In a quest to find the world’s healthiest foods, it would be nearly impossible to miss out on one of the best complete protein foods available: quinoa. Quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah) is a 7,000-year-old plant that originated in the mountainous regions of South America. (1) While it is commonly known as an “ancient grain,” quinoa is technically not a grain or cereal grain, but a seed, and does not contain gluten — just one of the many benefits of quinoa nutrition.
After its explosive rise to the top of the worldwide eye on healthy nutrition, quinoa nutrition was recognized by the United Nations in 2013 as a potential factor in “eradicating hunger, malnutrition and poverty.” Because quinoa has a broad nutritional profile and is easy and inexpensive to cultivate, the UN declared 2013 the “Year of Quinoa.” (2)
Whether you’re searching for a quality gluten-free carbohydrate, or just interested in why quinoa is the subject of so much hype, you’ll be excited to see what it can do for you.
So, What Is Quinoa, Anyway?
Like I said, quinoa is botanically considered a seed rather than a grain. The tiny granules you know as quinoa are seeds of the Chenopodium quinoa plant, a broadleaf plant that produces seeds rather than fruit. (3) Although it’s become increasingly popular in the last decade, quinoa has been farmed for millennia in South America.
Unlike actual grains such as wheat and barley, which grow in grasses, quinoa plants grow edible seeds. Because of this process, Chenopodium quinoa’s official label is that of a “pseudocereal,” a seed used in nutrition the same way a cereal grain such as barley would be.
Known by the Incas as chisiya (“mother grain”), quinoa had its place in ancient religious ceremonies as well as home kitchens. From beneath the earth to outer space, quinoa nutrition is so impressive that NASA even wants to use it for long-term space missions as a healthy, easily growable crop.
With the emergence of the Paleo diet and other lifestyles that encourage the elimination of gluten, complex, gluten-free carbohydrates like quinoa are a must-have for energy. However, the real beauty of quinoa nutrition lies in its protein content and other extremely beneficial nutrients.
Quinoa Nutrition Facts
The nutritional profile of quinoa is impressive by itself, but some of the best parts about quinoa nutrition aren’t going to be obvious on a nutrition label.
For example, quinoa is a rare plant food that is actually a complete protein source. Although not every food you eat has to be a complete protein, it’s somewhat rare for a plant food to have the complete profile of all 20 amino acids, including the 10 essential acids our body doesn’t produce on its own.
Sure, it doesn’t quite match the protein content of grass-fed beef, but for a plant-based food that’s often used as a base or part of a side dish in recipes, 8 grams of protein is still an astounding feat, especially for people following a vegetarian or vegan diet. For an average-sized adult female, one cup of quinoa is over 17 percent of what the USDA recommends for daily protein intake.
Chenopodium quinoa has 442 milligrams of l-lysine, one of the most well-documented of the essential amino acids. That’s more than a fifth of what you need each day — and ensuring you get enough l-lysine is crucial for a wide variety of health reasons, from preventing cancer to reducing anxiety.
Lastly, for a food that operates like a grain, quinoa seeds boast a great protein to carbohydrate ratio. This is because the germ constitutes nearly 60 percent of the entire grain — comparing that to wheat germ, which makes up less than three percent of the kernel. (4)
One cup of cooked quinoa contains: (5)
- 222 calories
- 4 grams of fat
- 13 milligrams sodium
- 39 grams carbohydrate
- 5 grams fiber
- 8 grams protein
- 1.2 milligrams manganese (58 percent DV)
- 118 milligrams magnesium (30 percent DV)
- 281 milligrams phosphorus (28 percent DV)
- 77.7 micrograms folate (19 percent DV)
- 0.4 milligrams copper (18 percent DV)
- 2.8 milligrams iron (15 percent DV)
- 0.2 milligrams thiamine (13 percent DV)
- 2 milligrams zinc (13 percent DV)
- 0.2 milligrams riboflavin (12 percent DV)
- 0.2 milligrams Vitamin B-6 (11 percent DV)
- 318 milligrams potassium (9 percent DV)
- 5.2 micrograms selenium (7 percent DV)
- 1.2 milligrams Vitamin E (6 percent DV)
Types of Quinoa
While most of us are used to seeing the more common white quinoa, there are actually about 120 varieties throughout the world. According to the Whole Grains Council, three categories of quinoa have been commercialized for sale: red, white and black.
