Link between eating rice and low obesity?

Recent research says rice-eating countries are less prone to obesity. We asked the professionals to weigh in

Published - May 06, 2019 05:26 pm IST

Indian Pulav or vegetables rice or veg biryani / vegetable biryani, Basmati Rice served in a white oval shaped ceramic plate, isolated on orange background, closeup and front view

Indian Pulav or vegetables rice or veg biryani / vegetable biryani, Basmati Rice served in a white oval shaped ceramic plate, isolated on orange background, closeup and front view

The western world, it seems, is slowly moving eastward. After decades of promoting a Mediterranean diet, this year’s European Congress on Obesity in the UK had one presentation that established a positive link between low obesity and rice-eating. “Obesity levels are substantially lower in countries that consume high amounts of rice (average 150g/day/person), while counties with lower average rice intake (average 14g/day/person) have higher obesity levels,” it said, citing an “Asian-food-style diet”.

The researchers said that “even a modest increase in average rice consumption (of 50g/day/per person — equivalent to quarter of a cup), could reduce the worldwide prevalence of obesity by 1% (that is, from 650 million adults aged 18 years or older to 643.5 million).”

With the report being widely reported in the media, leaving people confused about what to eat (yet again), we asked the professionals how we should approach the study. The general consensus: ignore it. Here’s why.

For starters, the researchers say that more investigation is needed, “to demonstrate whether increasing individual consumption of rice leads to improvements in obesity rates in longitudinal studies.” In addition, the quantity of rice itself is only about three-fourth of a cup, and the average plate in India at every meal has much more than that.

In fact, a carbohydrate-rich diet, coupled with low levels of physical activity, has been a major problem for us, often being a risk factor for diabetes and obesity. And while the study does not bash wheat, Anupama Menon, a dietician who has been practising for the past 20 years in Bengaluru, says that it is more likely to find unhealthy forms of wheat than it is to find say, fat- and sugar-laden rice products.

Having said that, she says we must look at wheat and rice as we do boys and girls — they’re different, but both are necessary. “There are people who can metabolise rice better; there are those who can metabolise wheat better; and those for whom both work,” she says. It is all about enzyme efficiency, she says, meaning different things may work for different people, for a variety of reasons.

It’s also about context, says Dr Anoop Misra, Chairman, Fortis C-DOC Hospital for Diabetes, Delhi. “You have to see this in the context of dynamically changing weight,” he says. “In the West, the baseline BMI is already very high, and obesity levels are now growing slowly. Here, 30 years ago, we had a low-weight population, and even though we are crossing the threshold now, we are still an underweight country, with a rapidly increasing BMI.” This is irrespective of what we’re eating.

So what should we eat, in the context of confusing research? “First, stop believing everything you read or hear. Some of it is being said for shock value. Take the info, assimilate it, evaluate it, and see if it works for you,” says Anupama. There are some things that the world has a consensus on, says Dr Misra. That carbohydrates, salt, saturated fats and sugar must be had in moderation, that transfats must be avoided, that fibre, green veggies, and monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are good.

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