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Is Rice a Thyroid-healthy Food?

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Rice is thought of as a healthy, wholesome food. It’s a staple grain throughout much of the world. It’s tasty, comforting, and makes an easy substitute for our favorite wheat-based staples. Things like rice pasta, rice flour, or a fluffy bed of rice to serve your main course upon can be a very welcome solution to the frustrations of trying to avoid gluten.

As thyroid patients who want to feel optimal, many of us are gluten-free. When we’re navigating a gluten-free diet, rice can enable us to feel like we can go out to dinner and eat like a “normal” person. It can help us figure out how to feed finicky kiddos (without relying on gluten). Its simplicity can soothe us when we’re sick, and satisfy us when we’re hungry. Rice-based flour blends can give us a way to keep baking our great-grandma’s cookie recipe, in a way that closely resembles her original wheat flour version.

Rice is our go-to gluten backup plan. But you may not realize that rice has a dark secret...

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What You Need to Know About Rice

Don’t freak out, and don’t worry: I’m not going to tell you not to eat rice. As always, what you eat or don’t eat is up to you. But you’re here to get empowered, informed, and thyroid-healthy. And just like there are things you need to know about safely eating swordfish or tuna (for example), there are things you need to know about safely eating rice.

I’m going to tell it to you straight, and I’m also going to share some solutions so that you can eat rice in the safest possible way. Let’s start with the bad news and get it over with.

The problem is this: heavy metals.

In all varieties of rice (including white, brown, and wild), heavy metals such as lead, arsenic, and mercury may be present. This is on account of the way rice grows in watery beds, which can expose the plants to a higher amount of heavy metals than other crops.

Across the globe, heavy metal pollution has made its indelible mark. The unavoidable reality these days is that our air, water, and soil contain heavy metals as a result of our dependence on fossil fuels, coal-fired power plants, agricultural chemicals, industrial chemicals, etc. Sadly, heavy metals in our air, food, and water is a byproduct of our modern existence.

Once released into the environment, heavy metals are impossible to remove, they last forever, and are therefore impossible to avoid. Thus, those heavy metals have accumulated in our environment. Since rice is grown in water, it gets infused with whatever is in that water — good or bad. 

When it comes to heavy metal avoidance and mitigation, knowledge is both power and protection. This is especially true for our thyroid, as heavy metal toxicity has been linked to thyroid dysfunction and autoimmunity, among other rampant health issues like cancer, autism, and Alzheimer’s.


Why Heavy Metals Are Bad News for Thyroid Patients

Heavy metals set up camp in our tissues, where they get stored along with other toxins. This is especially true for our thyroid because the thyroid metabolizes things quickly; therefore, more toxins pass through it. Sometimes those toxins are so chemically similar to iodine (which is utilized by the thyroid to make thyroid hormone), that the thyroid absorbs them. Additionally, studies have shown a direct link between mercury exposure and an increase in thyroid antibodies.

The key is to be aware when it comes to heavy metal exposure and use cautious moderation and best choice practices in our consumption of foods that are vulnerable to heavy metals, including things like swordfish, tuna, and rice.


How We Can Consume Rice Safely

Moderation: It’s especially easy for those of us who are gluten-free to depend a little too heavily on rice and rice products. Being mindful of how much rice we consume is a good idea.

Rinse your rice: According to research, one of the best ways to significantly reduce heavy metals in rice is to rinse it thoroughly before cooking. This has been shown to remove 50% or more of heavy metal residues. Alternatively, soaking your rice overnight as you would beans (and changing the water every few hours) is another way to reduce heavy metals. Note: Soaking your rice for hours will change the cooking time, but rinsing will not.  

Use filtered water: Since even our tap water can be a source of heavy metals, filtering the water we use to rinse and prepare rice is a good idea. 

Cook with lots of water: To further reduce heavy metals in rice, try boiling it in plenty of water as you would pasta. When tender and ready to eat, simply drain off the cooking water.  

Choose your rice carefully: Many studies have been done on rice from around the world. While testing methods have produced varied results, one constant is that white basmati rice from California seems to be among the most consistently low in heavy metals, followed by white basmati from India and Pakistan.

Historical data suggests that California rice is lower in heavy metals than rice grown in the southern United States because of chemicals that were used in cotton farming across that region. Lead-arsenate insecticides were used to battle the boll weevil. They were banned in the 1980s, but their heavy metal legacy lives on in the southern soil, where half of U.S. rice is grown.

If you’re looking for a safe bet, California’s Lundberg Farms in particular has taken measures to address and monitor heavy metals in their rice farming. I find their transparency admirable and refreshing.

The “organic” label will protect you…but only in the long run: One interesting find is that organic rice did not show lower levels of heavy metals. Since heavy metal pollution is systemic, there’s no way of keeping groundwater free of it, so buying organic, in this case, is not a reliable way to avoid arsenic.

That said, buying organic is always encouraged as a thyroid-healthy practice for several reasons. It's more environmentally friendly and does far less to contribute to our worsening heavy metal pollution. So, buy organic whenever possible, and know that it's helping in the long run, but it can’t be relied upon to avoid heavy metals in your rice.


If you're anything like me, when I started down the path of thyroid-healthy eating I had questions-- lots of them. What to eat? What to avoid? And HOW do I do this? I wasted a lot of time trying to piece together bits and pieces of information from blog posts, infographics, books, and podcasts. What I didn't have was a step-by-step system. A roadmap, if you will, for how to put those bits and pieces together, in a way that got me where I wanted to go. That's why I created the Thyroid-healthy Meal Plan Kickstart. It includes recipes, meal plans, instruction, and a 4-week roadmap to get you started and on your way with thyroid-healthy eating! Learn more HERE.


My Personal Approach to Rice

We all have our own set of circumstances that come into play when making dietary choices. As a rule, I  try not to rely too heavily on any one staple and focus instead on the widest dietary variety possible. It’s not a mainstay, but rice and wild rice is present in my current thyroid-healthy diet, and more so since I’ve eliminated gluten. My family and I eat and enjoy white, brown, and wild rice in moderation.

Most of the rice we eat is organic white basmati or jasmine rice from Lundberg Farms. We always rinse our rice in a fine-mesh strainer until the water runs clear, prior to cooking.

We also occasionally eat rice-based products. Most of the time on pasta night, I’ll whip up some zoodles, or spaghetti squash, but I also cherish the ability to occasionally enjoy my favorite brown rice-based gluten-free pasta which is just like the real thing, and which my whole family enjoys.

While my baking endeavors typically fall into the Paleo (i.e. grain-free) category, I occasionally use a rice-based gluten-free flour blend for a batch of pancakes or cookies that taste more ‘traditional.’ Plus, because my son has a tree nut allergy, paleo baked goods are often not an option for him because so many of the recipes rely on nut flours. 

Are my heavy metals high from eating rice? No. I have done several HTMA (hair tissue mineral analysis) tests without seeing any increases in heavy metals. In fact, I've seen decreases because I also make a regular point to incorporate foods that support the body’s ability to rid itself of heavy metals, like turmeric and cilantro.

All in all, I feel safe eating and feeding my family some rice and rice products because we use moderation and the safest practices in preparing them. 

The takeaway? Do what works for you, and make the best-informed choices possible. I hope this article has informed and empowered you to do just that next time you decide to make and enjoy a pot of rice.


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