Generally, chefs appreciate the nuanced differences between the three types, but the typical consumer will probably be equally happy with any choice.
White Quinoa – This is the most widely sold variety of quinoa, and takes the least amount of time to cook. (6) It’s sometimes referred to as ivory quinoa.
Red Quinoa – Because it doesn’t easily lose its shape, cooks prefer using this type of quinoa in cold salads or other recipes where the texture of a distinct grain is preferred.
Black Quinoa – The taste of black quinoa is more different than the white and red varieties, with an earthy, sweet flavor profile. It takes the longest to cook, needing about 15–20 minutes to be completely done.
8 Quinoa Nutrition Benefits
1. Aids in weight loss
Due to its high insoluble fiber and protein content, quinoa can increase that “full” feeling you have after a meal, known as satiety. Whole grains and pseudocereals have been consistently shown to increase feelings of fullness after meals when compared to refined grains. (7) It is also believed that quinoa may influence the action of hormones that play a role in appetite, such as gherkin, peptide YY and insulin. (8)
If you take a look at research that studies the impact of quinoa nutrition on the human body over time, you’ll find that eating quinoa is associated with weight loss, as well as an improvement in the levels of cholesterol in the blood. (9) Eating quinoa on a regular basis may even be one way to prevent obesity. (10)
In an animal study conducted in 2014, researchers in Paris, France found that quinoa consumption led to higher energy expenditure (read: they moved more), better glucose processing and less dietary fat absorption. (11)
Another reason quinoa may help you lose weight is because it contains over half of the manganese you need every day. Manganese impacts hormones and digestive enzymes, making it easier for your body to digest and use the food you eat efficiently.
2. Nutritious gluten-free alternative
Quinoa may be beneficial for people following a gluten-free diet, providing nutrients they are missing after eliminating traditional grains from their diets. A 2009 study reviewed diet records of patients with celiac disease who followed a gluten-free diet, finding that most subjects relied heavily on rice as their primary grain source, which made their diet inadequate nutritionally.
However, by changing their primary whole grain source to quinoa, the subjects were able to meet their protein, iron, calcium and fiber needs. (12)(13) Even when studied over time, celiac patients can easily tolerate quinoa on a daily basis. (14) Using quinoa as a primary grain instead of other gluten-free alternatives may help ensure a more balanced diet for celiac suffers, as well as others who follow a gluten-free diet.
3. May help fight cancer
Since quinoa is such a great source of antioxidants (which I’ll delve into a little later), it’s probably no big surprise that it has anti-cancer properties. However, the extent of research might shock you — quinoa as a standalone food and three specific nutrients found in quinoa seeds are some of the most revolutionary topics of research regarding preventing or treating cancer. (15)(16)
The first of these nutrients, saponin, is also the most controversial. Saponins naturally occur in various types of plants and have a mild “detergent” quality — that’s why when you rinse quinoa, you’ll notice a soft white foam forms.
Saponin sometimes acts like an antinutrient, and in some foods can negatively impact the lining of the intestines and contribute to leaky gut syndrome, as well as destroying some healthy red blood cells.
However, they also have shown promising results when tested on cancer cells — saponins have caused cell death in glioblastoma (aggressive brain cancer), leukemia and lymphoma cells in the lab. (17) Their permeability (meaning their ability to travel through various organ linings) is actually one factor in their potential power against cancer. (18)
Quinoa’s second “super nutrient” in cancer research is known as lunasin. The subject of scientific scrutiny since 1996, Lunasin is a peptide with a number of potential health benefits, most notably its ability to bind to and break apart cancer cells. (19) Lunasin is particularly special because, in both lab and animal tests, it kills only cancer cells while leaving healthy cells untouched. (20)
The lunasin found in Chenopodium quinoa is considered bioactive, which simply means that eating quinoa is a useful way to have this nutrient actively operate in your body. (21)
Finally, quinoa also contains an antioxidant known as quercetin, which has significant success in stopping the spread of lung cancer as well as others. (22) Quercetin works by fighting free radical damage related to a large number of diseases. It’s one of the reasons quinoa, which contains one of the highest levels of quercetin found in any food, is an anti-inflammatory food. (23)
4. Supports a healthy heart
Quinoa’s anti-inflammatory nutrients also make it a great addition to a heart-healthy diet. Heart disease is currently the leading cause of death worldwide, but the reasons behind it are often related to diet and lifestyle issues that are simple to correct.
