At the Menon household in Chennai, there is daily bickering over the food served. Severely diabetic Lakshmi, 66, who is fond of her idlis, hates chapattis on her plate. Doctor’s orders: no rice. Her concerned son and daughter-in-law are at their wits’ end.
They are one family among many whose attention has been arrested by the advertising blitzkrieg surrounding the launch of Saffola’s Arise, promoted as a healthier rice. Marketeer Marico’s claims on its website: It is made up of “good carbohydrates” and has a lower glycaemic index (GI) value than regular rice, 20% less calories and 20% less carbohydrates.
Arise rice is not a new miracle grain. It is the Moolgiri variety of rice, produced by Chennai-based Taj Mahal Agro Industries Pvt. Ltd, which launched it about three years ago in the southern market under different brand names. This non-Basmati medium-grain, white rice variant was developed by the company after 10 years of research, when it modified a traditional grain and processed it to lower its GI.
Going against the grain: Japanese cuisine, where sticky rice is a staple, is considered healthy. So, how can diabetics and those on weight-loss diets include rice in their meals and not go wrong?
High GI foods imply faster absorption of sugars (and this is true for diabetics and non-diabetics alike), so there is a surge of insulin from the pancreas. This surge then lowers blood sugar, making you feel hungry. And you end up eating more.
But what does all this “active rice” hype mean for diabetics and weight watchers? And with there being at least 12,000 distinct varieties of rice, is it possible some are healthier than others?
Grains of wisdom
The answer is, yes. There are three ways in which some rice varieties are deemed healthier than others. The first is lower GI, which is the claim the Moolgiri variety of rice rides on. However, this is not foolproof even within the same variety. “We found quite a lot of variation in GI in different batches (of Moolgiri, bought for testing from the supermarket),” says V. Mohan, chairman and chief diabetologist, Dr Mohan’s Diabetes Specialities Centre, Chennai, and president and chief of diabetes research, Madras Diabetes Research Foundation, Chennai. In general, though, he says, at 55-61 this variety has lower GI value than the average figure for white rice (the figure is much higher for other popular southern varieties: 70.2 for ponni, 72 for sona masoori and 77 for kolam).
A second factor is how much a variety of grain swells on cooking. The higher the volume increase, the lower the caloric density (that is, fewer calories from the same quantity, because a cup of rice that swells more has fewer grains). Moolgiri and many long-grain varieties such as Basmati, for instance, swell quite dramatically.
A third factor, irrespective of variety, is prior treatment. While polishing is known to remove nutrients (hence the nutritional superiority of brown rice), A.G. Unnikrishnan, professor, department of endocrinology, Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences, Kochi, notes that parboiled white rice is also definitely healthier than untreated rice. Vitamin B1 (thiamine) and other nutrients typically lost in polishing are better retained in parboiled rice, which has a nutritional profile closer to brown rice.
Balancing the rice
Ambrish Mithal, chairman, division of endocrinology and diabetes, Medanta Medicity, Gurgaon, explains that diabetics are advised to stay off polished white rice because of high GI (most white rice varieties have, on an average, a GI of around 71). “Foods with high GI trigger a sharp increase in blood glucose, followed by a dramatic fall,” Dr Mithal explains—a yo-yo effect that is a bugbear for diabetes control.
For everyone, the resulting hunger pangs that strike a little later mean high GI foods encourage overeating and hamper portion control. That’s why such foods are also blacklisted for people who are trying to lose weight.
However, there are many foods with high GI value that weight-loss diets embrace.
The sticky rice that the Japanese prefer has a very high GI, yet their diet (along with the Mediterranean model) is considered one of the healthiest in the world. Obesity is less of a problem in China or Japan than in wheat-loving US, for instance. Brown rice—the oft-prescribed alternative that nutritionists and doctors suggest—also has a high GI value (around 70).
Nutritionist Ishi Khosla, who heads the Delhi-based Centre for Dietary Counselling, says: “The difference between the glycaemic value can be completely dismissed in certain cases where you combine a high glycaemic food with low glycaemic food.” Put simply, it matters what you eat your rice with—if you have a bowl of white rice with soya bean (GI 16), the overall GI value of the meal becomes moderate. And in Japanese and Chinese diets, rice comes at the end of the meal, after the soup, vegetables and fish of the main course, often with more vegetables and soya products to balance it out. The low GI and high fibre of vegetables and fish also moderate the effect of rice eaten later in the meal, because your stomach is digesting all that too, not just extracting glucose from the rice, so the release of glucose into the blood is slower.
Fighting the white
Bangalore-based nutritionist Sheela Krishnaswamy, who runs NICHE (Nutrition Information Counselling and Health Education), says diabetics are also warned off white rice because of the lack of fibre. “High-fibre diet is good for diabetics because of staying capacity in the stomach,” she says. This means there are no steep changes in blood glucose. She feels that in terms of fibre content, brown rice scores well compared with chapatti or ragi (finger millet or red millet, which is traditionally preferred over wheat in south Indian diets).
The overall amount of carbohydrates count too. Dr Unnikrishnan says, “In general, white rice has more carbohydrates than wheat, and less fibre, which is why we ask our (diabetic) patients to shift to a wheat-based diet.”
In addition, says Khosla, polished white rice lacks nutrients, so replacing it with a carbohydrate that comes with a natural dose of vitamins and minerals (wheat) or even protein (ragi) is better, even if the number of calories is the same.
However, as Dr Mohan notes, “It is challenging to tell a population who are culturally used to eating rice to withdraw.” Rather than antagonize patients, which reduces chances of compliance with the diet plan, doctors and nutritionists agree that it is better to make allowances, laying down conditions.
• Emphasize portion control. Krishnaswamy, for instance, says, “Adjusting the total calorie intake works well if they can continue to use their staple food.”
• Balance the rice with low-GI, high-fibre foods to bring down the overall GI value of the meal. Dr Mohan points out that “in general south Indians eat less fruits and vegetables” and could do with adding more legumes (GIs 16-40) and vegetables (mostly GI 30-60) to their rice-based meal.
•Wherever possible, substitute whole grains (whether brown or hand-pounded rice or wholewheat flour or another grain) to get more nutrition from the same calories. Refined grains are associated with a higher diabetes (type 2) risk, and whole or minimally processed grains can reduce that risk.
Finally, remember that rice of any variety is not like fruit or vegetables, where the quantity does not matter. Eat it—but in moderation, and with other foods. As Khosla says, that’s the danger of a “healthy rice” (or any “healthy” version of a generic food): “The public thinks you can eat it in unlimited quantity, but at the end of the day you are still imbibing (more) carbohydrates.”
Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org