Carbohydrates, popularly called “carbs”, are one of the macronutrients necessary for our body. They are found in rice, wheat, starches and sugars.

A meal plate with rice and dalImage for Representation
Delve Health Friday, April 29, 2022 - 11:22

“Do you eat rice?” Before you can answer, pat comes another comment: “Carbs are so unhealthy. Chapati is healthier than rice.” And then there’s the “replace rice and chapati with millets to eliminate carbs!”

Over the years, there are so many versions of ‘rice-shaming’ and carb-shaming that many of us have faced. However, for over 50% of India’s population — especially in the southern states — rice is a staple in a meal. The rice vs chapati debate is especially dominant if you mention you’re trying to eat healthier and/or lose weight. And sometimes, it’s quite unsolicited too.

But is eating rice frequently really a problem? And regardless of the same, why must anyone be carb-shamed and bullied about food? We spoke to nutritionists and doctors to get to the truth of the matter.

‘Ayyo, are you eating rice?’

Vijaya Lakshmi (28) says that she switched to red rice after seeing on several websites that giving up on all whites, including rice, helped many people lose weight. However, it was not sustainable. “Whenever diets are discussed, avoiding rice and carbs is almost always advised. Some people who live abroad have been able to adopt diets without rice, too. They switched to having soups and salads at night, instead of chapati or rice. Some find salads with nuts and cranberries filling; but either these foods are not as easily available here or they're too expensive. I found it was not possible for me to avoid rice altogether, so I started eating red rice instead of white rice,” she says. She also tried the no-rice diet and had physical discomfort such as feeling dizzy, before switching to red rice.

Appu (name changed), a working professional in Chennai, had an unpleasant experience when he was eating his meal at his workplace. "The other day, we were having lunch at the office, and a person eating soup — because he is on a diet — started saying rice was not healthy at all, even as we were literally eating rice in front of his eyes. This whole pressure to not eat rice or carbs in itself makes us not want to eat at all,” he says.

Speaking about the similarity of calories and carbohydrates in different cereals, Dr Gayathri, a dietician based at Tirunelveli, said, “Rice, wheat, millets are all essentially carbohydrates. But the only difference is the presence of other nutrients in millets. We should not cut off carbohydrates or rice completely, as it is the fuel for our body. Having a nutrient-rich food is most important.”

“Also, when we say we have to eat carbohydrates, including complex carbohydrates like wholegrains and millets is believed to be healthier because they have other macronutrients also. But carbohydrates or rice should not be cut off completely, because that will lead to fatigue. Further, if you go on a no-carbohydrate diet for some months aiming for weight loss, when you resume a regular diet, weight gain will happen. So, it is not sustainable. We should have a multi-nutrient diet which is healthy and sustainable,” she said.

On the importance of consuming different food groups, Dr Varsha, who is a nutritionist and professor at Madras Medical College (MMC), said, “Cereals and millets, which we consume maximally, give us energy; and pulses, legumes and lentils give us more protein. The nuts and oil seeds give us fats, and we eat them in limited quantities. Carbohydrates are the energy giving food; protein is the body building food. This should be consumed in a perfect combination. You cannot eat only cereals or only pulses and try to get all the nutrients from them. These are all distinct food groups.”

Dr Varsha also said that the concept substituting rice with wheat or wheat with bajra or ragi is also over-hyped. “Our geographical location decides our staple. Now, as we are able to transport things all over the world, people are confused over what to eat. We should eat regional and seasonal foods,” she said.

When asked why people are suggested to switch to alternate foods by doctors, she gives an example, “When you ask a person who, say, eats rasam rice every night — which is not so nutritional — to eat chapati, they are going to have something to eat with it, like a vegetable curry, which is going to have added nutrition. It is just influencing the combination of what a person is eating and the dose of what they are eating. The combination makes a difference, not necessarily wheat or rice.”

Speaking about balancing nutrition with people’s behavioural habits, Krish Ashok, author of Masala Lab: The Science of Indian Cooking, suggests, “Asking a person to reduce their consumption is easier than asking them to completely stop something that they are used to. If they are habituated to a certain type of food but it is not nutritious, we can ask them to reduce the quantity and add nutritious food as part of their diet.”

Experts TNM spoke to also recommended against completely removing carbohydrates from the diet, even if you’re trying to lose weight. This is because in the absence of carbohydrates, our body starts burning fats, and then proteins, to give us energy. However, exchanging rice with chapati or ragi alone wouldn’t fulfil the need for diversity in the diet as they all belong to the same food group. The most sustainable way to make diets more nutritious is to enable people to eat the cereals or millets that they are traditionally or culturally used to eating and tweak intakes if needed, Dr Gayathri added.

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