Why you should care

Because your favorite staple could cause diabetes.

A common greeting in China is “Have you eaten your rice today?” In Thai, the verb “to eat” literally means “to eat rice” — and it provides more than half of the daily calories in Bangladesh and Cambodia. The staple food often appears at all three meals: breakfast, lunch, dinner. Nowadays, most of it is white rice. And that’s a problem.

Studies have shown Asians are at higher risk of Type 2 diabetes than people of European descent, and the disease has flourished on the continent, alongside the abundance of food and more sedentary lifestyle that accompanies rising incomes. About 231 million diabetic adults live in the part of the world stretching from India to China to Australia; by 2040, the International Diabetes Federation estimates the number will rise to 355 million. But while soda pop or sugary snacks seem like an obvious target, a growing body of research is taking aim at everyone’s favorite grain: white rice.

The governments approaching this issue tend to tread carefully. Yet faced with a growing public health crisis, Singapore took a shot at a cherished staple and turned the high-income city-state into a test kitchen. “The rice you eat is worse than sugary drinks” blared the Straits Times newspaper in May, displaying a bowl of white rice as the equivalent of two cans of soda to accompany an article about the government’s new push. The Health Promotion Board’s proposal was relatively modest: Replace 20 percent of your white rice consumption with brown rice, which does not lead to as high of a blood sugar spike. But the message didn’t exactly get through.

Jaclyn Reutens had clients come into Aptima Nutrition & Sports Consultants asking whether she would let them have previously forbidden sodas if they ditched white rice. (“Of course not!” was Reutens’ reply.) She agrees brown rice is a better choice, but chides the Singaporean government’s tactic: “They wanted to make everyone go, ‘What?’ and wake everyone up. And they did, just not in a good way, because you end up confusing people.”

Kalpana Bhaskaran of the Singapore Nutrition & Dietetics Association says the “very controversial” move might have been better communicated. Strictly in terms of carbohydrates, the rice-soda claim is true, but white rice does have some redeeming nutritional value that Coke does not. “When you look at what Asians eat, the staple is rice; the major carbohydrates come with rice,” she says. “Why not substitute white rice with brown rice first? That’s just a small change. Make the change to enjoy good health.”

Brown rice’s shorter shelf life and inflated price means it will never be the choice of the poor.

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Rice, rice and more rice!

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There are debates over how loud the alarm should sound, but the scientific case in favor of brown rice is solid. When brown rice is refined and polished to make white rice, it loses nutrients and dietary fiber. Those things make the body digest the grain slower. Instead, white rice speeds through the system, resulting in a quick spike in insulin. Over time, studies show, that can contribute to Type 2 diabetes.

The Philippines, a sprawling archipelago of 100 million people that faces far different challenges than Singapore, is not explicitly attacking white rice, but trying to shift its population’s eating habits both for health reasons and to make it a self-sufficient rice grower. The Be RICEponsible Campaign emphasizes that farmers get about 10 percent more from the milling process for brown rice, and the campaign helps farmers bring brown rice to market at more affordable prices. Program director Hazel Antonio says one third of the consumers her campaign has educated switched from white to brown rice.

But Artemio Salazar, of the University of the Philippines Los Baños, says brown rice’s shorter shelf life and inflated price means it will never be the choice of the poor. His own government-funded program breeds and markets hybrid corn-rice, which he says tastes identical to white rice and has the additional fiber of corn — which can be grown cheaper and is abundant domestically. Several years into the project, Salazar says he produces 1 ton of corn-rice per week, and it is not enough to meet demand, though he battles consumers’ reluctance to eat corn.

In India, awareness is growing of the health benefits of brown rice, according to Sudha Vasudevan, of the Madras Diabetes Research Foundation. But it’s due to media coverage of new studies, with no consistent government effort. The attachment to white rice in India — like the rest of the continent — goes beyond availability, cost and health benefits. It’s about class. Until recent decades, most people ate unrefined rice, because only the rich could afford the time and effort to polish the grains. Advances in milling technology made white rice more accessible. “White rice is considered by many people as being a superior-quality rice consumed by the more affluent group, whereas brown rice is portrayed as inferior-quality rice of the poor,” Vasudevan says.

Attacking diabetes will take a cultural change far beyond rice color. Doctors say cutting down on calories of all kinds, increasing fiber consumption and getting more exercise are critical. The rise of processed food, office jobs and the car culture that started in the West and has swept the globe is, in large part, to blame for the problem. But the first baby step toward a solution could be found in a humble grain.

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