Eating more rice may protect against obesity, international study suggests

Is Brown Rice Really Healthier?

According to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 39.8% of Americans are now obese. Compare that figure to Japan, where the World Health Organization notes only 4.3% of the population is obese. While there are a multitude of factors at play, one group of scientists is suggesting rice consumption may play a role in the stark differences.

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In fact, according to a new international study presented at the 2019 European Congress on Obesity, obesity levels are "substantially lower" in countries where rice consumption is high (150 grams per day) compared to countries with lower average rice intake (14g per day).

Using data from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, Japanese researchers studied rice consumption in the diets of 136 countries with populations exceeding 1 million. Rice products included in the study: white rice, brown rice and rice flour.

To assess the associations between health and rice consumption, researchers analyzed consumption with factors like obesity prevalence, average education, percentage of elderly population and a country’s gross domestic product per capita. Ultimately, the analysis found that obesity levels, smoking rates and overall health expenditure were significantly lower in countries that consumed lots of rice, such as Bangladesh, Lao, Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia—compared to countries with lower rice intake like France, the U.K., the U.S., Spain, Canada and Australia.

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"Eating rice seems to protect against weight gain," lead researcher Tomoko Imai from Doshisha Women's College of Liberal Arts in Japan, said in a statement. "It's possible that the fibre, nutrients, and plant compounds found in whole grains may increase feelings of fullness and prevent overeating."

Rice, Imai added, “is also low in fat and has a relatively low postprandial blood glucose level which suppresses insulin secretion.”

Study limitations

The study notes that because the international study is a cross-sectional examination, it cannot establish a cause-and-effect relationship and requires more research.

One significant limitation to the research, as Medical News Today pointed out, is the use of body mass index as a standard measure of overall health. "The scientists did not ascertain how many people have, for instance, an unhealthily low BMI, which would skew the data by bringing the country's average BMI down," the site reported.

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Imai and her team also believe further investigation is needed to better understand what constitutes an appropriate amount of rice intake in obesity prevention, as previous research has shown overconsumption of rice may lead to metabolic syndrome and diabetes.

Still, as the European Association for the Study of Obesity mentioned in its news release, "whilst a limitation of cross-sectional studies is the risk of identifying false associations as a result of confounding factors, the association identified between rice consumption and obesity remained even after adjusting for various lifestyle and socioeconomic risk factors."

As of Friday, the findings are still awaiting a peer-review process required before publication.