Quinoa (pronounced “keen-wah”) is known as an ancient Andean grain, but it’s not a grain—it’s a seed! Quinoa seeds originated and is cultivated in South America along the Andes mountains. It comes from a stress-tolerant plant known as an Amaranthacean and has been cultivated for 4,000–5,000 years. It has become a staple in many modern diets.
Is Quinoa Healthy?
Because quinoa is a seed and not a grain, it has an ideal composition of nutrients. The balance of oils, protein, and fat in quinoa has led it to become what’s known as a functional food. This means that quinoa provides the body with a good source of important vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, and antioxidants to protect the brain and cell membranes, and boost overall nutrition for the body. Let’s take a closer look at exactly what those nutrients are and the roles they play in your health.
Quinoa stands out in the world of food because although it mimics a grain in its uses, it’s much more nutrient-dense. It packs a powerful punch of macronutrients, vitamins, and minerals.
Protein: Unlike most plant-based foods, quinoa is a complete protein. A complete protein means that it contains all the essential and non-essential amino acids. Since amino acids are the building blocks of protein, this makes quinoa a fantastic choice to help those who are following a vegan or vegetarian diet get adequate amounts of protein. Dietary protein is needed to build muscles and tissues in the body, as well as protect the immune system by creating antibodies to fight infection. But unlike animal-based proteins, most plant-based sources of protein are not complete proteins. Quinoa stands out in that sense. In just one cup of cooked quinoa, you get 8.14 g of protein and all the amino acids!
Fiber: Fiber, both soluble and insoluble, is helpful for keeping you fuller longer and regulating the digestive system. Quinoa contains 5.2 g of fiber per cup, so you’re getting a good amount of dietary fiber to help improve your digestive system overall.
Fat: You may not think quinoa can provide healthy fats, but according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), there is 3.55 g of fat per 1 cup of cooked quinoa. This is because quinoa is a seed, so it has the ability to provide unsaturated fatty acids. Unsaturated fatty acids like omega-3s are important for the health of cell membranes and for their anti-inflammatory properties.
Vitamins and minerals: Beyond the simplicity of protein, fiber, and fat, quinoa supplies the body with the following vitamins and minerals that all play a role in the proper functioning of the human body. In just 1 cup of quinoa, you get:
Eating quinoa supplies the body with an abundance of vitamins and minerals, and it also provides many other important health benefits.
Health Benefits of Quinoa: Gluten Free
As a seed, quinoa is naturally gluten free! This makes quinoa ideal for those who have been diagnosed with celiac disease or someone following a gluten-free diet. Quinoa is superior to other gluten-free grains like rice or corn because it provides a higher nutrient profile.
For some people with celiac disease, grains like rice or corn can be irritating to the gut, but studies show that quinoa is more easily tolerated by those with celiac disease and does not trigger any inflammation or digestive distress. It can be a staple in a gluten-free diet. But quinoa doesn’t benefit only those people following a gluten-free diet—it can be enjoyed by anyone!
Health Benefits of Quinoa: Weight Loss
Quinoa has insoluble fiber, which helps keep you fuller longer. It increases satiety, so you experience a feeling of fullness without overeating. Between the fiber content of quinoa and the amount of protein it provides, quinoa has been associated with reducing weight gain. Substituting traditional grains like wheat or rice with quinoa can be one small change that will provide more fiber and protein that can help you reach your weight-loss goals.
One study found that simply consuming 50 g (approximately 1/4 cup) of quinoa per day can lower serum triglyceride levels in an individual who is overweight or obese. Triglycerides are a type of fat that circulates in your blood. The calories that you consume in your diet that aren’t used by the body immediately are stored as triglycerides in your fat cells.
That same study also showed that eating 50 g of quinoa daily reduced the incidence of metabolic syndrome by 70 percent! Metabolic syndrome is described by the Mayo Clinic as a “cluster of conditions—increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol or triglyceride levels—that occur together, increasing your risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.”
Health Benefits of Quinoa: Heart Health
Any time you can support a healthy heart with food, you should. Heart disease is rampant in the U.S., and quinoa helps reduce risk factors like elevated cholesterol levels and high blood pressure because of the specific nutrients it contains. As mentioned above, quinoa contains healthy fats like omega-3 fatty acids like alpha linolenic acid (ALA). One study has found that ALA has a positive effect on cardiovascular disease by helping to reduce blood pressure and cholesterol levels. These are important aspects to keeping your heart healthy and taking steps to prevent heart disease.
