Health Benefits of Quinoa

<p>Elizaveta Antropova / Getty Images</p>

Elizaveta Antropova / Getty Images

Medically reviewed by Kayla Girgen, RD

Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa Willd.) is a popular gluten-free grain with a rich history. It’s been used as a food for over 8,000 years and was a staple crop of the Incas, an ancient Peruvian civilization.

Now, quinoa has become popular in many areas of the world, including the U.S., as it’s rich in nutrients like protein, fiber, and magnesium and is naturally gluten-free.

Studies show that eating quinoa may provide several health benefits, including providing a source of important nutrients and improving certain heart disease risk factors.

Here’s what you need to know about quinoa, including its potential health benefits, nutrition, and how to add quinoa to your diet.

It's a Nutrient-Dense Carbohydrate

Though it’s often referred to as a grain, quinoa is actually the edible seeds of the Chenopodium quinoa plant. This is why quinoa is considered a pseudocereal grain.

Quinoa is a nutritious carbohydrate source, since it's rich in several important nutrients, including protein, fiber, folate, magnesium, zinc, and iron.

Fiber benefits digestive health by promoting regular and comfortable bowel movements and nourishing the beneficial bacteria that reside in your digestive tract. Unfortunately, most Americans fall short of the current 28-gram (g) recommended daily fiber intake, which could negatively impact health in a number of ways, such as contributing to constipation, diverticulitis, and other digestive issues.  A 1-cup serving of cooked quinoa provides over 5 g of fiber or 18% of the current DV, so it’s a smart way to hit your daily fiber needs.

Quinoa is also higher in protein than many other carbohydrates, providing 8 g of protein per cooked cup. Because quinoa is high in fiber and protein, which are nutrients that help promote satiety, choosing quinoa over grains lower in fiber and protein, such as white rice, may help you feel more satisfied after meals.

Keep in mind that while quinoa is often called a “complete protein,” it contains insufficient amounts of certain amino acids, like lysine. For this reason, quinoa should be considered a “nearly complete” protein, as it doesn’t provide all nine essential amino acids in the correct ratio.

That said, quinoa is a good source of protein and can help you meet your daily protein needs.

In addition to protein and fiber, quinoa provides a variety of vitamins and minerals, including folate, potassium, iron, and magnesium. It’s especially rich in magnesium, a mineral that’s needed for hundreds of enzymatic reactions in the body, and is involved in blood sugar regulation, muscle contraction, nerve function, blood pressure maintenance, and DNA synthesis. Just 1 cup of quinoa covers 28% of your daily needs for this essential mineral.

Related: 7 Grains That Are Good Sources of Protein

Contains Protective Plant Compounds

In addition to nutrients like fiber and magnesium, eating quinoa can also increase your intake of protective plant compounds such as polyphenols like ferulic acid, gallic acid, quercetin and kaempferol.

Polyphenol compounds have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and help protect cells from oxidative damage. These substances help neutralize reactive oxygen species (ROS), which are linked to several health conditions.

Studies show that consuming a diet high in polyphenols, such as the ones found in quinoa, may help improve certain aspects of health, such as blood pressure and blood lipid levels, and may help reduce the risk of conditions such as heart disease and neurodegenerative disease.

Quinoa also contains phytosterols, like beta-sitosterol, which also offer antioxidant, cholesterol-reducing, and anti-inflammatory benefits.

Naturally Gluten-Free

Gluten is the collective term for a group of proteins found in grains such as wheat and barley. Though most people can consume gluten-containing grains and other foods made with gluten, some people, such as those with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) need to avoid gluten for health reasons.

Quinoa is a naturally gluten-free carbohydrate that’s a safe choice for people who need to or who prefer to avoid gluten. Quinoa is a more nutritious option than many other gluten-free grains, such as white rice, as it’s high in fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals. What’s more, quinoa is a good source of several nutrients that tend to be low in the diets of people who follow gluten-free eating patterns, such as zinc, iron, and fiber.

Choosing more nutritious gluten-free foods, like quinoa, over less nutritious gluten-free carb sources may help people with celiac disease and NCGS meet their daily nutrient needs.

May Improve Heart Disease Risk Factors

Quinoa is a good source of several nutrients that may help improve heart disease risk factors like LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels. For example, quinoa contains fiber, including soluble fiber. Soluble fiber binds to cholesterol in the small intestine, preventing it from being absorbed into your bloodstream. Therefore, eating foods that contain soluble fiber, like quinoa, may help reduce blood lipid levels.

