Carb-rich foods sometimes get an (unfair!) bad rap, but your body needs them for energy and other key functions. In fact, there's one dietitians want you to eat more often: quinoa.
Technically a seed, quinoa comes in a variety of colors, including red, yellow, black and white, per the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Indigenous to the Andean region of South America — Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru — quinoa has been cultivated for 5,000 years.
There are plenty of reasons this seed has staying power: It's a carb-rich food that helps you stay satiated while providing important nutrients. Here's exactly why nutritionists want you to eat more quinoa, plus the perks for your health you'll see as a result.
Why Quinoa Is So Good for You
1. It's Packed With Complete Protein
When a food contains all nine essential amino acids that your body can't make on its own, it is considered a complete protein. You need to get these amino acids through food, unlike the other 11 amino acids you produce on your own, per the Cleveland Clinic. Most complete proteins come from animal sources.
"Quinoa is also a complete protein source, which is pretty rare in plant-based proteins," says Amanda Miller, RD. "Other plant-based protein and protein-rich grains often only have some of the nine essential amino acids."
A 1/2 cup serving of quinoa contains 4.1 grams of protein, compared to the just 2.8 grams of protein you'll find in brown rice. Protein is an essential macronutrient, and it helps your body repair and create cells, making it particularly important for growth and development in children, teens and pregnant people, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
Quinoa vs. Brown Rice
2. Quinoa May Keep You Full for Longer
This seed's unique nutritional profile will help you stay full for longer, which may prevent you from overeating later.
"I recommend quinoa over other starchy grains, such as brown rice, because it has satiating protein and fiber, keeping you feeling full for longer," says Morgyn Clair, RDN.
Try to eat foods that have some fat, fiber and protein at every meal: The fiber helps you feel full right away, the protein keeps you satiated for longer and the fat tells you to stop eating by working with the hormones in your body. On the other hand, overly processed carbs like white bread or crackers are quickly digested and turned into blood sugar quickly, per Harvard Health Publishing.
Quinoa fits the mold perfectly: In addition to 4.1 grams of protein, it contains 2.6 grams of fiber and 1.8 grams of fat.
Eating a wider variety of carbohydrates like quinoa can also benefit your gut health, and in turn, your appetite: Several studies suggest that gut hormones affect appetite control, per a January 2012 review in Nutrition & Diabetes.
Gut Health Tip
“Brown rice is a great carbohydrate option, but it doesn't have to be the only one,” says Bari Stricoff, RDN. “Research shows the more variety of plant sources in our diet, the more nutrients we receive and the healthier our gut microbiome. Adding quinoa is a great alternative that provides more protein, healthy fats and fiber.”
Apart from controlling your appetite, fiber plays an important role in keeping you healthy. A high-fiber diet normalizes bowel movements and maintains bowel health, lowers cholesterol levels, helps control blood sugar levels, contributes to a healthy weight and is associated with a lower risk of dying from heart disease and all cancers, per the Mayo Clinic.
3. Quinoa Has a Low Glycemic Index
The glycemic index (GI) of a food refers to how quickly or slowly it increases blood glucose levels, per Harvard Health Publishing. It's important for people with pre-diabetes or diabetes to focus on low-GI foods, as high GI foods can spike blood sugar in both groups.
"Quinoa has a slightly lower glycemic index, which means the carbohydrates are released into your blood at a slower rate, helping to maintain stable blood sugar levels and leave you feeling fuller for longer," Stricoff says.
Quinoa's GI score is 53, per The University of Sydney. See how it compares to other popular carby foods:
- Whole-wheat bread: 74
- White rice: 72
- Brown rice: 66
- Couscous: 65
For context, high-GI foods are considered those with a GI greater than 55, per the university. Low-GI foods are those with a GI less than 55. Foods with little or no carbohydrates (such as meat, fish, eggs and avocado) don't have a GI value.
Even if you don't have diabetes, aiming for foods with a lower glycemic index can help you control your blood sugar — and, consequently, your feelings of hunger.
