You may be ready to switch your standard rice dish or pasta salad for something more… zhuzhy. Enter quinoa and couscous.

Couscous and quinoa may have similar textures and be comparably tasty, but they have several key nutritional differences.

What’s the difference between quinoa and couscous?

Couscous and quinoa are both great to toss in a salad or sub for rice in a dish. However, they’ve got a few important differences:

  • Quinoa is a seed, and couscous is a grain.
  • Quinoa is gluten-free, while couscous contains gluten.
  • Quinoa is a complete protein, and couscous is not.

Quinoa provides more fiber and protein. But couscous adds fewer carbs and calories to your daily diet.

So, which one is “better” for you depends on your health needs, activity level, and lifestyle.

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Here’s how these two foods stack up against each other and what benefits you can expect from each.

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Design by Viviana Quevedo; Photographs from left to right: Alessio Bogani/Stocksy United, Melanie DeFazio/Stocksy United

We compared the nutrients found in a cup of cooked quinoa with those in a cup of cooked couscous.

Fiber5 g2 g
Protein8 g6 g
Carbohydrates39 g37 g

Quinoa and couscous both pack a nutritional wallop, adding fiber, protein, and a whole bunch of essential vitamins and minerals to your diet.

But quinoa has the edge on the fiber and protein fronts. Fiber and protein can help you feel full for longer by slowing digestion and keeping your blood sugar stable (whoa, steady there, blood sugar).

The benefits of fiber should prick up your ears if you live with diabetes or are at risk of the condition.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend getting 25 to 38 grams of fiber every day, depending on your age group and sex — check out the guidelines to find the amount you should consume.

Quinoa and couscous are considered whole foods, meaning they’re minimally processed and still have their natural nutritional benefits.

Deciding which is “better for you” also comes down to how you prepare quinoa or couscous.

Adding excess salt or saturated fat to your cooking will make these dishes less heart-healthy (although saturated fats may have an unwarranted bad reputation).

But flavoring quinoa and couscous with vegetables and spices can boost their nutrient game as well as their mmmmmmm factor.

It’s more important to consider how quinoa or couscous fits into your overall eating habits than to judge each food on its own.

Keen on quinoa: The powerful benefits of quinoa

Quinoa is high in protein and provides all nine essential amino acids (so it’s like the smug kid on the playground who really collected all the Pokémon cards).

It’s also a boss source of:

Aside from its plentiful fiber, quinoa also contains beneficial plant compounds called flavones. Research suggests some flavones have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects, protecting against damage from dastardly free radical molecules.

Free radicals contribute to the development of many types of cancer and other diseases. By supplying your body with a regular intake of antioxidants, you can help keep your cells healthy and reduce your risk of cancer and other health problems.

Quinoa contains two superstar compounds called quercetin and kaempferol (yeah, try saying those with a mouthful of the stuff). By keeping viruses, bacteria, and fungi at bay, quercetin and kaempferol support your immune system in reducing your risk of infections.

Quinoa doesn’t just help your immune system with these fancy compounds. Its awesome fiber content feeds the “good” bacteria in your gut — another super important factor in maintaining a strong immune system.

Couscous benefits

Couscous is a tasty way to increase your intake of whole grains. While carbs have gotten a bad rap, whole grains provide a well-established range of benefits.

In a 2020 study, folks who ate whole grains regularly had a 29 percent lower risk of type 2 diabetes than folks who ate minimal amounts of whole grains.

A 2016 review of studies found that eating three servings of whole grains per day has links to reduced rates of death from all causes, including:

  • heart disease
  • cancer
  • respiratory diseases
  • diseases of the nervous system

In a 2016 study, 40 adults over 50 years of age followed a diet for 8 weeks. Every aspect of their diets was the same, except that one group ate whole grains and the other ate refined grains. After this, they took a much-needed 10-week break and then switched diets for 8 weeks.

Researchers found that the groups lost the same amount of weight and had the same decrease in cholesterol level. However, those eating whole grains had a threefold improvement in blood pressure.

Which is better for bodybuilding?

Quinoa and couscous provide similar amounts of macronutrients. Their calories mainly come from carbohydrates.

Although quinoa offers a little more protein than couscous, most bodybuilders will still need extra protein from other sources to bump up those gains 💪🏾. Lean meats, tofu, or supplements can help muscle-flexers get enough protein to recover from intense weightlifting.

If you’re simply trying to build more muscle, a progressive resistance training routine is your ticket to Tonk Town. As long as you’re consuming enough calories and protein to support your activity level, your body will have enough fuel to build muscle.

Quinoa and couscous can each support a successful bodybuilding regimen with extra nutrients. You’ve just gotta make sure the other components of your eating plan provide the rest of the nutrients you need.

Which is gluten-free?

Because quinoa is technically a seed, it’s naturally gluten-free. Quinoa’s texture makes it a handy substitute in grain-based dishes for people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. (But if you’re on the Paleo diet, quinoa is a no-go.)

Couscous comes from semolina, which is derived from durum wheat, so people who can’t eat gluten should avoid it.

Gluten klaxon! Be careful with quinoa

When replacing couscous with quinoa, be sure to check the label for gluten-free certification.

Some facilities that process quinoa also process grains that contain gluten. Cross contamination is possible, and you don’t want to poke the gluten bear.

🚨 Read. Those. Labels. 🚨

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Bulgur is another hearty whole grain that’s easily swappable with quinoa and couscous.

Similar to couscous, bulgur is derived from wheat (meaning it’s not gluten-free — quinoa has the edge here). Traditionally, bulgur plays a leading role in Middle Eastern cuisine, including dishes like tabbouleh and kibbeh.

Compared with couscous and quinoa, bulgur is exceptionally high in fiber, clocking in at 8 grams per cooked cup. Bulgur is slightly lower in protein, however, with 5 grams per cup.

Bulgur’s texture isn’t all that different from those of couscous and quinoa. You can add bulgur to couscous or quinoa dishes for more texture and a bit of nutritional diversity. You can also sub it for other grains to switch things up.

Variety is the spice (and grain) of life.

Use couscous as a base for stir-fry dishes by adding other nutritious ingredients. Try scattering this mixture over the top:

Or get creative with a salty and sweet Mediterranean-inspired couscous salad using:

For a twist on rice and beans, try cooking couscous in vegetable broth and mixing it with red beans and tomatoes.

You can even add sweet potato, red peppers, celery, carrots, and zucchini for a boost of nutrients, color, and flavor.

Incorporating couscous into vegetable-based soups or using it as a salad topper can create a heartier and more robust dish. Couscous is highly versatile and works well in loads of different dishes. Get ’em, couscous!

Quinoa is also super versatile.

It serves up a nutty and chewy texture that mixes well with other ingredients. You can incorporate it into sweet or savory dishes.

Popular ways to cook quinoa include:

If you like the taste of quinoa, it’s easy to add it to most of your favorite dishes in a creative way. Any time a recipe calls for rice, pasta, or oatmeal, there’s probably a way to throw quinoa into the mix.

Both quinoa and couscous provide a bunch of benefits as part of a nutritious meal plan.

Experimenting with flavorful dishes from around the world can help you discover new ways to enjoy these healthful ingredients.

Try incorporating new spices, vegetables, and cooking methods to add variety and excitement to your plate.