10 Proven Health Benefits of Quinoa
Quinoa is one of the world's most popular health foods.
Quinoa is gluten-free, high in protein and one of the few plant foods that contain all nine essential amino acids.
It is also high in fiber, magnesium, B vitamins, iron, potassium, calcium, phosphorus, vitamin E and various beneficial antioxidants.
Here are 10 health benefits of quinoa.
1. Very Nutritious
Quinoa is a grain crop that is grown for its edible seeds. It’s pronounced KEEN-wah.
It technically isn't a cereal grain, but a pseudo-cereal.
In other words, it is basically a seed, which is prepared and eaten similarly to a grain.
Quinoa was an important crop for the Inca Empire. They referred to it as the "mother of all grains" and believed it to be sacred.
It has been eaten for thousands of years in South America and only recently became a trend food, even reaching superfood status.
These days, you can find quinoa and quinoa products all over the world, especially in health food stores and restaurants that emphasize natural foods.
There are three main types: white, red and black.
This is the nutrient content in 1 cup (185 grams) of cooked quinoa:
- Protein: 8 grams.
- Fiber: 5 grams.
- Manganese: 58% of the recommended daily allowance (RDA).
- Magnesium: 30% of the RDA.
- Phosphorus: 28% of the RDA.
- Folate: 19% of the RDA.
- Copper: 18% of the RDA.
- Iron: 15% of the RDA.
- Zinc: 13% of the RDA.
- Potassium 9% of the RDA.
- Over 10% of the RDA for vitamins B1, B2 and B6.
- Small amounts of calcium, B3 (niacin) and vitamin E.
This comes with a total of 222 calories, with 39 grams of carbs and 4 grams of fat. It also contains a small amount of omega-3 fatty acids.
Quinoa is non-GMO, gluten-free and usually grown organically. Even though technically not a cereal grain, it still counts as a whole-grain food.
NASA scientists have been looking at it as a suitable crop to be grown in outer space, mostly based on its high nutrient content, ease of use and simplicity of growing it.
The United Nations (UN) declared 2013 "The International Year of Quinoa," due to its high nutrient value and potential to contribute to food security worldwide.
2. Contains the Plant Compounds Quercetin and Kaempferol
The health effects of real foods go beyond the vitamins and minerals with which you may be familiar.
There are thousands of trace nutrients, some of which are extremely healthy.
This includes plant antioxidants called flavonoids, which have been shown to offer various health benefits.
Two flavonoids that have been particularly well studied are quercetin and kaempferol, both found in high amounts in quinoa).
In fact, the quercetin content of quinoa is even higher than in typical high-quercetin foods like cranberries.
These important molecules have been shown to have anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, anti-cancer and anti-depressant effects in animal studies
By including quinoa in your diet, you will significantly increase your total intake of these (and other) important nutrients.
3. Very High in Fiber, Much Higher Than Most Grains
Another important benefit of quinoa is its high fiber content.
One study that looked at 4 varieties of quinoa found a range of 10–16 grams of fiber per every 100 grams.
This equals 17–27 grams per cup, which is very high — more than twice as high as most grains. Boiled quinoa contains much less fiber, gram for gram because it absorbs so much water.
Unfortunately, most of the fiber is insoluble, which doesn't appear to have the same health benefits as soluble fiber.
That being said, the soluble fiber content in quinoa is still quite decent, with about 2.5 grams per cup or 1.5 grams per 100 grams.
Numerous studies show that soluble fiber can help reduce blood sugar levels, lower cholesterol, increase fullness and help with weight loss.
4. Gluten-Free and Perfect for People With Gluten Intolerance
A gluten-free diet can be healthy, as long as it’s based on foods that are naturally gluten-free.
Problems arise when people eat gluten-free foods made with refined starches.
These foods are no better than their gluten-containing counterparts, as gluten-free junk food is still junk food.
Many researchers have been looking at quinoa as a suitable ingredient in gluten-free diets for people who don't want to give up staples like bread and pasta.
Studies have shown that using quinoa instead of typical gluten-free ingredients like refined tapioca, potato, corn and rice flour can dramatically increase the nutrient and antioxidant value of your diet.
