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Is Quinoa Allowed on a Paleo Diet?

author image Janet Renee, MS, RD
Janet Renee is a clinical dietitian with a special interest in weight management, sports dietetics, medical nutrition therapy and diet trends. She earned her Master of Science in nutrition from the University of Chicago and has contributed to health and wellness magazines, including Prevention, Self, Shape and Cooking Light.
Is Quinoa Allowed on a Paleo Diet?
A quinoa salad with cucumber. Photo Credit: VeselovaElena/iStock/Getty Images

Paleo diet followers attempt to mimic the proposed dietary pattern of early humans from the pre-industrial paleolithic era. This diet consists primarily of meat, seafood, nuts, seeds, non-starchy vegetables and fruit. The typical Paleo diet is high in protein and fiber, low in carbohydrates and moderate to high in fat. Cereal grains are among the foods typically excluded from the Paleo diet. Because quinoa is grain-like, but technically not a grain, you may wonder whether it's an option on the Paleo diet.

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Quinoa Nutrition

Quinoa is considered a pseudo-grain because it is cooked and eaten like grains and has a similar nutritional profile; however, technically speaking, quinoa is a seed. It contains protein and minerals and is considered highly nutritious, according to Purdue University. In addition, quinoa is a complete protein because it contains all the amino acids -- the building blocks of protein. It's higher in calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, iron, copper, manganese and zinc than some other grains such as wheat and corn.

Paleo Stance on Grains and Pseudo-grains

In his book "The Paleo Diet," Loren Cordain -- founder of the paleo movement -- lists cereal grains and the grain-like seeds quinoa, buckwheat and amaranth under "foods to avoid." One reason for recommending avoidance is that grains are typically high-glycemic, which can cause spikes in blood sugar. Another reason is that grains and pseudo-grains, such as quinoa, contain anti-nutrient compounds such as saponins. Because saponins have soap-like properties, Cordain theorizes that they may cause inflammation and leaky gut -- a condition occurring when the intestinal wall becomes permeable, allowing food particles to pass into the bloodstream.

What the Science Says

Emerging research appears to contradict the idea that saponins from quinoa cause inflammation. Researchers examined the inflammatory effect of saponins from quinoa. Contrary to Cordain's theory, they found saponins possess anti-inflammatory properties and reduce inflammation by suppressing proteins involved in the inflammatory process, called cytokines. Researchers concluded that quinoa saponins may be useful as functional food components to prevent and treat inflammation. The results were published in the April 2014 edition of the "Journal of Food Science."

Quinoa as a Grain Alternative

Some people following the Paleo diet eat quinoa and other pseudo-grains as grain alternatives. In his book, Cordain stresses that he is not necessarily saying you need to avoid grains and pseudo-grains for the rest of your life, and the choice to eat grains is an individual one. Quinoa may be higher on the glycemic scale than say, non-starchy vegetables, but with a GI of 53 it still falls in the low-glycemic category. Foods with a GI of 55 or less are low-glycemic.

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