8 quinoa nutrition facts & benefits, including weight loss

Jill Bridges, SATI STAFF

People who eat whole grains as part of a healthy diet have a reduced risk of some chronic diseases. Grains are an important source of many nutrients, including fiber, B-complex vitamins, and minerals. In addition to the nutrients in grains, they also contain phytochemicals that are vital to optimal health.

Quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah) is a 7,000-year old plant that originated in the mountains of South America. Not only is a complete source of protein, but it’s also been recognized as a potential factor in eradicating hunger, malnutrition, and poverty, because of its broad nutritional profile. Furthermore, quinoa is a gluten-free grain that is inexpensive to cultivate.

Quinoa has gained a lot of popularity in the health community for its nutrition, especially for individuals who can’t eat grains with gluten. Here are the top benefits of including quinoa in your daily diet.

What is quinoa?

Quinoa isn’t actually a grain, but a seed of the Chenopodium quinoa plant, a broadleaf plant that produces seeds instead of fruit. Quinoa just hit the U.S. scene recently, but it’s been a part of South American cuisine for millennia[5].

Traditional grains grow in grasses, but quinoa’s seeds make it a “pseudocereal,” which is a seed that used in nutrition similarly to other cereal grains. It is known as the “mother grain,” due to its place in ancient religious ceremonies and daily diets[1,6]. NASA has even investigated its potential for lengthy space missions as a nutritious and easily-cultivated crop.

Quinoa is popular in diets that eliminate grains or gluten, but the real benefits of quinoa are in its protein content and variety of vital nutrients.

Quinoa nutrition

Quinoa is the rare plant source of complete protein, typically found in animal protein sources. The combination of protein sources in your diet usually gives you all the amino acids you need, even in plant-based diets, but quinoa’s 20 amino acids, 10 of which are essential, ensures you have a balanced amino acid profile[9,15,30,31,32]. Quinoa won’t deliver the protein of meat, but 8 grams of protein in a side dish is very helpful for vegans, vegetarians, or those trying to cut back on their intake of animal products[40,54,58].

Quinoa also contains 442 milligrams, or 1/5 of the daily intake, of l-lysine, one of the essential amino acids that is usually found in dairy products, meat, and seafood. Lysine is vital for immune function, muscle growth, and reducing anxiety[29,34,56,57].

Furthermore, one cup of quinoa contains 222 calories, 4 grams of fat, 13 milligrams sodium, 39 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams fiber, 8 grams protein, 1.2 milligrams manganese, 118 milligrams magnesium, 281 milligrams phosphorus, 777 micrograms folate, 0.4 milligrams copper, 2.8 milligrams iron, 0.2 milligrams thiamine, 2 milligrams zinc, 0.2 milligrams riboflavin, 0.2 milligrams vitamin B6, 318 milligrams potassium, 5.2 micrograms selenium, and 1.2 milligrams vitamin E[13,14,33,55].

Types of quinoa

White quinoa is the most common type of quinoa, but there are actually 120 varieties of quinoa. The three types of quinoa that are commercially-available are red, white, and black. Though there are a few differences, the three types are very similar.

White quinoa is the most available and takes the least amount of time to prepare. Red quinoa doesn’t lose its shape, so it’s typically used in salads or other recipes that require the texture to be preserved[18,49]. Black quinoa has an earthy, sweet flavor, compared to the other types, and takes the longest to cook.

Your quinoa preference generally comes down to convenience and nuances of cooking, but whichever type of quinoa you choose, they all offer the same nutrition and benefits.

  1. Weight loss

Quinoa is high in insoluble fiber and protein, which makes you feel full for longer periods of time. Whole grains and cereals are all beneficial for decreasing appetite and cravings, but quinoa may also influence the action of hormones that relate to appetite, such as gherkin, peptide YY, and insulin[2,35].

Many studies have consistently shown the connection between quinoa and body composition. Quinoa can also improve the cholesterol ratio in the blood and may prevent obesity, and regular consumption of quinoa can lead to high energy expenditure, better glucose processing, and less dietary fat absorption[16].

Quinoa may also aid in weight loss because of its manganese content. One cup of quinoa contains more than half of your recommended daily manganese intake. Manganese influences hormones and digestive enzymes, both of which improve digestion and nutrient absorption, giving you more nutrition for your calories.

  1. Gluten-free grain

Gluten is a protein found in grains, like wheat and barley. For individuals with celiac disease, gluten causes an immune response that creates inflammation and damages the intestinal lining. Over time, this damage can prevent the absorption of nutrients and lead to serious medical complications. Some of the symptoms of celiac disease include diarrhea, bloating, gas, fatigue, low blood cell count, and osteoporosis, though some people show no symptoms. The only treatment for celiac disease is a commitment to a gluten-free diet.

