Your Health Checkup: Is White Rice Bad for You?

How healthy is white rice, and whatever happened to Walter Kempner’s famous Rice Diet?

Bowl of white rice

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“Your Health Checkup” is our online column by Dr. Douglas Zipes, an internationally acclaimed cardiologist, professor, author, inventor, and authority on pacing and electrophysiology. Dr. Zipes is also a contributor to The Saturday Evening Post print magazine. Subscribe to receive thoughtful articles, new fiction, health and wellness advice, and gems from our archive. 

Eating lunch today at one of our favorite restaurants, my wife ordered a blackened grouper sandwich that came with a side of white rice. After a bite or two, she asked, “Is white rice good for you?” I replied that highly refined and ultra-processed foods are generally not healthy and are to be avoided. However, white rice is consumed by people all over the world without apparent ill effects. In fact, the Japanese devour huge amounts and have much less coronary heart disease than Western populations.

I researched rice on Google.

Brown rice contains the whole rice grain, including the bran and germ, which have major nutrients. It has fewer carbohydrates and calories and more fiber than white rice. Some consider it healthier. White rice has lost the bran and germ and contains only the carbohydrate-rich endosperm. However, in the U.S. and many other countries, white rice is enriched with added nutrients such as iron, folic acid, niacin, thiamin and others. It is easier to digest than brown rice and contains less arsenic. Both are gluten-free. White rice consumption has been associated with an increase in diabetes, but the studies show an association, not causality, and the findings have been challenged by a number of experts.

None of the contemporary dietary sources I searched mentioned Dr. Kempner and the Rice Diet.

Dr. Walter Kempner emigrated from Nazi Germany in 1934 and was recruited to Duke Hospital as a medical scientist. He amassed a group of patients that exceeded in number all other medical doctors at Duke combined.

His attraction? The rice diet.

At a time when no effective therapy existed for diabetes, high blood pressure, or kidney disease, Dr. Kempner treated a very ill diabetic patient with a diet of white rice and fruit—and no salt—to rid the body of toxins.

After her hospital stay, the patient in error continued the same rice diet as an outpatient since no one had told her to change it. When Dr. Kempner saw her many months later, most of the diabetic vascular changes had reversed, her blood pressure was under control, and her kidney function had improved.

Rice diet therapy was born.

Patients soon traveled to Duke from all over the United States to eat rice. They lost weight, their blood pressure dropped, general health improved, and they flocked to Durham in droves. Duke established “rice houses” in town at cooperating motels/hotels to serve rice, fruit and vitamin supplements to accommodate patient overflow from the university hospital.

I was Dr. Kempner’s intern for a month’s rotation in 1964. We made rounds in the morning to check on each patient. Dr. Kempner walked stiffly erect, hands clasped behind the back of his starched, long white coat, and stethoscope dangling from earpieces around his neck. He stood for a moment at each patient’s bedside and allowed them one question, and one question only.

Invariably, they asked about their urine. Dr. Kempner had the hospital collect every drop from every patient and analyze it for salt to see who was cheating. A patient who snuck a pizza slice the day before would offer hard cash to buy the urine of one who had followed the rice rules.

One day a wealthy New Yorker, CEO of a major corporation, was admitted to Dr. Kempner’s service to treat uncontrolled high blood pressure and to lose weight. He was a big guy, more than three hundred pounds, with a huge gut hanging over his belt. Used to giving orders, he struggled with Dr. Kempner’s domineering style.

After three weeks in the hospital eating white rice every day — except Friday when he was allowed a boiled chicken breast — the patient began to go stir crazy. On Thursday, he’d become euphoric, anticipating Friday’s chicken dinner, and on Saturday, he plummeted to the depths of depression, facing six more days of unrelenting rice.

On the third Saturday, he broke — just lost it. Spotting a tray full of delicious food for the patient across the hall, he bolted from his bed and grabbed the first thing he could — it turned out to be a hardboiled egg — wolfed it down and, hiding his face with a napkin, sneaked back to his bed, hoping no one saw him.

A nurse reported him to Dr. Kempner.

When we made rounds the next morning, the CEO pinched his brow, squinted his eyes, squirmed, fidgeted in his bed, and looked everywhere but at Dr. Kempner. Dr. Kempner seemed oblivious, aloof, glaring down at him.

Finally, the patient couldn’t stand it any longer and asked his one question. “Dr. Kempner, how…um, how…um, how was my urine?” he finally blurted.

Dr. Kempner stared him in the eye and without a moment’s hesitation said, “Urine? Your urine had one hardboiled egg in it!” He then spun on his heels and stalked out, leaving the patient aghast, his mouth wide open.

The man checked out that afternoon and returned to New York on the first flight from Durham.

I don’t recommend eating rice six days a week, but as a side to accompany a blackened grouper sandwich, it seems perfectly fine.

The anecdote about Kempner was abridged from my memoir, Damn the Naysayers, published by iUniverse, 2018.

Featured image: frank60 / Shutterstock

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