One of quinoa nutrition’s benefits is its high level of heart-healthy fats. Quinoa contains about 4 grams of fat per cup and contains no trans fats. About 25 percent of the fat found in quinoa is oleic acid (a healthy monounsaturated fat) and 8% is alpha-linolenic acid, the type of omega-3 found in plants. (24) Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) has been shown to decrease the risk of death from heart attacks.
A diet high in ALA can also help reduce cholesterol and blood pressure levels. Researchers agree that consuming ALA by eating high-ALA foods has the most impact, rather than trying to take it in supplement form. (25)
Three other nutrients found in quinoa nutrition also support heart health: butyrate, potassium and magnesium.
Butyrate is a fatty acid that you can get from certain foods and supplements, and that a healthy gut can make out of fiber content. It can slow or stop the spread of atherosclerosis, a common and dangerous condition characterized by hardening and narrowing of the arteries and disrupting blood flow. (26)
One serving of quinoa provides you with almost a tenth of the potassium you need each day. A major contributor to heart disease in Western culture is our tendency to eat foods high in sodium and not consuming enough potassium. Potassium reduces stroke risk as well and naturally lowers blood pressure.
5. Contains disease-fighting antioxidants
A specific type of antioxidants called bioflavonoids, or flavonoids, is found in large amounts in quinoa. This group of antioxidants garnered interest in the mid-90s for their disease-preventing benefits. One particular class of flavonoid, polyphenols, may play a role in the prevention of cardiovascular disease, cancer, osteoporosis and diabetes. (28)
Quinoa is also high in other antioxidants, quercetin (mentioned above), kaempferol, vanillic acid and ferulic acid, important for the reduction of inflammation, a risk factor for chronic diseases. (29)(30)
In 2016, researchers discovered the presence of beta-carotene in quinoa. (31) When consumed through diet (not supplements), beta-carotene and other carotenoids benefits the body by scavenging the free radicals often responsible for premature aging and various diseases. (32)
Even though it’s not an antioxidant, manganese also plays a role in the function of the antioxidants found in quinoa nutrition. Numerous enzymes that function as antioxidants require manganese to operate.
6. Helps keep your gut healthy by decreasing inflammation
In a 2016 study, quinoa and amaranth were assessed for their function as prebiotics. Prebiotics are undigestible fiber compounds that work with probiotic enzymes to become “fuel” for the beneficial bacteria living in your gut, and are associated with lowered disease risk, lowered inflammation levels and a better functioning immune system.
Scientists found that both of these pseudocereals (which they referred to as common superfoods) have prebiotic potential and can serve to improve gastrointestinal health by balancing the levels of good bacteria functioning there. (33)
The butyrate in quinoa (which I explained earlier supports heart function) may also be part of its gut-repairing abilities. Low levels of this fatty acid (or the inability to metabolize it) are linked with inflammatory gut diseases, such as IBS, Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis.
However, increasing butyrate levels helps to decrease inflammation in the gut and may potentially play a part in the medical solutions for these conditions. Butyrate not only suppresses future inflammation, but causes apoptosis (cell death) in overabundant T-cells that serve as the source of the inflammation. (34)
Succinic acid is also found in quinoa nutrition, which is another anti-inflammatory nutrient significant for its role in maintaining gut health.
Be aware that quinoa is high in phytic acid, which can bind to minerals in food and decrease their absorption. Therefore, even though quinoa does contain a significant amount of minerals, your body may not absorb them all due to the phytic acid content.
Soaking quinoa in water prior to use can help reduce the phytic acid content. One cup of quinoa should be soaked in 2 cups of water with 1 tablespoon of either fresh lemon juice or goat milk yogurt for between 12–24 hours.
7. Supports bone health
Instead of drinking processed milk to build healthy bones, you might want to try eating more quinoa.
