Often considered one of the world’s healthiest foods, quinoa is a powerhouse of nutrition that offers an array of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals in every serving.
Interestingly enough, the quinoa pronunciation (keen-wah) isn’t the only source of confusion when it comes to this incredible ingredient. In fact, although it’s commonly known as an “ancient grain,” it is technically not a grain or cereal grain, but a seed.
It also does not contain gluten — just one of the many benefits of this powerful superfood.
After its explosive rise in the nutrition world, it was even recognized by the United Nations in 2013 as a potential factor in “eradicating hunger, malnutrition and poverty.” And because of its impressive nutritional profile, widespread availability and affordability, the UN declared 2013 the “Year of Quinoa.”
So what is quinoa good for, and does this ancient grain actually live up to the hyped-up health claims? Keep reading for everything you need to know, including how to add it to your diet.
What Is Quinoa?
Botanically speaking, quinoa is actually considered a seed rather than a grain. The tiny granules known as quinoa are the seeds of the Chenopodium quinoa plant, a broadleaf plant that produces seeds instead of fruit.
Unlike actual grains, such as wheat and barley, which grow in grasses, these plants grow edible seeds. Because of this process, Chenopodium quinoa is actually labeled as a “pseudocereal,” a seed used in the same way a cereal grain such as barley would be.
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 and takes the least amount of time to cook. 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 the black variety 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.
Although it’s become increasingly popular in the last decade, quinoa has been farmed for millennia in South America. Known by the Incas as chisiya (“mother grain”), it 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 considered using 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.
The nutritional profile of quinoa is impressive by itself, but some of the best parts about its health benefits aren’t listed on the 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 nine essential amino acids that your body doesn’t produce on its own.
Not only that, but for a food that’s used as a grain, the 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.
Besides being high in protein and low in quinoa carbs, it also contains a good amount of fiber, manganese, magnesium, phosphorus and folate, along with an array of other essential micronutrients.
One cup (about 185 grams) of cooked quinoa contains the following nutrients:
- 222 calories
- 39.4 grams carbohydrates
- 8.1 grams protein
- 3.6 grams fat
- 5.2 grams fiber
- 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 B6 (11 percent DV)
- 318 milligrams potassium (9 percent DV)
- 5.2 micrograms selenium (7 percent DV)
- 1.2 milligrams vitamin E (6 percent DV)
- 0.8 milligrams niacin (4 percent DV)
- 31.5 milligrams calcium (3 percent DV)
Top 9 Benefits
1. Aids in Weight Loss
Thanks to the content of quinoa protein and fiber found in each serving, adding it to your diet can help keep you feeling fuller for longer.
Whole grains and pseudocereals have been consistently shown to increase feelings of fullness after meals when compared to refined grains, such as white bread or pasta. It is also believed that quinoa may influence the action of hormones that play a role in appetite, such as ghrelin, peptide YY and insulin.
Research consistently shows that quinoa consumption is linked to decreased weight gain.
One animal model published in Obesity also found that quinoa extract could protect against diet-induced obesity in mice. It also helped increase the amount of calories during the day, enhanced glucose processing and decreased dietary fat absorption in the body.
2. Nutritious and Gluten-Free
Quinoa may be beneficial for people following a gluten-free diet by providing important nutrients that they may miss after eliminating traditional grains from their diets.
A 2009 study reviewed diet records of patients with celiac disease who followed a gluten-free diet and found that most subjects relied heavily on rice as their primary grain source, which made their diets nutritionally inadequate. However, by changing their primary whole grain source to quinoa, the subjects were able to increase their intake of protein, iron, calcium and fiber.
Even when studied over time, most people with celiac disease can easily tolerate quinoa on a daily basis. Using quinoa vs. rice as a primary grain may help ensure a more balanced diet for those with celiac disease, as well as others who follow a gluten-free diet.
3. May Help Fight Cancer
Quinoa is a great source of antioxidants, which are compounds that can help fight against harmful free radicals to prevent chronic conditions like cancer and heart disease. It also contains several other compounds that have been well-studied for their cancer-fighting effects.
The first of these compounds is saponin, which is also the most controversial. Saponins occur naturally 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.
Saponins also act as an antinutrient. Aninutrients are compounds that are poorly absorbed in the digestive tract and may block the absorption of certain vitamins and minerals.
However, they have also shown promising results against cancer in in vitro studies and may be effective against the formation of glioblastoma cells in the brain.
Quinoa’s second “super nutrient” in cancer research is known as lunasin. Although it’s been a subject of scrutiny since 1996, lunasin is a peptide with a number of potential health benefits, including its ability to bind to and break apart cancer cells.
Lunasin is particularly special because, in both lab and animal tests, it kills only cancer cells while leaving healthy cells untouched.
