Considering the countless low-carb diets that have been touted over the last few years, it can seem as though the macronutrient is considered to be public enemy number one. But actually, carbohydrates are the body’s preferred source of energy, and nutrition experts still recommend fueling up on them in healthy amounts, says Mia Syn, M.S., R.D.N., a registered dietitian nutritionist in Charleston, South Carolina.
“We need more carbohydrates than we need protein or fat,” explains Syn. “It makes up 45 to 65 percent of our daily calories, so it still makes up the majority of what we recommend in the [United States Department of Agriculture’s] dietary guidelines,” she notes.
One way you can get your fill? Incorporate quinoa into your meal plan. Here, all the need-to-know info about the whole grain, including the quinoa health benefits that’ll convince any carb skeptic to add it to their plate.
What Is Quinoa?
Although it’s technically a type of edible seed, quinoa (pronounced keen-wah) is considered a whole grain native to the Andes Mountains in Bolivia, Ecuador, Chile, and Peru, where locals have been cultivating it for roughly 5,000 years, according to the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH). There are more than 120 known varieties of quinoa, but you’ll typically see them labeled as white, red, or black in grocery stores. Quinoa is naturally gluten-free, making it an ideal whole grain for folks with an intolerance or celiac disease, according to the HSPH.
Quinoa Nutrition Facts
This whole grain may be tiny, but it packs a huge punch of good-for-you nutrients. Specifically, quinoa is a source of complete protein, fiber, energizing B vitamins, and other vitamins that play key roles in the immune system and the prevention of birth defects in pregnant folks, notes Syn.
Before diving into the exact quinoa health benefits, here’s the nutritional profile of 1/2 cup of cooked quinoa, according to the United States Department of Agriculture:
- 111 calories
- 4 grams protein
- 2 grams fat
- 20 grams carbohydrate
- 3 grams fiber
- <1 gram sugar
Quinoa Health Benefits
This teeny grains can do big things for your health. Here’s the rundown:
Helps Build and Repair Muscles
Compared to other whole grains, quinoa comes out on top when it comes to protein — a macronutrient that helps to build and repair muscle and tissue. In a half-cup serving of the cooked grain, you’ll score 4 grams of protein, aka double that of an equal serving of brown rice. This protein is also complete, meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids — which can be obtained only from food — that are needed to make new protein in the body, per the HSPH. “Most whole grains aren’t complete, and so that may make [quinoa] appealing for vegetarians or vegans who avoid animal products, which are mainly the sources of complete protein,” says Syn.
FTR, meat-free eaters don’t have to eat bowls and bowls of quinoa every day to ensure they snag all of those amino acids. Plant-based folks can score all of the necessary amino acids by eating a variety of protein-filled plant foods, including fruits, veggies, grains, nuts, and seeds, daily, according to the HSPH. But if you want to nab them all in one sitting, quinoa will help you get the job done — and bag 9 percent of the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein.
Supports Healthy Digestion
Nosh on half a cup of cooked quinoa and you’ll get nearly 3 grams of fiber, the parts of plant foods that your body can’t digest. The nutrient not only reduces constipation and normalizes your number twos, but it also may help lower low-density lipoprotein (aka LDL or “bad”) cholesterol levels, which, in turn, may reduce your risk for heart disease or stroke, according to the Mayo Clinic. While that helping will satisfy only 9 percent of the RDA for fiber, it’s a step in the right direction.
Quinoa is a whole grain — meaning it contains 100 percent of the original kernel, including the bran, germ, and endosperm — and, as a result, it retains its energizing B vitamins, notes Syn. A quick food science lesson: B vitamins are stored primarily in a grain’s bran (the outer layer) and the germ (the core of the seed), but refining or milling the grain strips away those two nutritious layers, according to the HSPH. Since those components are kept intact, a half-cup serving of cooked quinoa offers 11 percent of the RDA for vitamin B1 (aka thiamin), which helps convert food into the energy you need to function. Another quinoa health benefit: That half-cup helping provides nearly 9 percent of the RDA for vitamin B6, a nutrient needed to carry out enzyme reactions involved in metabolism, such as the breakdown of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats, according to the HSPH.
Helps Prevent Birth Defects
In a half-cup serving of quinoa, you’ll score nearly 10 percent of the RDA for folate, a B vitamin that assists in DNA production and cell division. Folate also plays a key role in preventing neural tube defects, making it a crucial nutrient for individuals who are pregnant, says Syn. Even folks who aren’t planning on getting pregnant any time soon should still aim to hit that RDA of 400 micrograms if they’re capable of becoming pregnant, as these defects develop in the first few weeks of pregnancy — often before someone finds out they’re expecting, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Luckily, a bowl full of quinoa can help you get one step closer to hitting that recommendation.