Gluten-free diets can be difficult, since virtually all traditional grains are eliminated from the diet. Rice becomes the main grain source, which doesn’t contain a lot of the same nutrients as other grains[8]. Nutrient deficiencies can become an issue for people eating an imbalanced, gluten-free diet.

Quinoa is able to meet protein, iron, calcium, and fiber needs. Over time, celiac patients can tolerate quinoa daily, and begin to replace the lost nutrients. Using quinoa as the primary grain source ensures adequate nutrition for those suffering from celiac, or even individuals who choose to avoid gluten.

  1. Cancer-fighting

Not only is quinoa is a great source of antioxidants, but it also contains a few nutrients that are the target of research to prevent or treat cancer.  Saponin occurs naturally in several plants and has a detergent quality, which means it acts an antinutrient that can negatively impact the lining of the intestines and cause leaky gut syndrome, as well as destroying red blood cells. These negative qualities, however, have been shown to cause cellular death in certain cancer cells in lab studies. Their permeability is believed to be the mechanism that allows them to penetrate cancer cell walls[19].

Lunasin, a peptide that can bind to and break apart cancer cells, has been shown to kill only cancer cells, while leaving healthy cells. This is especially important, since sparing healthy cells is one of the major challenges in cancer treatment research. Lunasin is a bioactive compound, which means that eating it regularly will keep it active in your body.

Quercetin, an antioxidant, has shown success in stopping the spread of some cancers. It fights free radical damage, which can cause cancer and other diseases, and quinoa has one of the highest levels of quercetin in any food.

  1. Heart health

Heart disease is the leading cause of death worldwide, but the lifestyle choices and poor diet that cause it are easy to correct. Quinoa’s anti-inflammatory nutrients make it beneficial for promoting heart health.

Quinoa has a high level of heart-healthy fats, with no trans fats. Roughly 25 percent of the fat in quinoa is oleic acid, a healthy, monounsaturated fat, and 8 percent is alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is a type of omega-3 found in plants[12]. A diet high in ALA can also lower cholesterol and blood pressure levels, two factors in developing heart disease. ALA is far more beneficial from food sources, however, as opposed to supplement form.

Butyrate is a fatty acid that develops in your gut when you eat fiber. Butyrate has many benefits, but it can slow the spread of atherosclerosis, the hardening and narrowing of the arteries that can impact blood flow and lead to heart attacks[11]. Potassium, an oft-deficient nutrient in Western diets, is vital to heart function and naturally lowers blood pressure, and quinoa contains 1/10 of the daily intake. In addition, magnesium, a mineral that reduces the risk of stroke and heart attack by promoting smooth muscle contractions, is abundant in quinoa.

  1. Antioxidants

Bioflavonoids, a specific type of antioxidants, exist in large amounts in quinoa. Bioflavonoids have many benefits for disease prevention, but one particular flavonoid, polyphenols, play a role in the prevention of heart disease, cancer, osteoporosis, and diabetes. One of the underlying causes of many chronic illnesses is oxidative stress and free radical damage, and polyphenols significantly reduce these risk factors[20,53,59].

Aside from quercetin, which has already been shown to be helpful in preventing cancer, quinoa also contains kaempferol, vanillic acid, and ferulic acid, which all reduce the oxidative stress and chronic inflammation that can contribute to many illnesses[21].

Quinoa also contains beta-carotene, which is converted to vitamin A in the body. Beta-carotene and other carotenoids scavenge the free radicals that cause premature aging and many diseases, as well as protecting eye health. In addition, manganese is necessary for the proper function of enzymes that behave as antioxidants, and quinoa contains a large amount of manganese.

  1. Digestive health

Prebiotics are undigestible fiber compounds that work with probiotic enzymes to fuel the beneficial bacteria in the gut. An abundance of healthy gut bacteria is associated with lower risk of diseases, lower inflammation levels, and a healthy immune system. Quinoa, and other pseudocereals, have prebiotic potential and can improve gastrointestinal health by restoring the balance of good bacteria in the gut[41,45,60].

Furthermore, butyrate, which is a fatty acid that develops from bacteria feeding on fiber, has the ability to repair damage to the gut. Low levels of butyrate are linked with inflammatory gut diseases, such as irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, and ulcerative colitis. Increasing butyrate levels can also decrease inflammation in the gut, which may help to treat these conditions, as well as suppressing future inflammation by causing cellular death in the overreactive T-cells that cause it. Succinic acid is another anti-inflammatory nutrient found in quinoa that helps maintain gut health[22,28,42,43,61].

