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“There's more to good or bad than what's written in the Rulebook.”
~ Jasper Fforde
Hey! I Thought Paleo Was 100% Grain-Free
It's true that Strict Paleo is indeed grain-free, but if you're in this community any length of time, you'll see #teamwhiterice popping up on Instagram feeds. Some flexible paleo people (many of them famous bloggers) share food photos containing this one specific grain. No others. Just white rice. Why is that? In conventional nutrition, white rice is considered the worst choice because unless it's enriched, it doesn't have much going for it nutritionally. That's because the hull has been removed from white rice, which contains the “nutrition”. It turns out that's also the reason it's embraced by some corners of the paleo community. The hull also contains the anti-nutrients – those food components that interfere with digestion and nutrient absorption, exacerbating our guts and causing an inflammatory response. Since those anti-nutrients have been removed, many people consider white rice to be a harmless grain. Therefore, people who want more variety in their diet might add it to their paleo template. Should you do the same? It depends. Below, I'll share the potential positives and negatives of this “paleo grain”, so you can make your own choice.
Potential Positives of White Rice
- Prevents Glucose Deficiency – Paul Jaminet, author of The Perfect Health Diet, is a big reason why white rice is beloved by many in the paleo community. He includes white rice in his ancestral diet plan because it's low in toxins, easy to digest, and provides the body with glucose. In fact, white potatoes and white rice digest into 100% glucose, whereas fruits and other starchy vegetables break down into a mixture of glucose and fructose. Glucose can be used immediately by the body, whereas fructose needs to be metabolized by the liver. Paul believes that low-carb diets can lead to glucose deficiencies resulting in health problems, and the addition of white rice can prevent this from happening.
- An Easy Carbohydrate Source – Russ Crandall is the most famous Perfect Health Diet blogger. His website is The Domestic Man, and he wrote the first PHD cookbook also: The Ancestral Table. Why is he such a fan of Paul's work? Because when he first turned to paleo to reverse his autoimmune disease, he started losing too much weight, and he was skinny to begin with. He also struggled with extreme fatigue. Adding white rice back into his diet relieved the fatigue and helped him put on much-needed pounds. We all have different metabolisms, and some people need more carbs than others. When Stacy Toth, the blogger behind Paleo Parents, started weight training, she noticed she was getting fatigued and struggling with exercise recovery. Reintroducing white rice resolved those issues. She got her energy back.
- A Shelf-Stable Convenience Food – This is very rare on the paleo diet. When we switch to this style of eating, our pantries empty out, and we often invest in a second fridge or freezer to store all of our perishable foods. This is good – the most nutrient-dense food is fresh, not shelf-stable. That said, life is busy and to have one thing that's convenient can feel like a gift.
- A Restaurant Option – Sushi is back on the table, and this makes many people very happy. However, gluten is everywhere in sushi restaurants, so you need to order carefully. Avoid all sauces and condiments, and bring your own coconut aminos instead. Ask the server if anything's been added to the rice. And avoid the following items on the menu: crab meat and tempura. Here's a good article on ordering sushi safely.
- Resistant Starch – Simply put, this is food for our microbiome instead of us (the bacteria that live in our gut). Beneficial bacteria are essential to our health, and resistant starch can increase their numbers. Caveat: if you have gut dysbiosis, pathogenic bacteria thrive on resistant starch as well. Provided you have more good than bad bacteria in your gut, resistant starch can help keep that balance. In fact, Grace Liu, a resistant starch expert who blogs at The Gut Institute prefers the type RS3 (which includes cooked and cooled white rice). She says, “The best, ancestral resistant starch for long-term health, leanness and modern, disruptive lifestyles is RS3, cooked-cooled resistant starch. The crystals that form upon cooling make up a dense, DNA-like configuration that our gut flora love.” The catch is that it's a small amount, between 1-4 grams per 1/2 cup of cooked/cooled white rice. But maybe that's not a bad thing. Many people with autoimmune disease have found that high doses of resistant starch create an inflammatory response. Perhaps this small amount is just what we need.
Potential Negatives of White Rice
- Blood Sugar Spikes – The same reason Paul Jaminet loves white rice can actually cause problems for some people. Its ability to digest into 100% glucose means it can have a dramatic impact on blood sugar. This is bad news not only for diabetics, but also people with autoimmune disease, because blood sugar affects autoimmune expression. Blood sugar spikes also lead to sugar cravings, setting off a vicious cycle. There are a few ways to moderate this effect, which I detail in the N=1 section below.
- Gluten Cross-Reactivity – If your body develops an allergy to gluten, it creates antibodies that remember gluten’s protein structure. If you eat gluten, those antibodies set off an inflammatory response. Some other foods have similar protein structures to gluten, and your body may mis-identify that food as gluten. Rice is one of these foods. Cross-reactivity doesn't happen to everyone; in fact, it's a small percentage of people. But it can happen, which is way Sarah Ballantyne recommends white rice as a late-stage reintroduction for those of us following the paleo autoimmune protocol.