Quinoa also contains potassium, which is important to consume given that the standard American diet is high in sodium. The body needs a proper balance of sodium and potassium to keep blood pressure levels in check. Researchers have found that potassium greatly reduces blood pressure, which in turn reduces chances of encountering more serious issues like stroke and coronary heart disease.
Health Benefits of Quinoa: Bone Health
Quinoa contains high levels of manganese—1.2 mg per 1 cup of quinoa. What does manganese have to do with bone health? Manganese is an essential nutrient, which means your body needs it to perform necessary functions. For manganese, that means assisting in bone formation. It is important to help build up your bones to prevent osteoporosis.
Manganese isn’t the only superstar for bone health; magnesium is also found in quinoa and is good for the bones. Studies show that magnesium is helpful for increasing bone mineral density. The density of your bones is crucial for the prevention and treatment of osteoporosis. Quinoa provides 118 mg of magnesium per cup, which is 28 percent of the recommended daily intake for women 31–50 years of age and 37 percent of the recommended daily intake for men aged 31-50. Good news, vegans, you can support your bone health without dairy—just eat more quinoa!
Health Benefits of Quinoa: Diabetes-friendly
Diabetics have to be very mindful of their sugar intake, which means grains aren’t always the best choice since they break down into sugars during digestion. Since quinoa is a seed, it’s a healthy and nutritious option for those with diabetes. Quinoa provides an arguably ideal ratio of protein to carbohydrates (1 g of protein per 4.3 g of carbohydrates). A study showed that for adult women, increasing the proportion of protein to carbohydrate aids in feeling more full after meals, which has a positive effect on weight loss. And quinoa’s fiber content of 5.2 g per 1 cup of quinoa slows digestion and absorption of sugars into the bloodstream.
Not only is quinoa a safe option for diabetics, but one study has found that it also can help improve glucose tolerance, meaning the effect that glucose consumption has on overall blood sugar levels.
Types of Quinoa
There are three varieties of quinoa. They all have different textures and are all fairly neutral in taste, meaning they take on the flavor of other ingredients in the dish.
- White quinoa is the most common and fluffiest in texture of the three. It also cooks the fastest. The flavor is slightly nutty, but fairly mild so it works wonderful as a base for many recipes—including sweet variations.
- Red quinoa is nuttier in flavor and also holds its shape much better than the white variety. It holds up well in cold salads and food preparations where you want a distinct grain texture.
- Black quinoa has the most unique flavor of the three varieties. It is sweet, but earthy. It’s denser than the other varieties so needs to be cooked longer to get the desired texture.
Although quinoa is a seed, it cooks similarly to grains like rice. It’s most commonly cooked in a pot on the stove. When cooking quinoa, you want to use a 1:2 ratio of quinoa to liquid. If you’re using 1/2 cup dry quinoa, you would use 1 cup of liquid.
When it comes to choosing a cooking liquid, remember that quinoa is bland in flavor so using a flavorful liquid to cook it in will make it more flavorful and interesting to your palate. You can use vegetable, chicken, or beef broth. Or use water and add spices to the water as it cooks. If you’re making a quinoa breakfast cereal, you can cook it in almond or coconut milk. The great thing about cooking quinoa is that it takes on any flavor you put with it, so the possibilities are endless!
Quinoa as a Base
Quinoa is useful as a base for cold salads, stir fries, in soups, stews, or even used in meatballs instead of breadcrumbs. It’s also delicious baked in the oven with almond milk, cinnamon, and topped with fresh berries. Because its flavor is neutral, it can be used in both savory and sweet preparations.
There are lots of products on the market that use quinoa because it is nutrient-dense. Gluten-free pastas are made with quinoa flour, as well as other gluten-free items like cookies, baking mixes, and protein bars. It’s versatile and a more nutritious option than items made from regular white flour or even another gluten-free flour like rice flour.
Because of quinoa’s nutrients, the health benefits it provides, and the versatility it offers in its cooking preparations, it’s clear that quinoa is a front runner in the food world. If you haven’t tried quinoa yet, pick some up the next time you’re grocery shopping, and begin cooking quinoa to reap its myriad of benefits!
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.
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