"When we can maintain more stable blood sugar, we decrease the risk of having hyper- or hypoglycemic moments, regardless of diabetes or prediabetes diagnosis," Stricoff says. "This means we can stabilize our hunger levels and increase satiety with meals."
Is Quinoa Gluten-Free?
Yes, quinoa is a good carbohydrate-rich option for those who need to avoid gluten. “This food is naturally gluten-free, making it safe to eat if you’re gluten intolerant or sensitive,” Clair says. Quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth and millet are great substitutes for grains for people with celiac disease, per the Celiac Disease Foundation.
Check with your doctor if you have any questions about your diet, and double-check that the package says “gluten-free" or read the ingredients label thoroughly if you need to avoid gluten.
4. Quinoa Contains Healthy Fats
A 1/2 cup serving of quinoa has nearly 2 grams of unsaturated fatty acids.
"The added healthy fats help to balance the quinoa between carbohydrates, protein, fat and fiber, which is an ideal combination in a single food," Stricoff says. "The healthy fats can also contribute to the increased satiety experienced when eating quinoa."
While saturated fat and trans fat can increase your risk of heart disease, healthy fats like monounsaturated fatty acids, polyunsaturated fatty acids and omega-3 fatty acids can benefit your health, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Quinoa contains a little bit of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Research shows that eating these types of fats instead of saturated fats can improve your blood cholesterol levels, which can lower your risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes, per the Mayo Clinic.
5. Quinoa Helps You Avoid Overloading on Arsenic
If you're used to only eating brown rice as your healthy carb-rich staple, there's a slight chance you could load up on inorganic arsenic, a human carcinogen.
"Arsenic in rice is a big concern if most of your diet consists of rice," Miller says. "However, you're at less risk if rice is only one small component of your diet."
When analysts looked at the inorganic arsenic content of 656 processed rice-containing products through data released by the Food and Drug Administration, they found that brown rice had 80 percent more inorganic arsenic on average than white rice of the same type, per Consumer Reports. That's because arsenic accumulates in the grain's outer layers that are stripped to make white rice.
Brown basmati from California, India or Pakistan is the best choice because it has a third less arsenic than other brown rice. All types of rice from Arkansas, Louisiana or Texas — except sushi and quick-cooking rice — had the highest levels of inorganic arsenic in the Consumer Reports tests.
Quinoa, on the other hand, is a low-arsenic grain that's a good source of protein. Even if you're not concerned with arsenic based on the amount of brown rice you eat, it's still a good idea to fill your diet with a variety of foods for the most health benefits.
"Switching up your healthy carbohydrate sources, such as adding quinoa, provides you with a variety of nutrients throughout the week," Stricoff says.
Tips for Storing and Cooking Quinoa
Quinoa is simple to cook, and is even available in convenient microwaveable pouches. If you're making it from scratch, follow these simple tips, per the Iowa State University Extension and Outreach:
- Store quinoa at room temperature.
- Prepare it as you would rice: Combine 1 part dry seed to 2 parts liquid.
- Use either water or broth to cook your quinoa. Once the seeds and liquid mixture has been heated on high and reached a rolling boil, reduce to low and simmer for 15 minutes, covered.
- Enjoy quinoa at lunch or dinner as a hot or cold side dish, or use it as a base for breakfast porridge.
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "Quinoa"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Do I Need to Worry About Eating ‘Complete’ Proteins?"
- MyFoodData: "Quinoa Cooked"
- MyFoodData: "Brown Rice"
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Protein in diet"
- Harvard Medical School: "Extra protein is a decent dietary choice, but don’t overdo it"
- Nutrition & Diabetes: "Appetite regulation and weight control: the role of gut hormones"
- Mayo Clinic: "Dietary fiber: Essential for a healthy diet"
- Harvard Medical School: "Glycemic index for 60+ foods"
- The University of Sydney: "Search for the Glycemic Index"
- Celiac Disease Foundation: "Gluten Alternatives: Effects of Eating Quinoa in Celiac Patients"
- Mayo Clinic: "Dietary fats: Know which types to choose"
- Consumer Reports: "How much arsenic is in your rice?"
- Iowa State University Extension and Outreach: "Keen on Quinoa"