White rice consumption and BMI in Asia?

So, I’m of Indian descent, and actually got back from a trip to India. I’ve noticed several times there that people eat a lot of white rice. I would estimate that my teenage cousins ate about 1.5 cups of dry rice per day. Yet most people in India are fairly thin, at least up until middle age, and even the larger ones tend not to be obese. In fact, the older, overweight population tends to be almost all female; I’ve seen very few overweight males.

Now granted, rice, yogurt, some veggies and lentils is about all they eat. However, pretty much my entire extended family is vegetarian and so they don’t really get too much protein, and, they really don’t exercise very much. Structured exercise is almost unheard of for the older generation, beyond maybe a 30 min daily walk, and these people don’t really do much physical work. I mean, the women cook daily, and that’s about it; they all have office jobs. They might walk a little, but not much more than your average city-dweller in the states.

My understanding is that a similar pattern of consumption and behavior exists in cities in East Asia, with the modification that people there do tend to eat meat, if not frequently. And my observation leads me to believe that East Asians are very thin, although there could be a confirmation bias there.

So anyways, I would think white carbs + little exercise would equal total obesity, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Does anyone have any idea why this is?

Okay, also, I’ll admit it . . . I lurve white rice and am kind of looking for an excuse not to give it up :stuck_out_tongue: I keep hearing that nutritionally it is Teh Great Satan, but it seems like in Asia people who are not farmers toiling all day are doing okay with it. I wonder if it’s more the processed foods that often accompany white rice (or the processing of the rice itself) in a Western diet that leads to obesity, and not the white rice inherently?

Oh, and finally, diabetes is a BIG problem in India, even among the skinny. So they’re not getting off eating their carbs scot-free.

I can WAG a few things that might be at play here.

Asia’s wealth is relatively new. A lot of people who are working comfortable desk jobs today probably had fairly simple childhoods. Childhood malnutrition can lead to permanently stunted growth. You can see this pretty well in China- in small cities pretty much everyone is skinny. It’s only in the big cities (where people have been wealthier longer) that you see obese people. It’s only in really big cities that you start seeing fat kids. Anyway, my Chinese college may seem thoroughly modern and may look like college students anywhere, but they talked about childhoods where meat was a once-a-month treat and even rice wasn’t always something they could afford. No doubt that’s had some effect on how they process food.

I wouldn’t trust your teenage cousins to give you an idea of what is going on, either. Most teenagers are skinny. It’s not until the mid-twenties that bad eating habits really catch up with you.

Another factor is that are not magic. Weight gain is ultimately about how much you eat. I don’t know about India, but in China people ate three solid meals with lots of veggies, and rarely snacked- when they did, it was on fresh fruit. I think that’s where America goes wrong- even if we eat healthy well-portioned meals, we ruin it with desserts, soda and potato chips. If you stick to three meals and not much else, you can eat pile of carbs at those meals and be fine.

Even without formal exercise, simply puttering around the house or the neighborhood can do a lot. It’s sitting down at a desk or couch all day every day that makes people gain weight. Even if the people you know do that now, it’s likely they didn’t spend their entire lives doing that.

Finally, social norms may play a role. I used to think everyone in China was slim, until I actually looked around and noticed lots of paunchy men. The women work extremely hard to keep thin, and it shows. I wouldn’t blame anyone for saying “Chinese can just eat and eat and not gain weight,” since we tend to notice how women look. But really there are plenty of fat Chinese people, they are just mostly men.

Thanks for the response, even sven. I really enjoy reading your posts about your travels, because your insights seem to jibe the most with mine, and this situation is no exception. :stuck_out_tongue: I quoted the parts of your post that seem particularly true also of my Indian relatives situation. I have this picture of my aunts and their husbands and kids from about 25 years ago, and they are all like freaking model skinny. Like, slight and willowly. And they had all had children by that point too. Now, at fifty, one of them is pretty pudgy. But, during her childhood, I think she was mildly malnourished, so maybe that kept her thin through early adulthood.

Indians also religiously eat three meals (actually, skipping meals there is pretty unheard of; even if you’re not hungry, you eat. And, not eating breakfast is verboten. The corollary of that is that you don’t eat between meals.) and don’t snack, really. Packaged snacks that you can buy in a grocery store (as opposed to like a plate of crunchy fried things you buy from a street vendor and eat there) are pretty new.

