Eating a bowl of quinoa a day may lower your risk of premature death from diseases like cancer, heart disease, respiratory disease, and diabetes by 17 percent. This was the finding from a Harvard School of Public Health study, which followed more than 367,000 people for about 14 years.1
Those who ate about 1.2 ounces (34 grams) of quinoa per 1,000 kcal daily enjoyed the lowered risk of all-cause mortality.2 Unfortunately, the researchers lumped quinoa in with other whole grains and cereal fibers, even though quinoa is not a grain at all – it’s a seed.
Even the US Whole Grains Council featured quinoa as a whole grain of the month, so it’s no wonder so many are confused. Even the Whole Grains Council admitted:3
“Quinoa… is in fact not technically a cereal grain at all, but is instead what we call a ‘pseudo-cereal’ – our name for foods that are cooked and eaten like grains and have a similar nutrient profile. Botanically, quinoa is related to beets, chard, and spinach, and in fact the leaves can be eaten as well as the grains.”
But make no mistake, while quinoa can be a healthy addition to your diet, I would not recommend feasting on whole grains; the two are quite different in terms of their nutritional value and effects on your health.
Quinoa Contains Both Healthy Fats and Protein
Quinoa is often described as the highest-protein “grain” (again, even though it’s a seed), and this is because it’s actually a complete protein. There are nine essential amino acids that you must get via your diet, as your body does not make them on its own.
Foods that supply all of the essential amino acids are generally known as “complete” proteins, while those that do not are known as “incomplete” proteins. Most grains lack adequate amounts of the amino acids lysine and isoleucine, making them incomplete proteins.
Quinoa, however, has higher amounts of both lysine and isoleucine, making it a complete protein. It is a particularly good source of lysine, which is important for immune system health, muscle repair, and may even reduce anxiety.4
There are about 24 grams of protein in one cup of quinoa, compared to about five grams in a cup of rice, and quinoa has 25 percent more protein than refined grains.5 In addition, quinoa is a valuable source of healthy fats, unlike most grains.
Close to 30 percent of the fatty acids in quinoa come from oleic acid, the same monounsaturated fatty acid found in olive oil and linked to reduced blood pressure and heart disease risk. About 5 percent of quinoa’s fatty acids are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a beneficial form of plant-based omega-3s.6 Also noteworthy, as Live Science reported:7
“Most foods lose their healthy fatty acids when oxidized, but quinoa’s nutrients hold up to boiling, simmering, and steaming.”
Quinoa Is an Antioxidant Powerhouse
Quinoa is rich in phytonutrients, including antioxidants like ferulic, coumaric, hydroxybenzoic, and vanillic acid. Quinoa also contains the antioxidants quercetin and kaempferol, in concentrations that rival those found in berries like cranberries.8
Quercetin is an antioxidant that many believe prevents histamine release—making quercetin-rich foods “natural antihistamines.” Kaempferol, meanwhile, may help fight cancer and lower your risk of chronic diseases including heart disease. Antioxidant flavonoids in quinoa have also been found to lower the risk of dying from heart disease.9
Further, the phenolic acids in quinoa offer powerful anti-inflammatory benefits, and research shows daily consumption of quinoa may lower levels of inflammation in the fat tissue and intestines of rats.10 Compare this to most grains, which tend to increase levels of inflammation in your body.
Quinoa May Boost Heart Health, Lower Diabetes Risk
Quinoa contains a wealth of nutrients that are good for your heart, including monounsaturated fats. In one study published in the European Journal of Nutrition, consuming quinoa led to lower levels of triglycerides and free fatty-acids, which is associated with a lower risk of heart disease, than other gluten-free grains.11
Research also suggests quinoa has a favorable effect on blood sugar levels and may even help lower diabetes risk. In a study of rats fed a high-fructose diet, it was shown that “quinoa seeds can reduce most of the adverse effects exerted by fructose on lipid profile and glucose level.”12
Further, in a study of 10 traditional Peruvian grains, quinoa had the highest antioxidant activity, which the researchers believed may be useful for helping to manage type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.13,14 And as noted by the George Mateljan Foundation:15
“With respect to type 2 diabetes, quinoa simply has too many things in common with other foods known to decrease risk. At the top of the list here would be its fiber and protein content. Quinoa is a good source of fiber—one of the key macronutrients needed for healthy blood sugar regulation.