Despite all these nutrients, quinoa is also high in phytic acid, which binds to minerals and may limit their absorption. Soaking quinoa in water with lemon juice or goat’s milk yogurt for 24 hours can reduce the phytic acid content, increasing the amount of minerals your body absorbs.

  1. Diabetes prevention

Manganese-rich foods help regulate insulin synthesis and secretion to maintain healthy blood sugar, which decreases your risk of developing diabetes. Gluconeogenesis is the conversion of amino acids into sugar to balance the sugar levels in the blood, and manganese activates many of the enzymes necessary for that process. Manganese is also an antioxidant that fights the free radical damage that can lead to diabetes, as well as other diseases[23,38].

Insulin resistance is a condition in which the body doesn’t respond appropriately to the presence of insulin, which prevents glucose from entering the cells and allows the blood sugar to rise and remain high. Chronic, high blood sugar is a precursor to developing type 2 diabetes. Butyrate is also useful in preventing diabetes, since it inhibits the inflammation related to insulin resistance[27].

Quinoa is also a rich source of magnesium, another trace mineral that is deficient in many people. Elevated blood sugar levels also increase the loss of magnesium in the urine, which further decreases the blood levels of magnesium. Magnesium works to stabilize blood sugar, promote healthy insulin production, and lower fasting blood sugar levels by converting excess blood sugar into glycogen to be stored in the liver and muscles.

  1. Bone health

Quinoa has many nutrients that help promote health bones. Quinoa is higher in calcium than other grains, with 60 to 100 milligrams of calcium per one cup. Calcium works with phosphorus to maintain healthy bone structure, growth, and mineral density. Nearly 99 percent of the calcium in the body is found in the bones, while 80 percent of the phosphorus is in the bones and teeth[24,37].

Manganese is another mineral that affects bone health. Manganese plays a role in the formation of bone cartilage and bone collagen, as well as in bone mineralization. The decrease in new bone formation and increase in bone breakdown that take place in osteoporosis, a disease that causes bone density loss and weakness, can be caused by a deficiency in manganese. Quinoa is a rich source of manganese[25].

Magnesium is also important for bone health. To convert vitamin D into its active form, magnesium is needed, and vitamin D is necessary for the absorption of calcium. Furthermore, if you increase your vitamin D intake without increasing your magnesium intake, your existing stores in the muscles become depleted from the working to convert vitamin D. Magnesium also stimulates the hormone calcitonin, which preserves bone structure by pulling calcium from the blood and into the bones. Like vitamin D, supplementing with calcium without adequate magnesium only decreases its effectiveness[4,26].

Preparing quinoa

Quinoa is usually available in the specialty or health food section of most grocery stores. In addition, quinoa is not genetically modified, so there’s no reason to limit consumption.

Quinoa is easy to cook, but it has a bland flavor. Because of this, it can be easily added to other recipes, and tends to adopt the flavor of the other ingredients. It can be boiled in broth to deepen the flavor, and black quinoa has more flavor than the red or white varieties. Quinoa is generally used as a substitute for rice or oatmeal in many recipes[3,36,39,44,48,50,52].

Processed products can be made out of quinoa flour, but they tend to be heavily-refined and offer little to no benefits, compared to normal, whole quinoa. To avoid this, look for minimally-processed, quinoa versions of common grain products, such as flour or pasta, that aren’t refined[46,47,51].

Precautions

Though rare, it is possible to have a food allergy to quinoa. Symptoms would include stomach discomfort, itchy skin, and hives. In all likelihood, a quinoa allergy would actually be an allergic reaction to saponin, which can be significantly reduced by soaking quinoa for 30 minutes before cooking[17].

Quinoa is gluten free, but there could be a trace amount of gluten on quinoa that may trigger an celiac episode. Generally, quinoa from trusted, reputable sources isn’t processed with other allergens, such as nuts, wheat, or soy, that would increase the risk of cross contamination. Because of this, it’s best to check the label carefully for allergy information[7].

As with any other food sensitivity, discontinue use if you experience consistent, adverse effects from eating quinoa.

The sati line

Quinoa is scientifically proven to be one of the world’s healthiest foods, which is why its classified as a “superfood.” Grains are an incredibly important part of our diet, but many people avoid grains because of gluten or carbohydrates. The gluten-free, high-protein content of quinoa makes it a very healthy alternative to traditional grains, especially for individuals with celiac or gluten sensitivity, and can replace some of the nutrients lost in a grain-free diet.

Western diets often include heavily-processed and refined foods, which can lead to many nutrient deficiencies and illnesses, as well as promoting chronic inflammation. The antioxidant, anti-inflammatory nutrients in quinoa make it a great addition to a diet of whole, unprocessed foods that fight disease and promote optimal health.


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