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For all these years, warnings about the arsenic levels in U.S. rice potentially increasing cancer risk, but it had never been put to the test, until this study, out of Harvard. And, “[l]ong-term consumption of total rice, white rice or brown rice, was not associated with risk of developing cancer in US men and women.” This was heralded as good news: no increased cancer risk found even among those eating five or more servings of rice a week. But, wait a second. Brown rice is a whole grain, a whole plant food. Shouldn’t brown rice be protective, and not just neutral?

If you look at whole grains in general, there is “a significant inverse [or protective] association between…whole grain intake” in general and the risk of dying from cancer. Following my Daily Dozen recommendation of three servings of whole grains a day was associated with a 10% lower risk of dying from cancer, “a 25% lower risk” of dying from heart attacks or strokes, and “a 17% lower risk” of dying prematurely across the board. Whereas, rice consumption in general was “not…associated with mortality”—not found to be protective against heart disease or stroke. And so, maybe this lack of protection means that the arsenic in rice is increasing disease risk—so much so that it’s cancelling out some of the benefits of whole grain brown rice.

Consumer Reports suggested moderating one’s intake of even brown rice, but given the arsenic problem, is there any reason we should go out of our way to retain rice in our diet? With all the other whole grain options out there, should we move all rice to here? Or, are there some unique sort of benefits you can get from rice that would justify continuing to eat it, even though it has ten times more arsenic than other grains? Well, there was this study that showed that a brown rice-based vegan diet beat out the conventional Diabetes Association diet, “even after adjusting for” the extra belly fat they lost. But, that may have been due to the plant-based nature of their diet, rather than just how brown rice-based it was.

This study found a profound improvement in insulin levels after just five days eating brown rice, compared to white. But was that just because the white made people worse? No. The brown rice improved things on its own—but this was in a South Indian population eating a lot of white rice in the first place. So, this may have indeed been at least, in part, a substitution effect. This study showed that instructing people to eat about a cup of brown rice a day “could significantly reduce weight,” and waist, and blood pressure, and inflammation—and not just because it was compared to white. But, a larger, longer study failed to see much more than a blood pressure benefit, which was almost as impressive in the white rice group. So, overall, not too much to write home about. But then, this study rolled around.

This is probably the single most important study on the pro-rice side, showing a significant improvement in artery function after eight weeks of eating about a cup of brown rice every day, but not white. And, sometimes, even acutely. If you give someone a meal with saturated fat, you can get a drop in artery function within an hour of consumption, if you have some obesity-related metabolic derangements. This was along with white rice. But if you give brown, artery function appears protected against the adverse effects of the meal. Okay, so, brown rice does show benefits in interventional studies. But the question was, does it show unique benefits? What about oatmeal instead, or whole wheat?

Well, first, they needed to design an artery-crippling meal, high in saturated fat. They went with a Haagen Daaz, coconut cream, and egg milkshake—with or without a bowl of oatmeal, or, instead of rolled oats, “whole rolled wheat.” What do you think happened? Do you think those other whole grains blocked the artery-damaging effects, like the brown rice did? The whole oats worked, but the whole wheat did not. So, one could argue that brown rice may have an edge over whole wheat. Do oats also have that beneficial long-term effect that brown rice did? The benefit was of a similar magnitude, but did not reach statistical significance.

So, bottom line, until we know more, my current thinking on the matter is: if you really like rice, you can moderate your risk by cutting down, choosing lower-arsenic varieties, and cooking it in a way to lower exposure even further. But, if you like other whole grains just as much—like if you simply don’t care either way if you have rice vs. quinoa, or whatever, I’d choose the lower-arsenic option.

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