5. Very High in Protein, With All the Essential Amino Acids
Protein is made of amino acids, nine of which are called essential, as your body cannot produce them and needs to obtain them through your diet.
If a food contains all nine essential amino acids, it’s referred to as a complete protein.
The problem is that many plant foods are deficient in certain essential amino acids, such as lysine.
However, quinoa is an exception to this, because it contains all the essential amino acids. For this reason, it’s an excellent source of protein. It has both more and better protein than most grains.
With 8 grams of quality protein per cup (185 grams), quinoa is an excellent plant-based protein source for vegetarians and vegans.
6. Has a Low Glycemic Index, Which is Good for Blood Sugar Control
The glycemic index is a measure of how quickly foods raise your blood sugar levels.
Eating foods that are high on the glycemic index can stimulate hunger and contribute to obesity.
Such foods have also been linked to many of the common, chronic, Western diseases like type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Quinoa has a glycemic index of 53, which is considered low.
However, it's important to keep in mind that it’s still fairly high in carbs. Therefore, it’s not a good choice if you’re following a low-carb diet.
7. High in Important Minerals Like Iron and Magnesium
Many people don’t get enough of certain important nutrients.
This is particularly true of some minerals, especially magnesium, potassium, zinc and (for women) iron.
Quinoa is very high in all 4 minerals, particularly magnesium, with one cup (185 grams) providing about 30% of the RDA.
The problem is that it also contains a substance called phytic acid, which can bind these minerals and reduce their absorption.
However, by soaking and/or sprouting the quinoa prior to cooking, you can reduce the phytic acid content and make these minerals more bioavailable.
Quinoa is also pretty high in oxalates, which reduce the absorption of calcium and can cause problems for certain individuals with recurring kidney stones.
8. Has Beneficial Effects on Metabolic Health
Given its high beneficial nutrient content, it makes sense that quinoa could improve metabolic health.
To date, two studies, in humans and rats respectively, examined the effects of quinoa on metabolic health.
The human-based study found that using quinoa instead of typical gluten-free breads and pastas significantly reduced blood sugar, insulin and triglyceride levels.
Research in rats showed that adding quinoa to a diet high in fructose almost completely inhibited the negative effects of fructose.
However, more research is needed to fully understand the effects of quinoa on metabolic health.
9. Very High in Antioxidants
Quinoa is very high in antioxidants, which are substances that neutralize free radicals and are believed to help fight aging and many diseases.
One study, researching antioxidant levels in five cereals, three pseudo-cereals and two legumes found that quinoa had the highest antioxidant content of all ten foods.
Allowing the seeds to sprout seems to increase the antioxidant content even further.
Quinoa appears to be very high in antioxidants. Sprouting increases their antioxidant levels even further.
10. Easy to Incorporate Into Your Diet
While not directly a health benefit, the fact that quinoa is very easy to incorporate into your diet is nonetheless important.
It’s also tasty and goes well with many foods.
Depending on the type of quinoa, it can be important to rinse it with water prior to cooking to get rid of saponins, which are found on the outer layer and can have a bitter flavor.
However, some brands have already been rinsed, making this step unnecessary.
You can buy quinoa in most health food stores and many supermarkets.
It can be ready to eat in as little as 15–20 minutes.
How to prepare
Put 2 cups (240 ml) of water in a pot, turn up the heat.
Add 1 cup (170 grams) of raw quinoa, with a dash of salt.
Boil for 15–20 minutes.
It should now have absorbed most of the water and gotten a fluffy look. If done right, it should have a mild, nutty flavor and a satisfying crunch.
You can easily find many healthy and diverse recipes for quinoa online, including breakfast bowls, lunches and dinners.
The Bottom Line
Rich in fiber, minerals, antioxidants and all nine essential amino acids, quinoa is one of the healthiest and most nutritious foods on the planet.
It may improve your blood sugar and cholesterol levels and even aid weight loss.
What’s more, it’s naturally gluten-free, delicious, versatile and incredibly easy to prepare.
Written by Kris Gunnars, BSc