As worldwide obesity rates soar, researchers in Japan say they have discovered a potential way to prevent the condition – by eating more rice.

For the study, academics at the Doshisha Women’s College of Liberal Arts in Kyoto examined how rice consumption compared to obesity rates in 136 countries with populations of more than one million. The researchers analyzed all types of rice products, including white rice, brown rice, and rice flour, using data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

The team accounted for other lifestyle and socioeconomic risk factors in the studied countries, including education, total energy consumption, gross domestic product per capita, smoking rates, and health expenditure.

They found that obesity rates were lower in countries with higher rice consumption, even after they accounted for those other risk factors.

“The observed associations suggest that the obesity rate is low in countries that eat rice as a staple food. Therefore, a Japanese food or an Asian-food-style diet based on rice may help prevent obesity,” lead author, professor Tomoko Imai from Doshisha Women's College of Liberal Arts, said in a press release.

What’s more, the study suggests that even a moderate increase in average rice consumption could protect against obesity. For example, if each person ate an extra quarter of a cup, or 50 grams, of rice per day, worldwide obesity rates could be lowered by one per cent.

According to the World Health Organization, there are approximately 650 million adults aged 18 years or older who are classified as obese. If the average rice consumption increased by 50 grams per person a day, that number would drop to 643.5 million adults, the researchers said.

The top five countries with the highest rice consumption were Bangladesh followed by Lao, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Indonesia. Canada ranked 77th on the list for rice consumption while the U.S. came in at 87th, the U.K. ranked 89th, and France was in the 99th spot.

“Given the rising levels of obesity worldwide, eating more rice should be recommended to protect against obesity even in western countries,” Imai said.

The authors suggest that rice may be healthy because it has less fat, it’s rich in resistant starch, which is digested in the large intestine and has several health benefits, and people have low blood glucose levels-- which suppresses insulin secretion-- after they have eaten it.

“Eating rice seems to protect against weight gain. It’s possible that the fibre, nutrients, and plant compounds found in whole grains may increase feelings of fullness and prevent overeating,” Imai said.

But before people start piling up their plates with rice, Imai warns that overeating rice has been associated with the development of diabetes and metabolic syndrome, a group of medical conditions that can increase the risk of heart disease and stroke.

“Therefore, an appropriate amount of rice intake may prevent obesity,” she said.

Although the research only discovered a link between high rice consumption and lower obesity rates and not a cause-and-effect relationship, the academics said their findings show a need for further studies on the topic.

The results of the study will be presented to the European Congress on Obesity in Glasgow, U.K. this week.