At a Glance
- Quinoa is a popular health food which has become more readily available in recent years
- Quinoa contains a huge variety of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients which positively affect our day-to-day health and guard against many serious illnesses
- Quinoa is quite unique in that it can replace carbs like pasta and rice in many different dishes while providing superior nutrition.
Although relatively unknown until recent years, quinoa has been around for a long time. It is thought to originate from Peru and Bolivia, and there is historical evidence of quinoa being domesticated for use as a food source somewhere between 3000 and 5000 BC.
A local staple food in the Americas, much of the quinoa crop in this region was replaced with cereal crops by Spanish explorers, who noted that the indigenous people produced very little cereal such as maize, but that quinoa was grown in abundance.
Quinoa seeds were transported to Europe, but were not subsequently cultivated as the seeds did not survive the trek across the ocean. (source)
Moving more up to date, quinoa has grown steadily in popularity as a health food, and has become much more widely available in western countries.
So what is the big deal about quinoa? Why are more and more people choosing to include it as an integral part of their diet?
Let’s investigate and find out the facts on quinoa health benefits.
What Is Quinoa?
Quinoa is generally considered a whole grain food, but it’s actually the seed of a flowering plant belonging to the amaranth family closely related to beetroot and spinach.
Plants grow to between one and two meters in height; quinoa seeds are approximately two millimeters in diameter.
Some sources report over a thousand different varieties of quinoa, but three main types are widely available: white, red and black quinoa.
There’s no nutritional difference between the three different varieties, but white quinoa is softer and takes the least time to cook, red has a little more bite to it, and black quinoa is crunchier and takes slightly longer to cook.
Which one you add to your grocery basket is really down to personal choice, though my favorite is black quinoa. (source)
Cooked quinoa is around 71 percent water, with the remainder being made up of carbohydrates, protein and fat. A cup of cooked quinoa supplies almost 60 percent of our daily requirement of manganese, around 30 percent of our magnesium and phosphorus and almost 20 percent of the copper and folate we need.
Quinoa also provides some iron, most of the B vitamins, potassium, zinc, selenium, vitamins C and E and calcium.
In addition, quinoa contains some very powerful plant compounds including flavonoids kaempferol and quercetin, which are found in exceptionally high levels in quinoa. (source)
Quinoa is also a very important source of protein; as a complete source, it provides all of the essential amino acids that we are unable to manufacture in our own bodies.
The Health Benefits of Quinoa
So with all this goodness inside those tiny little seeds, it isn’t hard to see that quinoa is beneficial for health – but what does it actually do?
Here are the highlights of what quinoa can do to improve our health:
A Natural Antioxidant
Antioxidants are substances which absorb free radical chemicals in the body. Free radicals are unstable molecules which are the result of chemical reactions and toxins such as cigarette smoke, pollution and radiation.
Free radicals are a natural phenomenon, but once one free radical is formed, its unstable nature leads to many more being produced.
If the number of free radicals is too great for our defenses to manage, they can cause chaos, damaging the DNA in cells, allowing substances to gain entry into cells when they shouldn’t, and encouraging LDL cholesterol plaques to form in arteries.
The changes free radicals bring about can lead to cardiovascular disease, cancer, autoimmune disorders, cataracts, premature aging and neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s. (source)
When compared with other foods like cereals and legumes in clinical trials, quinoa proved to have to highest level of antioxidant action of all the foods tested.
Further research has found that once the seeds have sprouted, the level of antioxidants is even higher as oxidative protection is an important part of seed germination. (source)
Quinoa is an Anti-inflammatory Food
Inflammation is not always a bad thing. In fact, it’s a very important part of the healing process following an injury, allowing increased blood flow to the area, bringing specialized white blood cells to the injury to heal or manage the problem.
However, prolonged or chronic inflammation can delay healing and lead to health problems, and experts are now suggesting chronic inflammation plays a major role in heart disease.
Quercetin, of which quinoa is a rich source, has been shown in research trials to significantly reduce inflammation in non-human subjects, though more research is needed to identify similar effects in humans. (source)
The anti-inflammatory properties of quinoa could be helpful in many conditions including cardiovascular, liver and kidney disease, dermatitis, arthritis, asthma, ankylosing spondylitis, Crohn’s disease, colitis and fibromyalgia.
Quinoa Can Help Fight Cancer
Cancer is a disease characterized by an out of control growth of cells which results in tumors. According to The National Cancer Institute approximately 40 per cent of the population will be diagnosed with cancer during their lifetime. (source)
Several studies have indicated plant compounds such as quercetin are effective against cancer. In one trial, quercetin was found to interact with cell DNA and was associated with cell death in tumors. (source)
Helps Control Blood Sugar
Even if you don’t have diabetes, maintaining blood sugar levels within normal range is important for everyone. It helps to promote good general health and reduces the risk of developing diabetes, cardiovascular and kidney disease, nerve damage and problems with eyesight. (source)
Research comparing the effects of quinoa and white bread on blood sugar levels shows that quinoa doesn’t cause such a large spike in blood sugar after consumption, and blood sugar levels return to normal more quickly than with white bread.
