Is Quinoa a Carb or a Protein?

By | May 24, 2017

One of the things most of us remember from our childhood is coming face to face with the dietary pyramid. For those of you who don’t remember, it was basically a pyramid specifying what food we needed and in what amount to keep ourselves healthy. The base being the widest contained proteins i.e something we need in greater amounts than the other items in the pyramid. At the top, the narrowest region, we have items with higher percentage of fats. Essentially, this pyramid was imprinted into our minds and now, in our adult years, we subconsciously follow that pyramid. If we want to stay healthy, we eat whatever has the lesser number of calories, a moderate number of carbs, some fats and mostly proteins. This becomes our mantra when we decide on what to have for breakfast, lunch or dinner.

Carbohydrates, proteins and fats make up a class of nutrients known as macromolecules. These are to be ingested in larger quantities than other nutrients which are categorized as micro molecules. Each nutrient plays a vital function in our digestive system and can aid substantially to our health. Even notorious substances such as cholesterol can prove to be helpful if taken in calculated amounts. Knowing this, we deduce what we should and should not eat. In some cases, the categorization is pretty clear cut. Meat is categorized as protein; oils are fats and so on. However, in some special cases, the choice is largely speculated. We tend to make assumptions on their categorization without knowing for sure. Either by one common factor it shares with one food group or the other. Like, say quinoa.

Identifying Quinoa:

Quinoa or whole grain is slowly becoming a staple in many households today. It is seen as a healthier alternative as opposed to other food items such as brown rice. It contains about fifty calories less than brown rice. While quinoa might be gaining popularity, few people are aware of its rightful categorization. We are all basically depending on what we hear about it. That is a general thing to do in today’s time. People generally tend to follow the crowd and are much more likely to be attracted to branding of the product than the actual product itself. Strictly speaking of quinoa, we know that it’s healthier, but do we know which category it falls into? If you answer with carbohydrates another person will counter that by saying it’s somewhat like a protein in nature. Naturally, there should be one right answer here and one wrong answer. I mean, that is the traditional way to go about it. However, neither one of you are completely wrong here. I say completely because both have confined their answers to one food group when in fact, quinoa is both a carbohydrate and a protein!

Quinoa a Carb

Quinoa (pronounced as keen-wah) is referred to as the ‘mother of all grains’ and rightly so. This ancient grain was cultivated in South Africa nearly five thousand years ago. Although there are many types of cultivated quinoa, the most popular ones are red, white and black quinoa. Quinoa has a very subtle nutty taste and can be added in almost any part of your food routine for additional nutritional benefits. Botanically speaking, quinoa is not actually a true grain. It is in fact a pseudo cereal. However, nutritionally speaking, it can pass off as a grain. Yet, whole grains do have the advantage over other true grains as they maintain their nutritional value even if they are refined and processed. In case of white grain, it loses many of its original nutrition when being turned into white bread etc. Differentiating quinoa from true grains is not the problem at hand here; it is it’s classification as either a protein or a carb. As I mentioned before, it’s both! Let us go in a little depth..

Nature of Quinoa:

Quinoa is a true protein, but has a higher concentration of carbohydrates than it does of proteins. That statement might sound self contradictory now, but it’s actually quite simple. Quinoa is referred to as a true protein because it contains the nine complete amino acids. Any single one of these amino acids would have been enough to determine it as ‘some what like a protein in nature’. However, since it contains all six of them it is the ideal protein. Moving on to the next part, the higher concentration of carbohydrates. One-fourth cup of dry quinoa contains 160 calories, 2.5 grams of fat (0 grams saturated and trans fat), 0 grams of cholesterol and sodium, 27 grams of carbohydrate (3 grams of fiber and 0 grams of sugar), and 6 grams of protein. Generally, when we hear carbs we tend to put the item back on the shelf. However, it’s nothing but a misconception which allows us to deem all carbs as bad. For example, while quinoa has a higher concentration of carbohydrates, it has almost zero grams of sugar. Additionally, quinoa is known to not raise blood sugar level by a considerable extent. This can mean that quinoa helps in steering clear of a number of health problems such as cardiovascular diseases, obesity, high blood pressure, colon cancer and diabetes.

