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Sunday, January 26, 2014

White rice, rampant omnivorism, and how to enjoy both of those things and good health at the same time

So here I am, this integrative healthcare provider, counseling you to eat a breakfast composed largely of white rice. What's up with that? 

chicken rendang congee with sweet-sour cucumber carrot pickle (recipes coming soon to this blog!)

If you're wondering, "But isn't white rice bad for me? Isn't it totally devoid of nutrients? Won't it make me gain weight at warp speed? And what about my blood sugar?" you're not alone, and kudos on paying attention to what goes into your body. The answers to these questions aren't particularly simple or straightforward, and they require your open-mindedness in considering both Eastern and Western nutritional philosophies. 

plain congee (bai zhou) with sauteed beet greens, homemade sriracha, and homemade goma furikake

Let's look at the Western component first. White rice is just brown rice with the hull taken off. But the hull is where most of the nutrients--including thiamine, a crucial B-vitamin--and the fiber are. Without the hull, white rice is a refined carbohydrate, and one that converts quickly to sugar during the digestive process, which is why it's a concern for diabetics and anyone else monitoring their blood glucose levels. 

Now the Eastern perspective: Nothing wrong with brown rice--it's absolutely a healthful grain choice. That being said, white rice has value as well. For one thing, the insoluble fiber and minerals in the hull of brown rice (as well as other whole grains) can actually cause harm to people with certain health conditions, such as ulcerative colitis or renal dysfunction. White rice digests more quickly because it's easier to digest, and when you give your digestive system food that's easy to digest--especially first thing in the morning, when it and you are still waking up--it can focus its energies away from the grind of digestion and towards distributing nutrition to the body. The entire body is thereby allowed to process, heal, and generally move through whatever stages it needs to move through for you to feel well. 

chicken rendang congee with minced fresh kaffir lime leaves, soft-boiled egg, and cucumber-carrot pickle; rooibos chai tea to drink

Being gentle with your digestive system, instead of putting it through its paces by throwing fiber at it, actually allows it to more effectively perform all of its necessary roles. It's the difference between starting the day with military-style boot camp cardio class and starting the day with a meditative yoga session: both are valid choices, but each exercise has different goals. Most traditional Chinese medical practitioners, me included, would recommend the meditative yoga session--because we put a lot of stock in moderation, including a moderate, moderated transition from sleep to wakefulness. Congee, particularly congee made with white rice, is a way to allow your digestive system the same gentle, easy waking-up process. 

bai zhou with fresh spinach and egg cooked in coconut oil

It helps to remember that there's really not a lot of white rice in even a big bowl of congee. The eight to one water to congee ratio and the way rice absorbs water and releases starch as it cooks ensures that your breakfast bowl probably contains less rice than it would take to make a quarter cup of white rice. Adding protein--in the form of a tea egg, say, or chicken, or tofu, or peanuts, or mung bean sprouts, or sesame seeds--and fiber in the form of vegetables will help to keep its impact on your blood glucose levels negligible.

chicken rendang congee, spinach, chicken leg, hard boiled egg

Of course, if you're still concerned, you can certainly make congee out of brown rice. If you do, you should increase the water ratio--maybe 10 to 12 parts water to one part rice--and be prepared to let it simmer for up to an hour or so longer than white rice congee. I'd recommend one of the more fragrant brown rice varieties, such as brown basmati, or else one of the shorter-grain rices, such as brown sushi rice--but any brown rice will work. You can even make congee out of quinoa or amaranth or farro or any grain that you'd like; each grain will produce its own distinctly flavored and textured congee.

But if you love your white rice congee, like I do? Enjoy in good health, without guilt, and with a variety of additions and toppings. As always, "all things in moderation" is the simplest and best path to health.

bai zhou, sauteed greens, roasted black sesame seeds

I'd love to hear about your congee-making experiments with brown rice or other grains. And I'd also love to answer any other questions that come up around the health benefits, preparation or enjoyment of congee--just shoot me an email at

bai zhou, poached egg, spinach, shiitake mushrooms and homemade sriracha

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