By Janet Helm, MS, RD
It’s been a bad few weeks for refined white carbs. Last month a study from Harvard made headlines suggesting that eating white rice regularly may raise your risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health looked at the eating habits of individuals in China, Japan, Australia and the U.S., and concluded that the more servings of white rice a person eats per day, the more likely they were to develop type 2 diabetes.
The researchers believe the connection – which is an observation and not a cause-and-effect relationship – may be due to the glycemic index of white rice, which means it can cause a rapid rise in blood sugar levels. That’s similar to other white, starchy carbohydrates, such as white pasta and white bread if eaten frequently and in large amounts. Michael Pollan has perhaps fueled the fear of white foods with his oft-quoted food rule “The whiter the bread, the sooner you’ll be dead.”
I’m actually not in fear of white bread or any other white carb. Just like the most recent fervor over the “sugar is toxic” debate, I think it’s all about the dose instead of the specific food or ingredient. Personally, I’d much rather eat brown rice instead of white, and I cook lots of different whole grains, including farro, quinoa, and bulgur. The bread I buy for toast and sandwiches is typically whole grain, although that’s not to say that I don’t enjoy a crispy French baguette or flaky croissant on occasion. Sometimes I’m in the mood for sourdough bread, a cracker-thin brick oven pizza, or the risotto or rigatoni. There’s not a whole grain in sight.
The U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend making half your grains whole. That means the other half doesn’t necessarily need to be whole. Most days I make all of my choices whole grain, starting with oatmeal in the morning. But when a whole-grain version just isn’t the same, I make a white, refined-grain choice. It’s true that 9 out of 10 Americans don’t eat enough whole grains, so most people do need to make the switch to whole grains more often. But it doesn’t mean that you need to banish white bread, white rice or other white foods forever from your plate.
The people in the Harvard study who were most likely to develop diabetes were eating about 4 servings of white rice daily. So the amount you eat is a big factor. What else you’re eating matters too. The study only looked at white rice consumption, not the total diet and other lifestyle factors. So if you really want white rice with your Chinese take-out and prefer your sushi with white rice, enjoy it. Just make the other half of your grain choices whole (and of course, eat in moderation).
Here are some other tips from ChooseMyPlate.gov to help you eat more whole grains.
- Bake up some whole-grain goodness. Experiment by substituting buckwheat, millet, or oat flour for up to half of the flour in pancake, waffle, muffin, or other flour-based recipes. They may need a bit more leavening in order to rise.
- Mix it up with whole grains. Use whole grains in mixed dishes, such as barley in vegetable soups or stews and bulgur wheat in casseroles or stir-fries. Try a quinoa salad or pilaf.
- Know what to look for on the ingredient list. Read the ingredients list and choose products that name a whole-grain ingredient first on the list. Look for whole wheat, brown rice, bulgur, buckwheat, oatmeal, whole-grain cornmeal, whole oats, whole rye, or wild rice.
- Be a smart shopper. The color of a food is not an indication that it is a whole-grain food. Foods labeled as multi-grain, stone-ground, 100% wheat, cracked wheat, seven-grain, or bran are usually not 100% whole-grain products and may not contain any whole grain.
How do you add whole grains to your diet? Share your tips in the comments below.