You've likely heard if you're going to eat rice or bread, choose brown rice and wheat bread over white rice or bread, right?
While the 'brown' versions certainly have advantages over the white, there is a downside you should consider.
The good news is that you may not have to eliminate white rice or bread, but instead, choose your foods based on your priorities.
Reasons Brown Rice and Wheat Bread Are Considered Healthy
When you compare brown rice to white rice and wheat bread to white bread, there are a few key differences. First, brown rice and wheat bread are whole grains. This means they have the entire grain—they aren't stripped of their nutrients like white rice and bread.
A whole grain consists of the germ, endosperm, and bran. The endosperm is the white inner part of the grain, where the starch comes from. The bran and germ may contain fats, protein, fiber, and nutrients like B vitamins.
Doctors and nutritional experts tend to recommend brown rice and wheat bread for several reasons.
Whole Grains Have More Fiber and Nutrients
You may get slightly more fiber from brown rice or wheat bread than from processed versions. Fiber helps your digestion along, and could help with certain health markers if you aren’t getting enough fiber otherwise.
Additionally, whole grains may provide small amounts of nutrients like thiamine, niacin, magnesium, phosphorous, and zinc.
Whole Grains May Have Less of an Impact on Blood Sugar
Because brown rice and wheat bread have higher levels of fiber than their white counterparts, they may not spike blood sugar as steeply as white bread and brown rice would. Whole grain versions of rice and bread could be a better option if you’re at risk for diabetes, but shouldn't be used alone as a preventive measure.
Fiber could help slow the release of carbohydrates into your bloodstream. Brown rice, for example, has a glycemic index of about half of white rice. This means that your body digests white rice much faster, which could dump glucose into your bloodstream faster than brown rice would.
All rice and bread, no matter their content, contains carbohydrates, so your blood sugar will be affected in some way.
The Fiber in Whole Grains Could Help Reduce Other Risk Factors
According to this study, consumption of brown rice and wheat bread may help lower your “bad” cholesterol and increase your “good” cholesterol, which might help reduce your risk of heart disease in combination with a healthy diet and lifestyle. Of course, just eating these foods won't prevent heart disease or risk factors, but they could help along other efforts, such as eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, exercising, and reducing stress levels.
Why Some People Avoid Brown Rice and Wheat Bread
Now that we've covered all the “good” about brown rice and wheat bread, let’s go through the downsides you should know.
Grains and Phytic Acid
The bran in brown rice and wheat bread contain an anti-nutrient called phytic acid, which is in most plant-based products, including nuts, seeds, and legumes.
According to the International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition, phytic acid prevents your body from absorbing nutrients from other foods. These nutrients include calcium, magnesium, zinc, and iron, which are crucial to good nutrition. This means even if you make an effort to eat a nutritious diet, you may not get the full benefit.
Gluten in Wheat Bread
Another downside of wheat bread is that it still contains gluten, a protein that causes a range of symptoms in an estimated 6% of the U.S. population.
While wheat bread may be touted as “healthier” than white bread, both contain gluten, so if you’re sensitive, you’ll react to either wheat bread or white bread. If you notice discomfort when you eat gluten, you may need to stick with gluten-free bread products and baked items.
Neither brown nor white rice contains gluten, so gluten sensitivity won’t factor into your choice between brown or white rice.
Limiting the Effects of Phytic Acid
If you prefer brown rice or wheat bread over white rice or bread, there are steps you can take to limit the effects of phytic acid.
There are two things you can do.
- Fermentation. Yeast and sourdough breads ferment before baking, so the end product may contain a little less phytic acid than quick breads like biscuits, muffins, and soda bread. As for rice, you can soak the brown rice in water with a splash of vinegar before cooking, at least for a couple of hours if possible. The combination of soaking and cooking could neutralize a portion of the phytic acid, allowing your body to absorb other nutrients.
- Meal timing. Don't eat important nutrients alongside brown rice or wheat bread. If you want brown rice or wheat bread, don't consume the majority of your day's other 'healthy nutrients' with that meal. Instead, save them for another meal when you're not consuming high levels of phytic acid. If you supplement, take your supplements apart from foods that contain phytic acid.
The bottom line is that brown rice and wheat bread are healthy but depending on your priorities, they may not necessarily healthier than white rice or bread.
If you have digestive issues, brown rice and wheat bread may be too tough for your body to digest. Also, if you're worried about your body not absorbing nutrients at a particular meal, white rice or bread may be the better option, so you don't negate the benefits of eating other nutrient-dense foods.
A varied diet is the best way to ensure your body gets what it needs. If you’re not sure, experiment and see how you feel. If you’re paying attention, your body will tell you what works and what doesn’t.
- Aune D, Keum N, Giovannucci E, Fadnes L T, Boffetta P, Greenwood D C et al. Whole grain consumption and risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and all cause and cause specific mortality: systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective studies BMJ 2016; 353 :i2716 doi:10.1136/bmj.i2716
- Leo Stevenson, Frankie Phillips, Kathryn O'sullivan & Jenny Walton (2012) Wheat bran: its composition and benefits to health, a European perspective, International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition, 63:8, 1001-1013, DOI: 10.3109/09637486.2012.687366
- Igbinedion SO, Ansari J, Vasikaran A, et al. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity: All wheat attack is not celiac. World J Gastroenterol. 2017;23(40):7201-7210. doi:10.3748/wjg.v23.i40.7201