Health: Is rice all the same?
Rice is much better than white flour, but it also demands some consideration. The first point about rice is that not all rice is the same. There are two basic types of rice: long rain rice (like the basmati and jasmine types) and short grain rice (that is usually cheaper and more common). Long grains are rich in resistant starch, and therefore have a much lower glycemic index. They can be easily recognized by the fact they remain firm and separate after cooking.
Short grain types of rice, on the other hand, are rich in simple starch, and therefore are digested very quickly. They have a very high glycemic index and therefore are not so recommendable, since they make the insulin spike. This type can be considered a type of refined carbohydrates. It can be easily recognized because the rice sticks together in clumps when cooked.
Basmati rice is one of the best types of rice, since not only does it have a lower glycemic index (at least compared to other types of rice) but also have a better vitamin and mineral content. That explains why it is considered a top-quality rice in India.
Brown rice is better than white rice in most respects, since the GI is a little lower and it has more nutrients. However, there is a problem. Most rice nowadays is cultivated in soil contaminated by arsenic, and because the rice is cultivated on flooded paddies, a strong concentration is found in the grains, especially in the bran and germ. In the case of the white rice, both the bran and germ are discarded, and therefore the arsenic concentration is drastically reduced. Whole grain rice, on the other hand, contains everything, and therefore often the arsenic concentrations are well beyond the safe limits. It’s not something that will kill you or make you sick instantly, but it may have long term effects, since the arsenic accumulates in the body. Because of this, regular consumption of brown rice can’t be recommended.
Another option is parboiled rice (converted rice), the “Uncle Ben's“ rice, the type that doesn't clump together when cooked. This type of rice goes through a vapor treatment that converts the simple starches in the short grain rice into resistant starch, also transferring more of the nutrients from the husk to the grain. The problem with parboiled rice is that it goes through a heating process, which can be considered a type of cooking, therefore many devotees may prefer to avoid it. If we consider only the health perspective, however, it is a better option to regular short grain rice when we don't have basmati or other type of long grain available. You can do your own research and decide what type to eat based on the time, place and circumstance.
In any case, the rice should be combined with other ingredients. A good combination is rice and legumes. Most legumes are very low glycemic and they form a complete protein when combined with rice. To eat rice and beans, or rice and chickpeas, for example, is far better than eating rice alone. We can see that most populations in the world were following this over the centuries. The way we combine different foods is important, since certain combinations balance the pros and cons of different options. The basic rule is that our food should be a package of different ingredients.
Two good alternatives to rice are pearled barley and steel-cut oats. Both are inexpensive, very low glycemic and at the same time much more nutritious than rice. Cooked pearled barley, for example, has a GI of just 35, and cooked steel cut oats are even lower, at just 30. The taste is different and they take a little longer to cook, but from a health perspective the change will bring a lot of benefits. Just as rice, they also form a complete protein when combined with legumes.
Another option are millets, like jowar, amaranth, foxtail, bajra, ragui, little millet and so on. They are of course very different from rice, but they are also low-glycemic and extremely nutritious. You may not be able to adapt to eating only millets, but you can try to cook a mixture of half rice and half millets, for example, which will already make your meal much healthier.
Buckwheat and quinoa are two other good alternatives. Both combine a good mix of proteins and minerals and offer complete protein, combining all essential minerals. They have a GI of, respectively, 51 and 53, higher than the other options I mentioned, but still lower than rice.
Pearled barley can also be soaked in water overnight and eaten raw with milk or yogurt, as a kind of breakfast cereal. When eaten raw, pearled barley has a GI of just 22, the lowest GI of all grains (much lower than even rolled oats). If you like to eat cereals in the morning, this is the healthiest option around: very low glycemic, packed with nutrients and also inexpensive. Apart from barley, soaked rolled oats are another good option. They are not so nutritious (since they go through some processing, which destroys part of the nutrients), but they are still good.
Commercial cereals, like Corn Flakes and Cheerios are the precise opposite: very high glycemic, made out of GMO ingredients and devoid of nutrients (apart from the synthetic added vitamins). They are just another band of industrialized products that should be strictly avoided. They can’t really be considered food.