Call it the protein-packed seed that masquerades as a grain.
Though it’s been around for thousands of years, quinoa (pronounced “KEEN-wah”) has recently received cultlike status among health-seekers and those who have simply grown bored with conventional grains such as rice, wheat and barley. There are many reasons to incorporate this superfood into your daily diet and two local nutrition experts explain how and why to do it.
What is quinoa?
Though it is touted as the supergrain of the future, quinoa is not a grain at all, but rather a seed and relative of green leafy vegetables like spinach and Swiss chard. Thought of as a grain because of the way it is prepared, its taste and texture is a bit like brown rice meets oatmeal. When cooked, it is light, fluffy and slightly crunchy, with a subtle, nutty flavor.
Why people are talking about it
When it comes to packing a nutritional punch, few foods do it quite like quinoa. “Quinoa is considered a perfect protein because it contains nine essential amino acids,” says Chelsea Caito, a registered dietician/weight-loss coach and assistant department head of nutrition at Lifetime Fitness in Mason. Other nutritional benefits of quinoa include:
• It’s lower in carbohydrates and higher in fiber, protein, calcium and iron than brown rice
• It’s gluten-free
• It packs phytonutrients (powerful plant-based micronutrients) including flavonoids that contain antioxidant properties known to reduce inflammation.
• It contains healthy fats such as omega-3 and omega-9 fatty acids.
• Quinoa has a low glycemic index making it safe for diabetics as it won’t spike blood sugar
• There is a low risk of allergy with quinoa and it’s easily digested, making it an excellent choice for young children.
“Children find the texture of quinoa to be fun,” said Laura McAlpine of Springboro and a registered dietician with Dayton Children’s Hospital. “Quinoa is a great addition to anyone’s diet because of its high nutritional value – it’s a great source of vitamins and minerals.”
What it means to you
Are you diabetic? Vegetarian? Gluten sensitive? Are you looking to lose weight? Trying to eat healthier? Seeking some variety in your diet without sacrificing nutrients? Whatever your situation, quinoa is a great place to start.
“A lot of my clients have gluten sensitivity,” said Caito. “Quinoa provides a great way for them to still have a carbohydrate without the unwanted side effects.”
How is this beneficial?
Not only is quinoa a nutritional powerhouse, it is also incredibly versatile, easy to prepare and can be incorporated into breakfast, lunch and dinner. “Quinoa is relatively bland so it will pick up any flavor added to a dish,” explained McAlpine. It can be eaten in place of oatmeal in the morning and can be substituted in any dish that calls for rice or pasta.
“You can even use it in place of noodles in soup,” said Caito. Also, since complete proteins are a rarity in the plant world, “it’s an excellent way for vegetarians to get their protein,” said Caito.
For her weight loss clients, Caito recommends quinoa for its low glycemic index and high fiber. “In weight loss, it’s all about reducing simple carbohydrates while still feeling satisfied.” A food’s glycemic index indicates how eating the food will affect your blood sugar – the lower the number, the better. Quinoa has a glycemic index similar to vegetables and so, won’t cause blood sugar to spike. When blood sugar is high, it causes cravings for sugary foods and simple carbohydrates – a dieter’s nightmare.
How to make the most of quinoa
Quinoa can be found in three varieties: gold, red and black.
“The gold variety is probably the most popular,” said Caito. “It is fluffier and creamier than the red and black varieties. The red has a more bitter taste and is commonly used with avocado, cheeses and chopped nuts. The black has a sweeter, nuttier taste and is often paired with fruit.”
As for how much quinoa per day/meal, for adults, Caito recommends ½-1 cup per meal cooked. “I’m not so concerned with how many times per day, just the portion size per meal.”
For children ages 2-13, McAlpine recommends 3-6 ounces of grains daily, depending on age, sex and activity level. “At least half of this amount should come from whole grains, like quinoa. A 1/2 cup of cooked quinoa equals 1 ounce.”
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