First of all, don’t confuse your waiter by ordering a side of “kwih-noh-ah” — it’s “keen-wah”!
However you pronounce it, quinoa is a very special seed that was notably cultivated on the picturesque slopes of the Andes by the Incas, who considered it their “mother grain.” And now quinoa is reclaiming that title — it’s become a menu staple at foodie joints everywhere.
Quinoa is classified as a whole grain, but it’s actually a pseudocereal — not technically a cereal grain, but it plays the part well. It’s a seed that you cook like rice, though it cooks more quickly than traditional brown rice, and is ideal for quick meals at home.
Its newfound popularity has been fueled by its exceptional nutritional profile, as compared to similar foods. Plus people can make it in bulk and use it for several meals and/or freeze.
For example, compared to white rice, one cup of quinoa contains roughly:
- a third of the calories
- a quarter of the carbs
- double the potassium
- four times the iron
- six times the vitamin E
And it’s rich in:
- vitamin B1
Let’s dive into some details.
Do any of us know how much fiber we’re supposed to eat? Well, if we do, apparently we don’t care; a recent study found that only 5 percent of Americans get enough fiber.
The recommended daily fiber intake varies based on age and gender, and falls between 19–38 grams per day.
Fiber — especially the insoluble kind making up most of quinoa’s fiber content — is one of many important factors in helping to prevent type 2 diabetes. It also improves digestion and regularity.
What about protein? The first thing to know is that all proteins aren’t created equal.
Protein sources are made of various amino acids and are classified as complete or incomplete, based on whether or not they contain all nine “essential” amino acids. Essential amino acids are those that the body can’t produce on its own — they have to come from food.
Quinoa is considered to be a complete protein source — a rare distinction among plant-based protein sources!
Eating both fiber and protein makes you feel full for longer, which can help you maintain a healthy weight. And with quinoa, you can check both off your list and get on with your day.
A condition called diabetic dyslipidemia often affects those with diabetes, which throws cholesterol levels out of whack — lowering “good” cholesterol (HDL-C), while raising the “bad” kind (LDL-C).
When LDL-C levels are too high, cholesterol plaque builds up in the arteries and the heart has to pump harder to circulate blood. This is a cause of hypertension, a condition that can lead to complications including:
- heart attack
- heart failure
The CDC estimates that over 70 percent of adults with diabetes have hypertension. This is partially because they share common causes, like:
- insulin resistance
Unfortunately there are no silver bullets for restoring healthy amounts of cholesterol and blood pressure — this is best achieved through lifestyle and diet changes and/or prescription meds (such as lipid lowering statins).
But substituting quinoa for grains like rice or couscous would be a healthy step in the right direction. For one, it’s high in potassium, which is instrumental in balancing sodium levels in the blood (too much sodium also influences hypertension).
Eating 5–10 grams of soluble fiber per day has been shown to reduce “bad” cholesterol levels — and quinoa can help you get there, with 1 gram of soluble fiber per half cup of cooked quinoa.
For many people with diabetes, the level of guilt felt about consuming a particular food is directly tied to its score on the glycemic index and/or glycemic load scale.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one — glycemic index and glycemic load
The glycemic index (GI) is, of course, a scale from 0–100 that indicates how quickly a food causes blood sugar to spike. The higher a food’s score on the GI, the quicker it causes blood sugar to spike.
A food falls into one of three categories based on its score:
- low: 55 or less
- medium: 56–69
- high: 70–100
The glycemic load (GL) scale does the same, but it also takes into account the amount of sugar in a serving, so it’s more subtle.
You can calculate a food’s GL score with this handy formula:
GL score = GI score x grams of carbs in one serving ÷ 100
The three GL categories are:
- low: 10 or less
- medium: 11–19
- high: 20 and up
How does quinoa rank?
Quinoa has a GI score of 53 (low) and a GL score of 13 (medium), making it a relatively diabetes-friendly option.
It’s worth noting…
Science is still a little iffy on whether GI and GL are accurate predictors for diabetes health. Still, they are considered helpful tools for managing carb content and understanding how certain foods affect blood sugar.
What about carbs?
Carbohydrates come in three major forms: sugar, starch, and fiber.
Cooked quinoa has…
21.3 grams of carbs in a 1 cup serving, of which:
- ~4 percent are from sugar
- ~13 percent are from fiber
- ~83 percent are from starch
Sugar, a simple carb that digests quickly and raises blood sugar in a hurry, barely exists in quinoa.
It’s mostly made of starch and fiber, which are complex carbs — meaning they’re digested more slowly. Fiber has the extra benefit of making you feel full quicker and for longer, curbing overeating and cravings between meals.
If you’ve made it this far into the article, chances are you’re ready to dine on some tasty quinoa.
Those with diabetes should aim to have three servings of whole grains, such as quinoa, per day.
How you prepare quinoa depends on the variety you choose, but all kinds have about the same nutritional benefits. It’s easy to get the hang of cooking quinoa at home, even for millennials.
7 steps to delicious quinoa
- Place 1 cup raw quinoa in a mesh strainer.
- Rinse under the faucet, submerging quinoa and shaking to wash away residue. Repeat until water runs clear-ish.
- Shake remaining water out of quinoa in the strainer and dump rinsed quinoa into a medium pot.
- Add 2 cups water and ½ tsp salt. Bring to a boil.
- Cover pot and reduce heat, simmering for 15–20 minutes or until water is absorbed.
- Remove from heat and leave covered for 5 minutes.
- Fluff quinoa with a fork and serve.
If plain quinoa doesn’t work wonders for you, there’s no shortage of flavorful recipes in which you can use it. Here are some diabetes-friendly suggestions (just pay attention to portion size), courtesy of the Whole Grains Council:
Believe it or not, quinoa isn’t the only up-and-coming grain out there. For the adventurous among us, there are plenty more alternatives to try. For a walk on the wild side, consider trying some of these — but always keep an eye on your carb intake.
Amaranth is another pseudocereal — a seed that you can substitute for wheat or oats. It has an earthy flavor and, like quinoa, an impressive nutritional profile. It’s high in protein, iron, and antioxidants, and it’s naturally gluten-free.
For a first encounter with amaranth, try making this delightful porridge.
A small seed that can be ground into a delicious gluten-free flour, teff’s flavor is also often described as earthy or nutty. It’s a staple in Ethiopian cuisine, where it’s used to make injera — a spongy, tangy flatbread used to mop up sauces and complement spicy dishes.
It has yet to make it big in America, so there’s still time to get in on the ground floor. Spread the word!
Follow this recipe to try your hand at making injera at home.
Buckwheat is actually not a type of wheat, as the name suggests. It’s yet another seed that does a great impression of a cereal grain. It’s gluten-free, and rich in fiber and minerals such as iron, potassium, and magnesium. It also provides resistant starch, which your colon will love.
You can try out buckwheat in this tasty tabouli (tabbouleh).
Quinoa is a versatile, healthier alternative to some of the more familiar grains. It’s unrefined and full of beneficial nutrients and fiber. People with diabetes will appreciate its relatively low score on the glycemic index, and health benefits. Its growing popularity and increasing availability make it an ideal “gateway drug” to other, similarly beneficial pseudocereals.