Additional benefits:

Cooking with quinoa is extremely simple. First off, you need to thoroughly rinse the product. This is done because quinoa contains a naturally occurring bitter substance known as saponin that works as a natural insecticide. One thorough rinse is enough to remove all the saponin. There are some companies that pre-rinse them, but it never hurt to be safe. After you are done rinsing it, the next step is cooking. Cooking generally takes fifteen minutes on average give or take a minute or two. The recommended daily intake of whole grains is roughly forty eight grams a day. Quinoa provides a higher amount of antioxidants than other common grains used in a gluten-free diet. Most gluten-free products consist of corn, rice, or potato flour and lack the nutrients that products incorporating quinoa can provide. Researchers at Columbia University’s Celiac Disease Center found that the nutritional content of gluten-free diets was significantly improved by adding oats or quinoa to meals and snacks e.g.: protein (20.6g vs. 11g), iron (18.4mg vs. 1.4mg), calcium (182mg vs. 0mg) and fiber (12.7g vs. 5g). Whole grains like quinoa provide essential vitamins, minerals, and fiber, which help to regulate the digestive system and to keep you fuller and more satisfied. White pasta, white rice, and white bread essentially provide us with simple carbohydrates that are quickly digested but little else in the way of nutritional value. Quinoa is naturally gluten-free and contains iron, B-vitamins, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, vitamin E, and fiber. It contains them in the percentages:

Manganese: 58% of the RDA.

Magnesium: 30% of the RDA.

Phosphorus: 28% of the RDA.

Folate: 19% of the RDA.

Copper: 18% of the RDA.

Iron: 15% of the RDA.

Zinc: 13% of the RDA.

Potassium: 9% of the RDA.


Just how popular quinoa is can be judged by the fact that twp thousand and thirteen was declared as the ‘year of the quinoa’ by the United Nations (UN). This was done so by keeping in mind all of its health benefits, its role in nutrition since times immemorial and its potential to contribute to food security worldwide. Similarly, NASA is looking into quinoa as a potential seed to be cultivated in outer space because of its minimal conditions to grow, yet great resistance to terrestrial conditions. The high carbohydrate concentration of quinoa can in fact be very helpful to many land animals that do not have enough water to drink. By feeding on the grain, they convert the nutrients into water of metabolism and essentially save themselves from dying of thirst. While we have discussed the better known nutrients present in quinoa, it contains some other lesser known yet equally as beneficial nutrients too. This includes interesting molecules called flavonoids, which are plant antioxidants that have been shown to have all sorts of beneficial effects on health. Two flavonoids that have been particularly well studied are quercetin and kaempferol, and they happen to be found in large amounts in quinoa. These important molecules have been shown to have anti inflammatory, anti viral, anti cancer and anti depressant effects in animal studies.


Quinoa is naturally gluten free. This can be helpful since a 2013 study showed that nearly one third of the United States population expressed a desire to minimize their gluten intake. Many people would resort to refined products which have the words ‘Gluten Free’ clearly marked on them. The consumer might feel proud of their supposed ‘healthy’ decision, but whether its gluten free or not will not mean that it is lower in fats or is potentially harmful in raising your blood sugar level. If only there was a naturally occurring gluten free food that is low in fats and does not raise blood sugar level..

In Conclusion:

Hence, quinoa is gaining the right type of fame because of it’s immense health benefits. Whilst people are not very well aware of its proper classification in a particular food group, they are aware of the number of health benefits they receive from it. By containing all the essential amino acids, quinoa is an ideal protein. An essential amino acid is any such amino acid that the human body is incapable of producing specifically mentioning lysine. On the other hand, quinoa contains a great amount of carbs. The word carbs should have gained it some notoriety, but thankfully not because these are not the kind of carbs that you run away from. Quinoa contains almost zero grams of sugar. If you are someone who is looking at a new way to improve their diet and to lose weight in a healthy yet effective way then quinoa will be your best friend throughout the process. What’s the fundamental of losing weight? Consume lesser calories than you burn. In order for this to not affect your health in any way, you are advised to have physically fulfilling foods so that you won’t binge eat once you get the chance. The fibre in quinoa and the protein can help you with that. Additionally, it is lower in calories and you won’t find yourself feeling starved through the process and you’ll actually see results.

Bottom line is that quinoa is neither a complete protein nor is it a complete carbohydrate. It’s genuinely the best of both worlds. It is one of the healthiest foods on the planet. Aside the well known nutrients, it contains a hearty amount of some lesser known yet equally as important nutrients too. It is known as the ‘mother of all grains’ and 2013 was declared as the ‘year of the quinoa’ by the United Nations (UN) whilst keeping its dietary importance in mind. However, quinoa is actually one of the oldest known grains to be cultivated. It is assumed that it was cultivated some five thousand years ago. Quinoa contains a naturally curring substance known as saponin which acts as a natural insecticide. The presence of this substance is why quinoa is rinsed thoroughly before it is cooked. One thorough rinse is all it takes otherwise your quinoa will taste bitter as opposed to the subtle nutty flavor that it’s so loved for. Cooking quinoa is as simple as one, two and three and by that I mean it literally takes only a short time of fifteen minutes before it’s cooked. Just add water and salt with the quinoa in a pot and cook for fifteen minutes. Then sit back and enjoy your delicious and healthy meal!

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