Switching to brown rice can lower diabetes risk

Published: 8/9/2010 12:00 AM

You might be surprised to know that substituting brown rice for white rice can significantly lower the risk of diabetes. Almost 10 percent of the U.S. population has a diagnosis of diabetes, and this number is increasing. Medical research has shown that a diet high in refined grains, like white rice, increases the risk of diabetes while a diet rich in whole grains, like brown rice, reduces the risk.

Rice has four different layers - husk, bran layer, germ layer and endosperm. The outermost layer is called the husk. In brown rice, only the husk is removed and it is considered a "whole grain." White rice has the husk, bran and germ layer removed, leaving only the white endosperm. Unfortunately, most of the nutrients are found in the germ and bran layers. The endosperm layer is primarily starch. Some white rich is enriched, which means that the B vitamins thiamine and niacin as well as iron are added back to the rice after processing. Brown rice, however, contains other nutritious compounds including bran oils, fiber, minerals and other B vitamins.

Rice has become a significant part of the American diet. Today, 20 percent of the U.S. population eats at least one serving of rice per day. White rice is eaten more often than brown rice, possibly because it is much easier to store and transport. Unfortunately, white rice is not a whole grain like brown rice.

There is abundant evidence that a diet rich in whole grain, bran and germ can prevent type II diabetes (sometimes referred to as "adult onset" diabetes). The germ layer, the embryo of the seed, rich in vitamins and minerals, seems to have the greatest preventive effect. In many medical studies, increased whole grains intake reduces the risk of type II diabetes by at least 20 percent. That means that a diet rich in whole grains could prevent 4 million new cases per year.

A recent publication from the department of nutrition at Harvard University showed that brown rice significantly reduces the risk of diabetes when compared to white rice. This was part of the data found in three studies, Health Professional's Health Study and the Nurses' Health Study I and II. In these studies, more than 39,000 men and 157,000 women were followed over time. Those who ate more than five servings of white rice per week had a higher risk of diabetes compared to those who ate less than one serving per month. Those who ate two or more servings of brown rice per week had fewer new cases of diabetes compared to those who had one serving per month. Comparing white rice and brown rice consumption, those who ate brown rice had a whopping 36 percent reduction in diabetes risk.

Hippocrates once said: "Let food be thy medicine, and let thy medicine be food."

If we are serious about health, we need to do more than simply treat disease. We need to be proactive, and food is a most powerful medicine.

• Patrick B. Massey, M.D., Ph.D is medical director for complementary and alternative medicine for the Alexian Brothers Hospital Network.