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Whole Grains Save Lives: The Story of Beriberi Disease

Processed foods are nutrient deficient.

Dr. Padma Garvey/Plant-Based Doctor Mom

Whole Grains Save Lives: The Story of Beriberi Disease

My paternal grandmother age 10, circa 1929 Narsapur India

The perception that traditional plant-based diets are inferior stems from the complicated history of the people who ate these traditional diets.  Take for instance, the story of beriberi.  Beriberi is a serious and often fatal disease caused by a thiamine deficiency.  Thiamine is a vitamin naturally found in rice.  To be more precise, thiamine is found in the rice husk or the tough outer coat of the rice.  Removing the husk manually takes a lot of time and energy.  So, in the distant past, people in Southeast Asia like India would spend very little time pounding the rice grains before they cooked the rice.  This meant that their rice had some husk still on it giving it a brown color.  This little bit of husk, this brown rice, provided these people with an excellent source of whole grain nutrition, full of all the thiamine they needed. In addition, thiamine is found in beans and lentils, other whole grains, and vegetables.  

Around the mid-1800s, colonialism led to economic changes in Southeast Asia. There was an appetite for polished, white rice in Europe.  In addition, mechanical means of milling the rice where developed that enabled complete removal of all the husk.  The rice had a white, polished look.  This led to a switch from traditional brown rice to polished white rice in the diets of the Southeast Asians.  Soon thereafter, reports of a strange and devastating disease in the region began surfacing.  Westerners assumed that the natural diets of Southeast Asia had always been inferior, starting the long held misconception that plant-based diets are inherently deficient in some way compared to meat based diets.  It took quite a long time and many deaths  before the medical community realized what was really happening. By that single switch from brown rice to white rice, people who traditionally ate a plant-based, rice-based diet, went from eating a traditionally healthy and complete diet to developing a serious nutritional deficiency.   It wasn’t until the 1920s that governments tried to halt the milling of rice so that their people could begin eating the more nutritional brown rice.  It proved to be quite difficult because white rice was worth more on the global markets.  

fried rice with brown rice

White rice stores better for longer periods of time then brown rice does.  So white rice is easier to distribute to distant areas.  This is always a plus in mass food production and processing.  So many countries decided to add artificial thiamine to the white rice.  Take a look at a bag of white rice.  You may notice that it says it is enriched with thiamine.  While this strategy helps prevent beriberi, it still means that a significant source of fiber has been eliminated in the diet.  Nowadays, rice is grown in many regions of the world and the issues with storage are less of a concern because of better storage units.  Brown rice is a better choice than white rice in our diets.  I have found that the best way to cook brown rice is to either soak it first in water for 30 minutes prior to cooking over stove or skip the presoak and use a pressure cooker.  The ratio of water to rice is 2:1.  This ensures that your brown rice is cooked perfectly.

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