The study concluded that quinoa was an important daily food source to improve glucose tolerance for both the diabetic and non-diabetic diet. (source)
Quinoa Can Aid Weight Loss
As quinoa is a great source of fiber and protein, it’s an ideal food to incorporate into a weight loss plan. The combination of fiber and protein helps to fill you up, avoiding hunger pangs.
The fiber in quinoa makes it slower to digest than other foods, so it can keep you feeling fuller for longer and help to stop you reaching for that mid-afternoon high calorie snack. (source)
Osteoporosis is a condition where bone structure becomes weakened and more porous. According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, approximately 54 million Americans have osteoporosis or some form of low bone mass. (source)
Magnesium is a very important mineral for bone density; consuming the optimum amount of this mineral can prevent disease such as osteoporosis. One cup of cooked quinoa provides one third of our daily dose of magnesium, so eating it regularly in conjunction with other magnesium rich foods like nuts, dark green vegetables, avocados and dark chocolate can help keep our bones healthy. (source)
Quinoa Can Reduce Depression
Depression affects more than 15 million people in the US, and more than 300 million people worldwide.
The National Institute of Mental Health define depression as “an illness that causes negative thought patterns which affect the way people think, feel and act”.
The flavonoids quercetin and kaempferol in quinoa have been indicated in research as being able to positively affect the nerve signaling pathways involved in depression.
Quinoa really is a great food for a healthy body and mind. (source)
Supports Important Metabolic Functions
Our bodies are amazing organisms; there are millions of processes and chemical reactions going on inside that we are completely unaware of. To perform optimally our bodies need support in the form of good nutrition.
The liver, for example, has many essential metabolic functions. It stores nutrients and modifies them into useable forms, removes toxins from the blood and converts them into harmless forms for excretion, produces proteins for blood clotting, breaks down fats and old and damaged cells and helps control blood sugar levels.
To perform all of its various function, the liver needs a steady supply of vitamins C and E, B vitamins, copper, manganese, selenium and zinc, which are all found in varying amounts in quinoa.
Similarly, the kidneys use potassium, vitamin C and B vitamins to do their job of filtering gallons of blood each day to remove toxins and waste products, balance electrolytes and fluid, regulate blood pressure and manufacture new cells.
These are just two examples of how the body uses vitamins and minerals; there are a host of other uses in other organs and systems too.
Quinoa supplies us with a fantastic range of nutrients which help to support a huge range of functions in the body that help to maintain and improve our health on a daily basis.
Quinoa is Naturally Gluten Free
This is great news for people with conditions like Celiac disease, intolerances or other reasons for avoiding gluten.
While gluten free food is becoming much more widely available, there are concerns about the health impact of some of the ingredients used in processed gluten free foods.
Manufacturers may use other refined ingredients to replace the gluten, but most refined food has a low nutrient content, regardless of the source.
Research indicates that using quinoa in place of refined gluten free products such as potato or rice flour significantly boosts the nutritional value of a gluten free diet. (source)
Advantages of Quinoa
Aside from specific health benefits, including quinoa in your diet offers several practical plus points:
Vegetarians and vegans can eat quinoa Quinoa is suitable for kosher and halal diets It’s always good to check the packaging, but the majority of quinoa produced is organic. It takes less time to prepare than other whole grains. While foods like brown rice seem to take forever and a day, quinoa cooks in around ten to fifteen minutes. Many people find the taste of plain quinoa much more pleasant than other whole grain foods. Quinoa is naturally gluten free, so suitable for people with celiac disease
How to Prepare Quinoa
For those of us who haven’t cooked quinoa before, it is prepared in a similar way to rice. As a rough guide, a cup of dry quinoa equates to three cups when cooked.
- Rinse the quinoa well in cold water. Swirl and swish it around to remove the natural coating which can otherwise give quinoa a slightly soapy taste. It doesn’t need to be soaked.
- In a saucepan, add the quinoa to double the quantity of water or stock – chicken stock gives a great taste.
- Bring to the boil, cover and allow to simmer for ten to fifteen minutes, or until all the water has been absorbed.
- Remove from the heat and allow to stand, covered, for five minutes.
- Use a fork to gently fluff up the grains and serve.
Final Thoughts on Quinoa Health Benefits
So now we know quinoa really is a very healthy food which is packed with all kinds of beneficial nutrients. It is also a pleasant food to eat, and easy to source and prepare, and great for gluten free, vegetarian and vegan eating plans.
The nutrients in quinoa have a range of positive effects on health. Quinoa can boost the regular daily functions in the body, improve bone health, help control free radicals and inflammation, has anti-cancer properties and can help to decrease depression, control blood sugar levels and aid weight loss.
Making your diet more healthy isn’t always about making sweeping changes. Using food like quinoa to replace rice to accompany a curry, or mixed into a stir fry instead of noodles, you can make lasting changes to your diet which are stepping stones to better health and vitality.