Rice is one of the world’s most popular foods. Rice is also a starchy food—bad news for diabetics or others trying to keep their blood sugar at a healthy level. The good news is that not all kinds of rice have the same blood sugar–blitzing effect.
One measure of how fast carbohydrate-containing foods raise blood sugar levels (even for people who are not diabetic) is the glycemic index (GI). Different varieties of rice have different GIs—from as high as 70 or more for short-grain, white sticky rice such as that used in Thai curry or risotto…to about 55 for basmati rice.
There are several reasons that basmati (especially the whole-grain variety) is a particularly good rice choice for diabetics. When cooked, the grain of basmati rice tends to stay intact, keeping it light and fluffy rather than stuck together in clumps. The “light-and-fluffy” property is an indication that the starch hasn’t gelatinized, which means that the starch will be released more slowly into the bloodstream, keeping blood-sugar levels more stable—crucial to managing diabetes.
Meanwhile, the kind of rice in the high-rice diets that have been linked with worsening diabetes is white, sticky rice, which has the highest GI.
Another reason basmati rice is a good choice for diabetics is its high magnesium content. Magnesium plays a role in insulin regulation, and poor magnesium intake is linked to increased risk for diabetes. Consuming lots of magnesium won’t “cure” diabetes, but if you’re borderline or prediabetic (still able to produce insulin but not enough of it), an adequate intake of magnesium could help to delay becoming fully diabetic. And the high-fiber content of whole-grain (“brown”) basmati rice also improves bowel health, increases satiety and can reduce the risk for type 2 diabetes complications.
But be sure to choose good quality basmati rice—meaning that it is free of broken grains, or at least has very few. Broken grains raise the GI because they develop the stickiness you are trying to avoid. You can’t necessarily tell by looking at a container of rice whether it’s full of broken grains—especially if it is packaged in a cardboard box. But the price may give you a clue…and a “guaranteed fluffy rice” claim on the container. While in general basmati rice, both white and brown, is better for blood sugar control than white rice, you’re better off with any variety of good quality, long-grain rice that doesn’t stick together than with cheap, broken-up basmati that does clump.
You don’t have to limit yourself to just basmati rice, though. Brown rice of any variety is high in fiber, vitamins and minerals, including magnesium, and generally (depending on quality) has a lower GI than white rice—even white basmati. Unlike white rice, brown rice has not had its bran layer removed (why it’s brown), and its fiber and nutrients delay the absorption of starch into the bloodstream, slowing the rise in blood sugar. The fiber makes you feel fuller and for longer, which helps with weight control. And that’s important in managing diabetes. Both white basmati and any variety of brown rice are healthful choices for diabetics, so enjoy either according to personal preference or what else you’re serving.
Wild rice is also a good choice for diabetics. It is a different genus (Zizania) and not directly related to the more common Asian rice (Oryza sativa). Wild rice has a GI comparable to that of white basmati rice and is high in fiber and many other nutrients that may be helpful in preventing the onset of diabetes.
And in case you were wondering about sushi—which typically is served with short-grain, sticky white rice—you don’t have to give it up. Sushi rice has a high GI, but it comes in such small portions that you aren’t getting a lot of rice with each piece. And sushi often includes protein—such as fish or egg—which lessens the GI impact.
BLACK, RED, PURPLE RICE
You also may have seen black, red or purple rice—not just in specialty stores but in chain stores such as Walmart and online. What gives these varieties of whole-grain rice their exotic hues are the same health-promoting anthocyanins that give certain fruits and vegetables—grapes, blueberries, strawberries and red cabbage, for instance—their deep colors. Anthocyanins have many healthful properties, including that they are antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, making these kinds of specialty rice another healthy-rice choice for diabetics. Not all of these more exotic rice varieties have been assigned a GI, but they are generally similar in their metabolic effect to brown or basmati rice.
LOWEST GI COOKING METHOD
How rice is cooked also affects its GI. Gentle cooking—most easily and reliably achieved with a purpose-designed rice cooker—keeps the grains intact so they are less starchy. And, since the rice is cooked for the “just right” amount of time and with the exact amount of water, more of the vitamins are preserved.
What you eat along with your rice also matters. Foods with fiber and protein, including vegetables and beans, slow digestion, which helps to reduce the overall GI of your meal. (The protein in meats also slows digestion.)
As you can see, there are many healthy—and delicious—ways to manage your blood sugar and still enjoy rice!
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