8. Reduces diabetes risk
Eating manganese-rich foods may be one key to maintaining healthy blood sugar and decreasing your risk of diabetes. In one 2013 animal study, adding manganese into the animal diet helped to fight insulin resistance. (37)
This may be because of manganese’s part in the process of gluconeogenesis, involving the conversion of amino acids into sugar and balancing the amount of sugar in the bloodstream.
Increasing your consumption of butyrate-rich foods also seems to play into diabetes, as butyrate inhibits the inflammation related to insulin resistance. (38)
Magnesium intake is also associated with a lower Type II diabetes risk, and you can get about a third of your daily required magnesium with just a cup of quinoa. (39)
Best Practices for How to Cook Quinoa
When you head out to your nearest health food store, chances are that quinoa will be readily available, often in bulk. In a more standard grocery store, check out the specialty grain or healthy food aisle. This is not a genetically modified food, so feel free to go quinoa wild!
The best (and trickiest) feature of cooked quinoa is that it generally tastes fairly plain when boiled in water. (Don’t worry; I’d never tell you just to settle for something bland.) The lack of flavor exponentially increases the versatility of recipes you can create using quinoa.
If you’re looking for a simple way to deepen the flavor, you can try boiling it in beef, chicken or vegetable broth instead of water. You can also experiment with black quinoa, since its taste is more noticeably complex.
You can substitute it for rice for a delicious Quinoa Pilaf for a delicious and fiber-rich vegan-friendly side dish. Plus, here’s a pro tip — this pilaf would taste great on a bed of lettuce as a quinoa salad.
Trying to discover a gluten-free alternative for that morning bowl of oatmeal? Check out this outline for Quinoa Porridge — with just the perfect amount of cinnamon.
For a perfect, flavorful dish full of antioxidants, I’d suggest Quinoa-Stuffed Peppers — trust me, by the time you’re ready to eat them, your mouth will be watering for sure.
And for those quinoa-obsessed folks out there (yes, I’m raising my hand, too), here are 21 more of my favorite Quinoa Recipes for healthy eating.
It’s important to be aware of processed products such as pastas or breads made out of quinoa flour, as these products are often refined and more than likely do not contain the health benefits of eating actual quinoa. Processed quinoa products can be used occasionally as a substitute for wheat-containing options.
But it is easy to make your own quinoa flour!
Just take 1–2 cups of quinoa, toast in a skillet for about 5 minutes until it starts to pop. Keep it on the heat, stirring occasionally for 1–2 minutes, then cool. Mix in a high-speed food processor until it gets a nice fine texture.
It is possible to have a food allergy to quinoa. Common symptoms of this allergy would be stomachache, itchy skin and/or hives.
Keep in mind that you may be experiencing an allergic reaction to saponin and not necessarily quinoa, in which case you should soak the food for at least 30 minutes and rinse it thoroughly before cooking, should you try it again. (42)
Quinoa is a gluten-free food, but in isolated reports, there may be a minimal presence of gluten that could trigger celiac episodes. To avoid this, always purchase quinoa from trusted, reputable sources and discontinue use if you experience any adverse symptoms. (43)
Final Thoughts on Quinoa Nutrition
- Quinoa is one of the world’s healthiest foods and has earned the “superfood” label many use for it.
- Since it is gluten-free, quinoa is a great alternative for people suffering from celiac disease or a gluten intolerance.
- Unlike most other plant foods, quinoa is a complete protein source, making it a valuable dietary source of protein for people on plant-based diets.
- Quinoa benefits stem from the incredible quinoa nutrition profile, including over a dozen important vitamins and minerals in significant amounts.
- The nutrients in quinoa have strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that help your body fight and prevent diseases such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes and inflammatory bowel diseases.
- Quinoa nutrition may help you to lose weight.
- Cooking quinoa is fairly simple, and because of its plain natural taste, can go in just about any direction you want for that day’s recipe.
Read Next: 9 Benefits of Chia Seeds
From the sound of it, you might think leaky gut only affects the digestive system, but in reality it can affect more. Because Leaky Gut is so common, and such an enigma, I’m offering a free webinar on all things leaky gut. Click here to learn more about the webinar.
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