Finally, quinoa also contains an antioxidant known as quercetin, which can help block the spread of certain types of cancer cells. Quercetin works by fighting free radical damage related to a large number of diseases.
It’s also one of the reasons that quinoa is considered an anti-inflammatory food.
4. Supports Heart Health
Quinoa’s anti-inflammatory nutrients also make it a great addition to a heart-healthy diet.
Some research suggests that upping your intake of ALA may be tied to a reduced risk of heart disease. Monounsaturated fats like oleic acid have also been associated with heart-healthy benefits and may help manage cholesterol levels to prevent plaque buildup in the arteries.
Quinoa is a great source of potassium and magnesium as well, both of which play a major role in heart health. Potassium helps reduce blood pressure levels to keep your heart healthy and strong.
5. Contains Disease-Fighting Antioxidants
A specific type of antioxidant called flavonoids are found in large amounts in quinoa. This group of antioxidants garnered interest in the mid-1990s for their disease-preventing benefits.
6. Helps Keep Your Gut Healthy
Scientists found that both of these pseudocereals possess potential as prebiotics and can serve to improve gastrointestinal health by balancing the levels of good gut bacteria.
The fiber found in quinoa can also help the beneficial bacteria in the intestines produce butyrate, a type of short-chain fatty acid known for its gut-boosting benefits. Butyrate not only suppresses inflammation, but helps control overabundant immune cells that serve as a source of the inflammation.
7. Supports Bone Health
Instead of drinking dairy products to build healthy bones, you might want to try simply eating more quinoa.
It’s also rich in ALA, a type of omega-3 fatty acid that has been shown to help improve bone health in some animal models.
8. Reduces Risk of Diabetes
Eating manganese-rich foods may be one key to maintaining healthy blood sugar and decreasing your risk of diabetes. In one 2013 animal model, adding manganese to the diet was effective at reducing blood sugar levels and enhancing insulin secretion.
Quinoa also offers a hearty dose of fiber in each serving, which can slow the absorption of sugar in the bloodstream to help balance blood sugar levels.
Other research shows that magnesium intake is also associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes, and you can get about a third of your daily required magnesium with a single cup of quinoa.
9. Enhances Regularity
Quinoa is a great source of fiber, which is central to maintaining digestive health and regularity. Fiber moves through the digestive tract slowly, adding bulk to the stool to ease its passage through the intestines.
In addition to preventing constipation, increasing your intake of fiber may also be therapeutic for several other digestive disorders. According to a paper published in Nutrition Reviews, fiber may help protect against hemorrhoids, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), diverticulitis and stomach ulcers as well.
How to Cook and Add to Diet (Plus Recipes)
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 health food aisle.
The best (and trickiest) part of cooking quinoa is that it generally tastes fairly plain when boiled in water. However, the lack of flavor exponentially increases the versatility of recipes you can create using quinoa.
If you’re looking for a simple method for how to make quinoa taste good and some easy ways 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.
It makes a great substitute for other grains in quinoa recipes like pilaf, porridge, soups and stews. You can also incorporate quinoa into salads, burrito bowls, casseroles and more.
Here are a few quinoa recipe ideas to help spark your creativity:
- Black Bean Quinoa Salad
- Quinoa Pilaf
- Beef and Quinoa Stuffed Peppers
- Quinoa Porridge
- Baked Quinoa with Apples
Risks and Side Effects
It is possible to have a food allergy to quinoa, which can cause symptoms like stomach pain, itchy skin or hives.
Keep in mind that you may actually be sensitive to saponin rather than quinoa itself, which is a compound found in some plants. If this is the case, try soaking quinoa for at least 30 minutes and rinsing it thoroughly before cooking to reduce the content of saponins.
Quinoa is naturally gluten-free. However, it could cause issues for some people with celiac disease or a sensitivity to gluten due to the presence of prolamins, which are a type of protein found in wheat and other cereal grains.
Some types of quinoa may also be produced in facilities that process gluten-containing grains as well, which can increase the risk of cross-contamination. For this reason, it’s important to purchase only products that are certified gluten-free if you have celiac disease or a sensitivity to gluten.
- What is quinoa? This type of seed is considered a “pseudocereal” and comes from a type of broadleaf plant native to South America.
- Take a look at the nutrition facts and it’s easy to tell why this pseudocereal is so great for your health. In addition to providing a low amount of quinoa calories in each serving, it’s also high in protein, fiber, manganese, magnesium and phosphorus.
- Adding this powerful grain to your diet could help promote weight loss, stabilize blood sugar levels, block the growth of cancer cells, and improve the health of your heart, gut and bones.
- It’s also gluten-free, which makes it a simple substitute for gluten-containing grains like rye, wheat and barley.
- There are many options for how to cook quinoa. It works well in soups, stews, salads or casseroles and can be easily swapped into many recipes in place of other grains, making it a versatile and delicious dietary addition.
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