I’m so tired of hearing people say “I have a quinoa salad for lunch!” with wide eyes looking expectantly for an impressed reaction along the lines of “ooh, you made that? so fancy and healthy!” or something like that. It’s my firm belief that people go crazy for it because
a) they believe it’s healthier than rice or pasta and
b) it sounds cool and exotic because no one can pronounce it.
Well, today I’m going to break down the actual real deal about quinoa’s nutrition profile, including inflammation factor, digestive effects, blood sugar / glycemic effects, nutrient absorption, and enzyme effects.
A lot of basic facts are out there about quinoa, which at face value make it look like a healthy, high-protein, gluten-free wonderfood. I’m going to try to look a little deeper, and you can make up your own mind!
Truth: Quinoa is technically a seed. All grains and seeds naturally contain substances that keep them from being digested by animals that may eat them, before the plant is able to reproduce. They have protective layers that make them indigestible (by animals, like us!) so that they can be pooped out in a relatively whole state, and therefore still grow little baby plants afterwards. These substances are inflammatory to our system, to keep the grain or seed safe.
- quinoa’s inflammation factor is -126 (moderately inflammatory). (source)
- gluten and wheat are demonized, yet the inflammation factor of whole wheat flour is -89 (only mildly inflammatory). (source)
Saponins, specifically, are the inflammatory substance that protects the quinoa from digestion. A PubMed study showed that saponins
readily increase the permeability of the small intestinal mucosal cells, thereby inhibiting active nutrient transport, and facilitating the uptake of materials to which the gut would normally be impermeable. (source)
As explained by Celebrity Health Coach Sam F. Grant,
Saponins are soapy like molecules that literally “punch holes” in the gastric mucosal lining. Then you get “leaky gut” (contents of the gut leak into the blood stream) and this causes an autoimmune response and systemic inflammation. Systemic inflammation manifests in numerous ways: headaches, skin rashes, achy joints, stomach pain, weight gain, fatigue ,etc. (source)
You can see how these invisible inflamers can cause some major issues, especially when quinoa becomes a new go-to everyday staple.
SUMMARY: Quinoa is more inflammatory than wheat and contributes to leaky gut, which in turn contributes to a myriad of inflammatory and autoimmune health issues.
We all know we shouldn’t be eating “white foods” like white flour and sugar, because they cause blood sugar spikes that make us ‘wired then tired’, throw off our hormones, and pre-dispose us to diabetes by creating insulin resistance. So therefore we go for “healthier” foods like quinoa. I can just HEAR the over-achieving (well-intentioned) mom being all like “oh no my kids don’t eat rice, I only feed them QUINOA”.
Well, according to Dr. William Davis, the author of Wheat Belly, quinoa isn’t exactly a low-glycemic angel:
Oats, for instance, with a glycemic index of 55 compared to table sugar’s 59, still sends blood sugar through the roof. Likewise, quinoa with a glycemic index of 53, will send blood sugar to, say, 150 mg/dl compared to 158 mg/dl for table sugar–yeah, sure, it’s better, but it still stinks. And that’s in non-diabetics. It’s worse in diabetics. (source)
SUMMARY: Quinoa (like all grains) has a high glycemic index and load which may contribute to blood sugar disregulation.
Quinoa & Ancestral Nutrition
According to Ultimate Paleo Guide, quinoa often brings confusion to those trying to follow a paleo approach, because it’s not technically a grain, so it seems ok. The general consensus is that quinoa “does offer some of the same potentially harmful properties as grains”.
[according to a Paleo approach, grains] are avoided because they contain gluten, saponins, and lectins, among other anti-nutrients, which have been shown to be harmful to the lining of a person’s digestive system as well as their immune system. Many people don’t process quinoa effectively and, because of that, they should avoid it. (source)
But doesn’t it contain lots of vitamins and minerals?
It’s true that upon basic chemical analysis quinoa contains a good amount of some vitamins and minerals, including magnesium, phosphorus and manganese.
However it’s vital to point out that the phytic acid content of quinoa may lagely block the absorption of these nutrients.