Do you think that the difference in BMI might also have to do with how processed American food is? Even today in India, most people buy their veggies and such, if not fresh daily, fresh 2-3x/week. They make each meal fresh daily, and generally refrigeration is for between meals within the same day, not carried over from day to day. And they really break everything down to the basic ingredients . . . the bread is made from wheat flour every day, for example. My grandmother even makes her own ghee (unclarified butter) from whole milk.

I wonder if the processing-at-home somehow factors in to thinness in Asia.

Processing is inherent to white rice. The polishing-off of the bran is what makes white rice white.

I would guess the following:
-they eat very little fat
-their caloric intake is probably still not very high

Americans don’t have high BMI because of processed food, they have it because they eat too many calories per day for their activity level and their diets are high in fat.

I meant more the minute-rice type stuff you can buy in the States, which is unheard of in India

Yeah, it seems that stuff is more nutritionally degraded (and doesn’t taste as good). I’ve never understood it. So it cooks faster–standard rice is just as easy. Is anticipating the need for rice 20 minutes ahead so hard? :confused:

Some random thoughts here:

  • I know very few Americans (that is, mainstream Americans, not those still living in ethnic enclaves in an old-world styles) who eat PLAIN rice. (I do, but I think I’m an exception). Americans always seem to need something on their rice, and that something is often something that adds significant calories. I’m assuming your Indians and other Asians are eating their rice pretty plain (maybe with something like curry, which doesn’t add nearly as much calories as some stuff I’ve seen on rice here in the US).

  • I notice that when you described these peoples’ diet there seemed to be a distinct lack of meat. Now, meat is all well and good - but it’s also pretty concentrated calorie-wise. Yes, whole dairy is also calorie-dense, but Americans tend to eat meat AND cheese together a lot, or meat AND cream sauce, so they get a double-whammy of meat+dairy. This really can pack on the calories.

  • As noted - snacking can have an enormous effect.

  • What are your Asians drinking? Americans consume enormous calories in the form of soda and juices. If your Asians avoid soda and consume mostly tea then that’s a big calorie difference. Even if their tea has cream and sugar added the total calories could still be less than what Starbuck’s routinely sells, and which American consume in great quantities.

Broomstick, yeah, what Indians, at least in the south, put on rice is fairly low-calorie. And, the yogurt is often home-made (although not from fat-free milk) and watered down (to form what are called “curds”). At least in my part of India, the tea and coffee is very sugary and milky, but the quantities drunk are tiny, and beyond that it’s just water.

I assumed the lack of meat would be a liability . . . my basic question is that Indians where I’m from eat a high-refined carb, low protein diet, which lately we have been taught leads to ballooning weight. Also, the quantity seems decently high and the exercise level low. So why they’re not super overweight was my inquiry, which people in this thread have been very astutely addressing, including you.

If the total quantity of calories you eat is low then it doesn’t matter if it’s heavily carbs or even heavily fat. If you eat as many calories as you burn you’ll maintain your weight. If you eat fewer calories than you burn you will lose weight - no matter what you’re eating.

You’re describing a low calorie diet for these people, even if the dairy products are full-fat and the rice is all carbs. What their body is probably doing is using what protein they eat for muscle maintenance, then burning the carbs for the energy needed to live. You do burn calories even while lying in bed asleep. It’s entirely possible that the walking they do is sufficiient to burn off any excess.

Your question has been pretty much answered already, but your comment at the end is of note. Diabetes rates are high for the levels of BMI. Why?

You may find this presentation interesting.

Yes it is of note is that there are more obese (BMI > 30) Asian Indians in urban India than in America. But the presenters main points are that, compared to Caucasians, the Asian Indian body type tends to lower BMI with less muscle mass, relatively more fat mass, and more abdominal fat, all of which increase the risk of diabetes. It may be that the lower protein diet contributes to that somatotype: “Protein Intake Is Inversely Associated with Abdominal Obesity in a Multi-Ethnic Population”. It may be genetic as well. And the fact that India has one of the highest rates of low birth weight (“estimates of intrauterine growth retardation in the region range from 25% to 50%”), a consequence of undernutrition during pregnancy, may also contribute, as low birth weight babies are at a much increased risk of metabolic syndrome (which includes diabetes) even without increased BMI.

