Quinoa, also known as Inca rice, is an ancient grain that has been cultivated and enjoyed by indigenous people in Chile, Brazil, Peru and Ecuador for more than 5,000 years. While quinoa continues to be an important part of the diet of Quechua and Aymara people descended from the Incas, it also enjoys popularity in the U.S. diet because of its nutritional quality and impact on blood cholesterol.
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Quinoa is one of the only plant foods that's a complete protein. This means that it has all the essential amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein. A 1-cup serving of boiled quinoa packs 8.44 grams of heart-healthy plant protein, more than wheat, rice, rye, corn, barley and many other grains. That same size serving contains only 222 calories and provides 5.2 grams of dietary fiber. Because cholesterol is found only in animal foods, quinoa and other grains are cholesterol-free. Quinoa contains a wide variety of essential minerals and vitamins, as well as a well-balanced assortment of essential amino acids.
When you eat quinoa, the soluble fiber in the grain combines with bile acids from the liver to produce a jelly-like product that’s excreted in your bowel movements. Your liver uses some of its stored cholesterol to create the bile acids. As these stores are depleted, your liver pulls cholesterol from your blood to restock itself. Your total cholesterol level, as well as the amount of LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol in your blood drops. Quinoa is a heart-healthy alternative to meat and other protein sources that are high in saturated fats that can raise your blood cholesterol.
Coronary heart disease begins when excess cholesterol and fats from your blood begin to build up on the inner walls of the arteries that bring oxygen-rich blood from your lungs to your heart. The arteries become narrower and more rigid, a condition known as atherosclerosis. When you eat quinoa and other foods that lower your LDL cholesterol, you slow down the rate of atherosclerosis and reduce your risk of developing coronary heart disease, congestive heart failure and heart attacks.
You can boil quinoa just like rice and other grains. Enjoy it as a cereal or combine it with other grains to create a pilaf. You can also use it as an extender for wheat flour or cornmeal when baking. To maintain quinoa’s heart-healthy benefits, avoid combining it with cream, butter or other foods high in cholesterol and saturated fat.