It also provides outstanding protein quality, even in comparison to commonly-eaten whole grains. Strong intake of protein and fiber are two dietary essentials for regulation of blood sugar. Because chronic, unwanted inflammation is also a key risk factor for development of type 2 diabetes, the diverse range of anti-inflammatory nutrients found in quinoa also make it a great candidate for diabetes risk reduction.”
Quinoa Can Help You Increase Your Fiber Intake
Quinoa is a good source of protein, with about 12 grams in one cup. When it comes to fiber, the recommended amount is between 20 and 30 grams per day, but I believe about 32 grams per day is ideal. Unfortunately, most people get only half that, or less, which could put your health at risk.
In one study, those who ate the most fiber had a 25 percent reduced risk of dying from any cause within the next nine years, compared to those whose fiber intake was lacking.16
Previous research has also found an inverse association between fiber intake and heart attack, and research shows that those eating a high-fiber diet have a 40 percent lower risk of heart disease to begin with.17
Unfortunately, many people turn to whole grains to add fiber to their diets. While they certainly contain fiber, if you are insulin and leptin resistant they will raise your insulin and leptin levels, which is a major driver of most chronic diseases.
Besides, most whole-grain products on the market are highly processed, which further deteriorates their value. Instead, focus on eating more vegetables, nuts, and seeds, like quinoa.
As an added bonus, the fiber in quinoa can help you feel full longer. One study found that people who ate quinoa reported greater feelings of satiety than those who ate wheat or rice.18
An Excellent Gluten-Free Alternative
Gluten, a protein found in grains such as wheat, rye, and barley, causes the immune system to attack the intestines in people with celiac disease. But non-celiac gluten sensitivity may actually affect as many as 30 to 40 percent of the population, and according to Dr. Alessio Fasano at Massachusetts General Hospital, virtually all of us are affected to some degree.19
This is because we all create a substance called zonulin in the intestine in response to gluten. Glutinous proteins, known as prolamines, can make your gut more permeable, which allows partially digested proteins to get into your bloodstream that would otherwise have been excluded, any of which can sensitize your immune system and promote inflammation, contribute to chronic disease.
Once gluten sensitizes your gut, it then becomes more permeable and all manner of gut bacterial components and previously excluded dietary proteins—including casein and other dairy proteins—have direct access to your bloodstream, thereby further challenging your immune system. Gluten may even negatively impact mood and brain health.
Quinoa, which is nutritionally dense, makes an excellent alternative to some of the other gluten-free options, such as rice, corn, or potato flour. In fact, when quinoa was added to gluten-free products, it significantly increased their polyphenol content.20
Gluten also makes your gut more permeable, which allows proteins to get into your bloodstream, where they don’t belong. That then sensitizes your immune system and promotes inflammation and autoimmunity, both of which play a role in the development
Quinoa Can Be Eaten Hot or Cold, for Breakfast, Lunch, or Dinner
Quinoa’s nutritional profile makes it a smart choice for your health, especially in favor of grains, but its simplicity and versatility makes it an easy choice as well. You can easily substitute quinoa or quinoa flour for grains and grain flours in recipes. It cooks up in under 15 minutes, and has a mild nutty flavor and chewy texture that works well with a variety of flavors, hot or cold. Try quinoa in salads, soups or stews, as a breakfast porridge, and as a healthy side dish. You can even find quinoa noodles.
In fact, any time you’re tempted to reach for a grain, make it a habit to substitute quinoa instead. It’s an easy way to add valuable nutrition to your diet while avoiding the many pitfalls of eating too many grains.