Please Don’t Worry, Eating White Rice is Fine
“Why are there so few overweight Japanese people? They eat so much white rice!”
After several years of living in Japan, when I went back to the United States I was asked this by someone. It was kind of an awkward question, one that I didn’t even know how to approach, because I didn't agree with how the person was equating eating white rice with weight gain. This thought surprised me, because just a few years back, I used to be really afraid of eating refined carbohydrates too.
Japanese people eat lots of rice. It’s no hidden fact: on average, a modern typical Japanese person consumes 82.1 kg of rice per year — for comparison, Americans consume about 10.8 kg. In Japan, rice is often served in school lunches and in government cafeterias. It comes with almost every kind of Japanese meal, most typically as short-grain white rice. Yes, the rice that’s served is not brown, black, red, or wild: just plain white rice.
What happens when we place taboos on certain foods
Lots of people still cringe at the term white rice. While the pervading notion that all carbohydrates are bad has passed — we admit the health benefits of whole grains and fiber-rich starchy vegetables — enjoying refined carbohydrates still seems taboo. People talk about white rice or white bread as if it’s a toxic substance, as if it’s a cigarette. Refined carbohydrates are often associated with terms like dangerous, cancer-causing, and even poison. That it must be avoided at all costs.
This is troubling to me, because a fear of food does not solve our health problems. A fear of food only feeds into our anxiety. It leads to extremism, whether this be undereating, overeating, stressful and time-consuming diets, or an obsessive relationship with food. When we find ourselves unable to adhere to strict eating rules, our self-esteem takes a hit and we feel out of control. We do even crazier things to try and regain that control. It eventually creates avoidant behavior so we don’t eat with others, and makes obsessing over food the forefront to our lifestyle when it should be a supplementing factor that brings us joy.
How to eat well, without becoming obsessed
So if Japanese people are eating so much white rice and staying lean — Japan has very low rates of obesity at only 4.3%— does that mean it is good for you? Does that mean you can eat it endlessly? Not necessarily, because like all foods in life, there’s a balanced approach to healthfully enjoying food.
Even in Japan where white rice is a beloved staple, if you look at how it's served, a plain bowl of rice is never the entire meal. Instead, it is served with two ideas in mind: moderation and mindfulness.
Rice is often served with an assortment of other dishes. Most commonly as part of an ichiju-sansai meal, or ‘one soup, three sides’. A small bowl of rice that is paired with miso soup, a single-serving protein dish, and two vegetable-rich side dishes.
There are no food restrictions to ichiju-sansai: you may have meat, dairy, fats, and carbohydrates. But with the set up of the meal, you end up eating mostly plants, a little bit of everything else, and a variety of food types that keep you nourished and satisfied.
This meal is then consumed with the mindfulness of harahachi-bunme, or 8/10ths your stomach, an approach to eating where we neither overstuff nor deprive ourselves of food when we’re hungry.
To be aware of what you're eating as you eat, you end up naturally understanding how much food your body requires in that moment, without feeling hyper-conscious about a visual portion size. It becomes about intuition, and developing trust with your body.
White rice is not the enemy
Japanese people stay lean despite eating lots of white rice because they’re unafraid of it. They have a relationship with it where it neither scares nor intimidates them — instead of avoiding it, they enjoy it in moderate portions, with different vegetables, filling fats, and nourishing proteins. They know that if they adhere to principles of moderation and mindfulness, they’re going to be fine.
Ultimately, this relationship has shown me that all foods are fine.
Foods should not be feared, and should never be a source of our anxiety. We should not be afraid of white rice like we should be afraid of poison, for this will only perpetuate cycles of obsession, shame and stress-eating, and will further damage our well-being. This applies not just to rice, but to all foods.
Instead of labels of 'bad' and 'good' foods, we should look at the bigger picture of eating, and find ways to incorporate the foods we love into our lifestyle so that they can expand our experiences, connect us with our loved ones, and bring us joy. For this is the purpose of eating well, to feel secure in our skin and to treat ourselves with kindness.