Have you ever wondered why over 40 per cent of the people in India are diabetic? Some doctors say that this is because the Indian body is prone to diabetes, just like some cars may guzzle more fuel or give you less mileage, because that’s simply how they’re built. Sedentary living and bad eating habits have only made the problem worse. However, a recent and disturbing study conducted by Harvard University has established that consuming just one cup of white rice (polished rice) everyday can put you at risk to diabetes, regardless of your nationality or whether you have a family history of the disease. Since rice is our staple food, the implications of the study can have a great long-term impact on the way India eats.
Polished Rice, Hello Diabetes
Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health reviewed four previous studies conducted in China, Japan, US and Australia on the impact of white rice in the onset of Type 2 diabetes. The researchers also analyzed whether the Asian population were more at risk to diabetes and whether there was a higher risk of contracting the disease if you ate greater amounts of rice. All the participants had been diabetes free when the studies began. The results of the study proved that the more polished white rice a person eats, regardless of their nationality, they are at great risk of contracting Type 2 diabetes. The authors of the study estimate that the odds increase by 10 per cent with each additional serving of white rice. And interestingly enough, women seemed more at risk than men. The full study "White Rice Consumption and Risk of Type 2 Diabetes: Meta-Analysis and Systematic Review" (PDF), was published in the British Medical Journal.
If you are a typical South Indian in your choice of foods, you would have grown up with that bed of rice on your plate during most meals. The creative rice preparations in this part of the world can really tempt you. What does the Harvard study mean to us? Should avoid rice altogether or switch to the jaw-breaking unpolished rice? Extensive research on this subject has been conducted by Dr Vishwanathan Mohan, head of the Madras Diabetes Research Foundation and Dr Mohan’s Diabetes Specialities Centre, a WHO Collaborating Centre in Gopalapuram, Chennai. His findings were published recently in the British Journal of Nutrition. “I don’t fully agree with the observation that just taking one cup of white rice per day can cause diabetes,” says Dr Mohan. “One food item in isolation cannot cause a disease. But controlling the amount of rice we consume is very important because our research shows a strong epidemiological link between the amount of rice consumed and the risk of diabetes. When the rice consumption doubled from about 200 gms to 400 gms per day, the risk of diabetes increased fourfold. It was 400 per cent higher even after correcting issues (faced by participants of the study) such as obesity, physical activity, family history of diabetes etc. So there seems to be some kind of link.”
What we can do
We know that the foods we eat are converted to glucose by our bodies. White polished rice (in the parboiled or non-parboiled form) raises blood sugar levels quickly. These are called high GI (Glycemic Index) foods. In comparison, brown rice has a lower GI. When the body processes brown rice, it releases glucose in the blood stream more slowly. The foods that create high GI levels in your body are known to put you at risk to diabetes in the long run.
“However, rice isn’t the only culprit,” says Deepshikha Agarwal, dietician and sports nutritionist. “Most people have sedentary lifestyles today. When this is coupled with too much rice consumption, it exposes them to the risk of diabetes. Stay more active and instead of completely boycotting rice, substitute white polished rice with brown rice. Remember, white rice primarily consists of starch which can be easily converted into fat and stored in the body. With little nutritional value, it is best avoided.”
“We have conducted studies where we have substituted healthier whole grain rice such as brown rice for white rice and have shown that the blood glucose responses are much lower after the meal,” says Dr Mohan. “The serum insulin levels are also reduced by substitution of brown rice.”
How polished your rice is can also be affecting the health of your family. If your rice is an attractive, dazzling white, it will not providing you with the nutrients your body needs. “Ideally, we should consume the whole grain in rice with the bran intact as it contains plenty of nutrients. Once you remove the bran completely, this makes the rice whiter and whiter. It becomes pure starch and all the other key nutrients like vitamins, minerals, functional nutrients (phytonutrients), protein and fibre content of the rice are lost. Traditionally in the past, rice used to be only 2 per cent polished, but today, we have varieties that are polished as much as 12 per cent,” says Dr Mohan.
The Plate Principle
If you love rice, you’ll be happy to learn that experts don’t recommend cutting it out of our diets permanently. “A balanced diet with the right kind of rice is important,” says Agarwal. “Follow the plate principle,” advises Dr Mohan. “Take quarter plate of rice and fill up the remaining part with vegetables, lentils and other nutritive foods for a healthy diet. Remember, what you consume with your rice is equally important, so ensure that your plate is piled up with plenty of vegetables, lentils and pulses such as bengal gram, green gram, black gram. All this will that will add protein and fibre to your meal, so its not all starch.”