- Arsenic – This toxin is naturally present in all soil, and is higher in some areas due to pesticides and fertilizer entering the water supply. Unfortunately, rice absorbs arsenic more readily than other plants. There is currently no FDA limit on arsenic in rice and rice products. Consumer Reports did thorough testing on various rice varieties from various locations. Here's what they found: “White basmati rice from California, India, and Pakistan, and sushi rice from the U.S. on average has half of the inorganic-arsenic amount of most other types of rice….Those with a label indicating that it’s from Arkansas, Louisiana, or Texas or just from the U.S. (not California) had the highest levels of inorganic arsenic in our tests.” Compared to brown rice, white rice contains very small amounts, because most of the arsenic is absorbed into the hull. Even so, the trace amounts that remain can add up if you eat white rice daily. Consumer Reports recommends adults eat it no more than 4 times per week and children no more than twice a week. Note: organic rice contains just as much arsenic as inorganic. There is one more step we can take to minimize the arsenic. Traditionally in Asia, they rinse the rice and discard the water before cooking. This eliminates much of the arsenic in white rice.
- It Can Replace More Nutritious Choices – Nutrient-density is essential to healing our bodies, and with every bite we take, we make a choice about nutrition. Even if you add bone broth and healthy fats to white rice, it's still not going to measure up to the nutrient-density of meat, seafood or vegetables. Even Paul Jaminet says it should only comprise a small part of the diet.
So, now you know the pluses and minuses of this “paleo grain.” You may choose to continue to avoid it, or you may want to try adding it back into your diet. If you choose the latter, here's my advice for the best way to do so:
- Choose the Right Time: If you're following the paleo autoimmune protocol, wait until you are ready for reintroductions. White rice isn't allowed during the elimination period. If you have gut dysbiosis or small intestine bacterial overgrowth, work with your healthcare practitioner on the best time to reintroduce.
- Choose a Low-Arsenic Variety: California basmati rice is the lowest, according to Consumer Reports. Rinse it well before cooking.
- Prepare it Nutritiously: For every 1 cup of white rice you cook, add 1 Tbsp. healthy fat along with 1/2 teaspoon sea salt and substitute bone broth for the water. If you have a pressure cooker like the Instant Pot, Paul Jaminet recommends it, saying it removes any trace anti-nutrients that might remain in the rice. You can find two nutritious white rice recipes in the Extras section of The Paleo AIP Instant Pot Cookbook.
- Maximize the Resistant Starch: Refrigerate it for at least 24 hours before eating. You can eat it either cold (like sushi) or reheat the rice gently. As long as it doesn't reach boiling point, most of the resistant starch should remain. Also, adding fat during cooking (as recommended in step 3) also increases resistant starch.
- Minimize the Blood Sugar Impact: Cooking the rice in bone broth with healthy fat is already a step in this direction, as is increasing its resistant starch through refrigeration. If you eat the rice as part of a main meal, you'll further lower its glycemic load. Lastly, if you have a little vinegar with your meal, that reduces the blood sugar effect even further. Interestingly, vinegar is traditionally added to sushi. “Su-shi” actually means “vinegared rice.” As usual, traditional cooking methods contain wisdom. Following your meal with a little apple cider vinegar in a small glass of water has the same effect, and is also a digestive aid. This said, some people will still have a blood sugar spike anyway. You can buy a glucose monitor and take a reading 2 hours after eating, to test your own blood sugar response. A healthy reading is below 120.
- Pay Attention: Each of us is unique in our response to food, and by listening to our bodies we can personalize our diet to include the foods that make us feel good and avoid the foods that make us feel bad. After reintroducing white rice, notice how you feel both immediately after eating, and for the next 72 hours. Any blood sugar changes you'll notice pretty quickly. A food intolerance reaction can sometimes be delayed for up to three days. I polled my fellow autoimmune bloggers, and more people have reintroduced rice successfully than not. BUT some people did react negatively, so as always, follow your own body's cues.
- Limit Consumption: If you reintroduce white rice successfully, enjoy it in moderation as part of your paleo template. Remember that you don't want it to replace more nutritious food choices, nor do you want to risk getting too much arsenic by eating it every day. 4 times per week is the maximum recommended by Consumer Reports. And 10% of overall calories is the maximum recommended by Paul Jaminet. Among the autoimmune bloggers, most have it a maximum of once/week.
- Watch Out For Restaurants: Restaurants sometimes add wheat flour to rice to make it stickier. Strange, but true! Before ordering rice at a restaurant, ask them about this practice and confirm that the rice they serve is gluten-free.
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Photo credit: Free Stock Photos (public domain)