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updated: 9/6/2011 8:45 AM

Beans a healthier option than rice

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Two of the most common foods, worldwide, are beans and rice. Both can have profound and opposite effects on developing a serious medical condition, metabolic syndrome. White rice, as a significant part of the diet, is strongly associated with Type 2 diabetes and developing metabolic syndrome. Beans are a better nutrition source and regularly substituting beans for white rice may reduce the risk of metabolic syndrome.

Metabolic syndrome is a relatively new clinical concept. It is not a specific disease, but a combination of symptoms that increase the risk of diabetes and heart disease. It is defined slightly differently by various medical organizations, but it does include elevated blood sugars and triglycerides coupled with a waist size of greater than 40 inches in men and 35 inches in women. Metabolic syndrome is rapidly becoming one of the most common medical conditions in the U.S. It has been estimated that 25 percent of the population suffers with it.

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Diet plays an important role in metabolic syndrome. A diet rich in sugar and starch (white rice) is associated with an increased risk of metabolic syndrome. Dietary changes can lower the risk, but such alterations can be difficult to maintain over time. But what if it's as simple as regularly substituting one serving of rice with beans?

A recent clinical study, done by the Harvard School of Public Health, looked at the people in Costa Rica who eat a lot of white rice and the effect of dietary changes on developing metabolic syndrome. In this study, an increase risk of metabolic syndrome was associated with increased white rice consumption. In contrast, substituting beans for white rice resulted in significant reductions in several parameters.

In this study, more white rice, on a daily basis, resulted in significant increases in blood pressure, triglycerides and blood glucose. It also caused a drop in good cholesterol (HDL). Substituting beans for rice caused just the opposite. Blood pressure improved, triglycerides decreased and the HDL was higher. The researchers concluded that, on a daily basis, substituting a single serving of beans for white rice was associated with a 35 percent reduced risk of metabolic syndrome.

White rice is primarily starch and, in the human body, is readily converted to sugar. Therefore, a diet that is rich in starch will quickly become a diet that is rich in sugar. A diet rich in sugar increases the risk of metabolic syndrome. Beans are rich in protein, antioxidants and vitamins and most taste good (not a big fan of lima beans though) … almost the opposite of white rice.

In the U.S., potatoes and pasta are more common sources of dietary starch than rice. Perhaps by adding more beans to the diet and less potato and pasta, the 75 million Americans with metabolic syndrome could have a different destiny.

• Patrick B. Massey, M.D., Ph.D is medical director for complementary and alternative medicine for the Alexian Brothers Hospital Network.

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