If I’m not mistaken, childhood obesity is in fact starting to become a problem in all the developed countries in Asia Pacific as well. I blame all the junk food as well as the decreasing amount of physical activities.

From my personal experience I don’t think the concern about consuming white rice is so much about weight gain as its potential adverse effect on people with concerns about insulin resistance and diabetes. Switching to brown rice is a safer choice, for example, if your family has a history of diabetes. And at the same time brown rice is more nutritious in terms of fiber and various vitamins and minerals.

Unfortunately, brown rice doesn’t keep as well - it will go rancid long before white rice will. I have to wonder if making white rice started partly as a means of preservation.

I keep my brown rice in the refrigerator. Not so much an option in very poor areas, or in the past.

<Stares sadly at gloopy midsection> ain’t that the truth . . .

Although, maybe eating Oreos for dinner has something to do with it as well :wink:

No. The whole term “processed food” is one of those nebulous categories that can mean anything, sort of like “sustainability”. What do you mean by “processed”?

If you mean “has lots of fat, sugar, and salt”, then yes, that is probably part of it. But the reason those foods have those things in them is because they taste delicious, and people prefer tasty food to bland food. This is why pasta with Alfredo sauce is so popular – it’s basically high-density salt, fat, and starch, even if you make it from “fresh” ingredients. (also, salt gets a bad rap, it’s not really bad for you unless you have a pre-existing condition.)

But more often"processed food" is used to sort of imply some sort of poorly understood and defined chemical treatment, with a tinge of conspiracy theory. The fact is, a lot of our food is “processed”. Brining, smoking, or any other preservation method is processing. Olives are subjected to lye baths. Cooking food is processing it, and cooking does destroy some of the nutrition of the raw foodstuff, though usually not in any really significant amount. The ghee you mentioned is fat obtained by processing milk into butter and processing butter into ghee.

“Processed” is pretty much a worthless term – it’s nonspecific, poorly defined, and is used in a FUD context more than an actual analysis of nutritional value.

You’re right, of course. I am by nature fairly scientific and rigorous in most areas of my life, but somehow when it comes to nutrition I tend to fall in with the granola hippie types and perhaps get a little “soft” with my thinking and vocabulary.

When I say “processed” I mean specifically two “processes.”

  1. The “debulking” of many packaged foods (like rice), perhaps to increase shelf life? Basically, a lot of foods, esp. grains, bought in American grocery stores tend to be refined and have much of the inherent fiber removed. Most people think of fiber as nutritionally valuable because it helps to make you feel full at a low calorie cost, and helps your digestive system work smoothly. However, there is emerging evidence that certain fibers help sustain different types of intestinal flora, which can then decrease the amount of calories your body actually absorbs from food . . . so fiber could directly alter the “calories in” part of the equation. If anyone needs a cite, I’m sure I could dig one up.

  2. The fact that many American foods have preservatives and other chemicals in them, again probably to extend shelf life. Yes, I know that brine is a preservative and water is a chemical. What I mean with those two words in this context are substances whose introduction into the human diet are relatively recent, and whose benevolence to the human body is not as tried-and-tested as, for example, smoking meat is. For example, we now know that changing certain unsaturated fats from a cis to a trans conformation is in fact very harmful to the human body.

And to be specific, nitrates used in processed meats substantially increased heart disease risk.

It’s actually a fairly simplistic concept, so simple a child can understand it.

If you were to travel back in time a century or so with a particular food item, would that item be recognized as actually being food? If so, then the item in question would be considered “unprocessed.”

If they didn’t recognize it as being food, the odds are good that they wouldn’t recognize many of the ingredients either. Partially hydrogenated soybean oil? Cottonseed oil? High fructose corn syrup? Unrecognizable items such as these would be labeled “processed” foods.

Perhaps we need a quiz?

Fresh salmon? Unprocessed.

Cheetos? Processed.

Carrots? Unprocessed.

Hot Pockets? Processed.

Apples? Unprocessed.

Count Chocula cereal? Processed (even though the AHA actually endorsed this one as being heart-healthy).

Name one culture that has significant levels of obesity and does not consume processed foods.