Plus, the high fiber content of quinoa may help improve satiety, which could promote healthy body weight, another important factor in heart health.

In a 2020 study that included 40 older adults, the participants experienced significantly greater reductions in LDL cholesterol, cholesterol to HDL ratio, and body weight when they consumed 15 g of quinoa flour biscuits daily for four weeks compared to when they consumed a control treatment of wheat-based biscuits for the same time period.

Quinoa consumption has also been shown to have positive effects on blood sugar levels and triglyceride levels, both of which are essential for heart health. A 2023 review that included seven studies found that eating quinoa had a beneficial effect on fasting blood sugar levels, while a 2017 study found that adults who consumed 50 g of quinoa for 12 weeks experienced a significant reduction in triglyceride levels.

This suggests that adding quinoa to your diet may be a helpful way to promote and protect heart health.

Nutritional Facts of Quinoa

Quinoa provides a number of important vitamins and minerals and is a good source of fiber and protein. Here is the nutrition breakdown for a 1 cup serving of cooked quinoa.

  • Calories: 222

  • Protein: 8.14 g

  • Fat: 3.55 g

  • Carbohydrates: 39.4 g

  • Fiber: 5.18 g

  • Folate: 77.7 micrograms (mcg) or 19% of the Daily Value (DV)

  • Vitamin B6: .228 milligrams (mg) or 13% of the DV

  • Copper: .355 mg or 39% of the DV

  • Iron: 2.76 mg or 15% of the DV

  • Zinc: 2.02 mg or 18% of the DV

  • Manganese: 1.17 mg or 51% of the DV

  • Magnesium: 118 mg or 28% of the DV

  • Phosphorus: 281 mg or 22% of the DV

Quinoa is a good source of several nutrients, but is especially rich in copper, manganese, magnesium, iron, folate, and phosphorus, B6, and zinc.

People following plant-based diets are more likely to be deficient in some of these nutrients, including iron and zinc, so quinoa makes a smart choice for those who follow vegan or vegetarian diets.

Zinc plays an important role in immune function, cellular division, and protein and DNA synthesis, so getting optimal amounts on a daily basis is essential for health.

Quinoa is also an excellent source of copper, a mineral that’s needed for red blood cell production, nerve cell and neurotransmitter synthesis, and energy production.

In addition to vitamins and minerals, quinoa is a good source of carbohydrates, protein, and fiber.

Risks of Eating Quinoa

Quinoa doesn't come with many health risks. However, it’s important to prepare quinoa correctly as it contains compounds called antinutrients. Saponins, tannins, and phytic acid are antinutrients in quinoa that may reduce the absorption of certain nutrients, such as iron and zinc.

Though these substances can impact nutrient absorption, certain preparation methods, such as rinsing or soaking quinoa before cooking or purchasing sprouted quinoa products, can help reduce these compounds and thus improve its nutrient's bioavailability, which is the extent to which the nutrients become completely available to your body.

Additionally, it’s possible to be allergic to quinoa. If you’re allergic to quinoa, you should avoid quinoa and all quinoa-containing products.

Tips for Consuming Quinoa

Quinoa is easy and quick to prepare and can be included in a number of recipes. Here are a few ways to incorporate quinoa into your diet:

  • Make a savory quinoa salad with chopped vegetables and an olive oil vinaigrette

  • Try using quinoa in place of oatmeal to create a warming, nutritious porridge

  • Add quinoa to soups and stews

  • Use quinoa flour to make gluten-free baked goods like muffins and breads

  • Add quinoa to salads and use it as a base for grain bowls

  • Make a quinoa stuffing for vegetables like peppers and winter squash

  • Make quinoa pudding for a higher-protein sweet treat

When properly prepared, quinoa should have a fluffy look, a soft texture, and a mild taste. Keep in mind that there are several types of quinoa, including red and black quinoa, so you may need to try a few types to narrow down the one that best suits your taste preferences.

A Quick Review

Quinoa is a nutritious, gluten-free grain that may benefit health in several ways. It’s packed with important nutrients, such as fiber, protein, magnesium, iron, and zinc, and also provides a source of protective plant compounds, like polyphenols.

Eating quinoa may help you meet your daily nutrients needs and may benefit your heart health.

Not only is quinoa nutritious, but it’s easy to make and can be incorporated into a variety of sweet and savory dishes.

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