Supports a Strong Immune System
This quinoa health benefit will help boost your chances of keeping the sniffles at bay. A half-cup serving of the whole grain contains nearly 13 percent of the RDA for zinc, a mineral that’s needed to develop and activate T cells (a type of white blood cell that protects the body from infection) and, in turn, enable your immune system to fight off illness-causing bacteria and viruses, according to the NIH. Even a mild zinc deficiency can impair your immune system’s ability to defend against infection. All that’s to say you might want to add quinoa — along with other zinc-rich foods such as chicken, pumpkin seeds, and yogurt — to your cold prevention toolkit.
Keeps Your Body Functioning at Its Best
From managing muscle and nerve function to regulating blood sugar levels and blood pressure, magnesium is a do-it-all mineral that’s plentiful in quinoa. In fact, a half-cup serving of the cooked grain will provide you with 19 percent of the RDA for magnesium — an important quinoa health benefit, as many people in the U.S. get less than the recommended amount, according to the NIH. Aside from keeping your body running smoothly on a daily basis, research shows the mineral also plays a role in preventing diabetes, osteoporosis, bronchial asthma, preeclampsia (high blood pressure during pregnancy), migraines, and cardiovascular disease.
Potential Risks of Quinoa
Although uncommon, it’s possible to be allergic to quinoa, which can lead to common food allergy symptoms including itchiness, hives, stomach cramps, diarrhea, and tightness in the throat.
It’s thought that an allergy to quinoa is because of its saponins — a bitter-tasting natural compound that coats the seed’s exterior and functions as a natural pesticide, according to the HSPH. For the most part, the reaction can be avoided by simply rinsing off the quinoa before eating it, or even soaking it for a while. That said, if you have known allergies to other grains but still want to try this one, be cautious and limit your intake to a small portion.
How to Buy and Eat Quinoa
If those quinoa nutrition facts and health perks convinced you to become pro-carb (or further solidified your love for the macronutrient), it’s time to stock your pantry with the grain. When selecting a quinoa, consider how you plan on using it; while all varieties have a similar nutritional profile, white quinoa such as Anthony’s Organic White Whole Grain Quinoa (Buy It, $18, amazon.com) has a fluffy texture and mild flavor that makes it ideal for standalone side dishes, explains Syn. Red and black varieties — such as Food to Live Organic Red Quinoa (Buy It, $14, amazon.com) and Alter Eco Organic Black Heirloom Quinoa (Buy It, $14, amazon.com) respectively — on the other hand, are slightly nutty and maintain their shape, she says. Because of this attribute, they may work best in cold salads, according to the Whole Grains Council.
When you’re not sure which type works best for your dish, opt for a bag of tri-color quinoa such as Bob’s Red Mill Organic Tri-Color Quinoa (Buy It, $13, amazon.com) to experience all those unique textures and tastes. In its uncooked form, quinoa will store in an airtight container or bag for several months, according to the National Library of Medicine.
Before you start cooking, check the package for any rinsing recommendations. Most packaged quinoa is already washed, but some brands suggest giving it another rinse in a fine mesh strainer to remove any potential lingering saponins. Once you’re ready to nosh, pour one part dry quinoa and two parts liquid, such as water or stock, in a small pot and bring it to a boil. Then, according to the HSPH, turn the heat down to low, place a lid on the pot, and simmer the quinoa until it’s tender and the liquid is absorbed — about 15 minutes.
While you could eat a bowl straight-up to score all the quinoa health benefits, the whole grain is easy to jazz up and incorporate into your favorite dishes. Steal these quinoa meal ideas:
In salad. After cooking up a big batch of quinoa, allow the grain to cool, then toss it with fresh greens and fixings for a hearty salad, suggests Syn.
In soup. While simmering your broccoli cheddar, chicken noodle, chickpea, or soup of choice, add in a serving or two of dry quinoa to up the dish’s protein and fiber content.
In veggie burgers. If you have the time and energy to whip up a batch of homemade veggie burgers, quinoa can be a great addition, says Syn. The grain will bring additional fiber to the plant-based dish and help you score all those essential amino acids in one meal.
As a stuffing. Though bell peppers are commonly stuffed with rice, quinoa can get the job done as well. Better yet, combine cooked quinoa with a protein (think: chicken or tempeh) then use it as a stuffing for baked winter squash, suggests Syn.
As a porridge. When your taste buds are tired of cereal or oats, add some quinoa to your morning meal. “I like to use it as a breakfast porridge, and like oatmeal, you can do sweet or savory with quinoa,” says Syn.