Phytic acid is the principal storage form of phosphorus in many plant tissues, especially the bran portion of grains and other seeds. It contains the mineral phosphorus tightly bound in a snowflake-like molecule. In humans and animals with one stomach, the phosphorus is not readily bioavailable. In addition to blocking phosphorus availability, the “arms” of the phytic acid molecule readily bind with other minerals, such as calcium, magnesium, iron and zinc, making them unavailable as well. In this form, the compound is referred to as phytate.
Phytic acid not only grabs on to or chelates important minerals, but also inhibits enzymes that we need to digest our food, including pepsin, needed for the breakdown of proteins in the stomach, and amylase, needed for the breakdown of starch into sugar. Trypsin, needed for protein digestion in the small intestine, is also inhibited by phytates.
[…] the powerful anti-nutritional effects of a diet high in phytate-rich grains [and seeds] may cause many health problems as a result, including tooth decay, nutrient deficiencies, lack of appetite and digestive problems. (source)
In order to reduce the phytate content of quinoa, extensive traditional methods of preparation are required, such as soaking, fermenting and sprouting. The table below shows the reduction in phytates after different processing methods, according to the Weston A. Price Foundation.
You can see that quite a hefty amount of effort is required to reduce those phytates significantly and make all those vitamins and minerals in the quinoa be absorbable by the body. There is no point consuming nutrients if you can’t absorb them, thus the evolution of the saying “you are what you eat” to “you are what you ABSORB“.
SUMMARY: Quinoa contains good minerals and vitamins but they are encased in phytic acid which stops the absorption of these minerals, and takes a lot of traditional processing to reduce.
Protein content of quinoa
Many people use the “high protein content” of quinoa as an attracting factor for making it a daily staple. It’s true that “quinoa is what’s called a complete protein, meaning it contains all nine of the essential amino acids, which cannot be made by the body and therefore must come from food.” (source)
However, there’s only 8 grams of protein in a 185 gram serving, while 70% of the nutritional content is carbs. (source) This just doesn’t even come CLOSE to the nutritional powerhouses that are vegetables and animal protein sources.
As the Ultimate Paleo Guide puts it:
Even if you don’t have issues processing quinoa, quinoa still contains quite a few carbs. If your goal is to become a fat burner rather than a carb-burner, you’ll want to avoid quinoa as it’s a 53 on the Glycemic Index – quite high for a food that you don’t have to be eating. (source)
Check out this image comparing the macronutrient breakdown of quinoa vs rice vs pasta. Just because quinoa contains marginally more protein and fat than rice or pasta do, does not make it a “good source of protein”.
SUMMARY: Quinoa is primarily a source of carbohydrates, and it not significantly higher in proteins or fats than rice or pasta.
Concluding thoughts: is quinoa healthy?
I hope this has helped you get some clarity on quinoa, and why it may not be the perfect ideal health food to base all your meals around on a daily basis (or anything close to that!). Personally I find that quinoa gives me a super-fast heartrate a few minutes after consuming it. I assume this is the inflammatory factor kicking up an immune allergy-like reaction.
My advice? Certainly focus VASTLY on the organic veggies, good quality animal proteins, and fermented/cultured foods as 90-95% of your diet. If you MUST eat quinoa, try soaking it in an acid for awhile first, and rinse it well before cooking and consuming.
I think the flocking of the masses toward quinoa is really just filling a cultural need to eat everything “on something”. There must always be some sort of grain-like vehicle, like bread pasta rice cracker waffle pancake bagel etc. But these are all just low-nutrient carb-heavy vehicles for the good stuff, which is the colourful veggies, flavourful meat or protein, delicious sauce and herbs and seasonings. Here’s a thought: cut out the vehicle (which usually just gets stored as fat anyway, unless you’re highly active) and go straight for the good stuff.
What are your thoughts on quinoa?
Has this article given you any insights or changed your thinking? Is quinoa part of your daily diet? Have you observed any positive or negative health & wellness effects from quinoa? Share below or on Facebook!