic" or unsafe to eat. It just means that it may contain tiny trace amounts of arsenic. When it comes to heavy metals like arsenic, it is your cumulative exposure that counts. If you eat sensible portions of rice once or twice a week, and don't expose yourself to high levels of environmental arsenic you should be fine. A 2015 study tested Australian- and overseas-grown rice sold in Australia and found that all varieties on sale contained safe levels (below the limit set by Food Standards Australia New Zealand). Click here for more information on arsenic in food.
But if you want to REALLY minimise your potential exposure, the way you prepare your rice can significantly reduce its arsenic content.
Studies have shown that all you need to do is cook your rice in lots of water - at least 6 parts water to one part rice. The arsenic will leach out into the cooking water. So if you are used to using the absorbtion method to cook your rice, definitely give the "6:1" method a try.
So these are my top tweaks for healthier rice dishes!
99% of the time, my supercharging tweaks actually make my meals taste better! Small changes in preparation methods and simple substitutions can make a BIG difference, both in flavour and health benefits!
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