One of my favourite meals as a child was a simple one, common across South-East Asia – rice with fish and a vegetable dish on the side, such as kangkong. Varieties of this dish are traditional here, as in Nasi Lemak, although I am partial to Nasi Dagang.
Rice is central to these dishes. Look at the names: the very first word is nasi (rice). What would they be without rice?
For many of us, myself included, rice is comfort food. As a child, I’d be content with a bowl of steaming hot rice with a bit of butter and salt. In sickness, what do many of us eat? Rice porridge.
My travels have given me a taste for all kinds of ethnic and exotic foods, yet my penchant for rice persists. After a few days, I yearn for rice. That’s how, when travelling in Peru, I discovered Chinese Peruvian fried rice, a popular meal there.
My love of rice is definitive of my Asian heritage. Rice has been a much-loved staple food in the region for more than 5,000 years. I always considered it a special grain. It is after all, a common first food for babies everywhere because it rarely causes allergies.
But now, I consider rice the Achilles heel of the Asian diet.
Studies show a link between high regular consumption of white rice with type 2 diabetes. It’s a “unique risk factor” in Asian populations, says Dr Frank B. Hu, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Rice is a driving factor behind Asia’s escalating epidemic of type 2 diabetes.
A 2012 study by Harvard researchers found that the risk of developing diabetes rises by 10% with every extra serving per day of white rice.
The study looked at what people ate in Japan and China, where three or four servings of white rice per day was the average, and in Australia and the United States, where less than five servings a week was the average.
So it’s not simply that we eat rice, it’s that we eat a lot of it, and often. What you’re eating the rice with also matters, and importantly, what kind of rice it is.
White rice is a relatively modern invention – it is brown rice milled and stripped of the outer hull, fibre and bran. The problem lies in the refining of rice. (Other refined, starchy carbohydrates would also carry a risk for diabetes, researchers say).
On the glycaemic index (GI), a scale of 1 to 100 that measures how foods cause your blood sugar to spike (with sugar at 100), white rice ranks high. Jasmine or Japanese (sushi) rice has a GI of almost 90; Basmati is much lower at 59; some parboiled rice is even lower and brown rice is 55. Sticky rice has a very high GI because it contains more of a certain carbohydrate (amylopectin rather than amylose).
The Harvard study found brown rice actually decreases the risk of diabetes by 16%.
My great-grandmother, who lived till 99 years in Sri Lanka, always ate red rice, which is similar to brown rice but has more vitamins. She was also very active.
“In the old days, when people spent a lot of time working in the fields, consuming a lot of white rice was not a problem,” explains Dr Hu.
“When people become sedentary and overweight, consuming a large amount of refined carbohydrates like white rice becomes problematic in terms of raising the risk of diabetes and other metabolic diseases.”
Asians actually have a higher risk for diabetes – they develop the disease at younger ages and at lower degrees of obesity than Caucasians.
The high intake of rice and sugar, particularly sweetened drinks, in the region, and the large number of men who smoke, has led to diabetes skyrocketing in the region in recent decades. Consider: in 1980, less than 1% of Chinese adults had diabetes; now that figure is about 12%, according to the International Diabetes Federation.
Asia is now the epicentre of the world’s diabetes epidemic. In Malaysia, prevalence runs at 18%; but among adults older than 30 years, it’s one in five.
We seem to be immune to such statistics. Interestingly, when Singapore’s Health Promotion Board targeted white rice in the island’s fight against diabetes, it caused an uproar.
I now take smaller rice portions and try to eat Basmati or red rice. But when eating out, it’s hard to avoid rice.
Researchers at a university in Shanghai are currently looking to breed a kind of black rice with normal rice, in order to create a high-protein rice lower in carbohydrate.
For now though, we need to cut back on the rice. For sure, we should think twice about having that extra portion.