Quinoa Health Benefits and Recipes

If you've yet to discover all of the quinoa health benefits, keep reading to be let in on this protein-packed secret.

A multipurpose food, quinoa is a tasty and nutritional grain packed with protein and fiber that is versatile enough to be enjoyed in the form of a cereal in the morning, a soup during the day and a filling salad at lunchtime.

Quinoa Health Benefits and Recipes

Known in Bolivia as “the mother grain,” quinoa has been a staple food for thousands of years in the Andes region of South America. Today we enjoy it for breakfast with fruit, in salads or soups, and even in the occasional dessert. It's healthy, and taste darn good too.

History of Quinoa

Within just the last few years, quinoa – pronounced KEEN-wah – has made big strides in its identity and popularity in the Western world, according to the Whole Grains Council. The grain has origins that date back nearly 5,000 years to the Bolivians of Lake Titicaca. It is believed that quinoa was sacred to the Incas, who called the grain "chisaya mama", meaning mother of all grains. Each year, according to oral history, the Incan emperor would sow the first quinoa seeds in an elaborate ceremony.

The History of Quinoa

Red quinoa ripening in a mountain valley in Cusco.

However, during the mid-1500s, a Spanish explorer nearly caused the quinoa crop to become extinct, noted the source. In an effort to ruin the culture, Francisco Pizarro destroyed the fields cultivating the crop and only a few areas of wild quinoa at high altitudes would survive. It re-emerged in the Western world in the 1970s, though it wasn't until the past decade that it really took off as a popular health food trend. According to the WGC​, in 2010  quinoa was named as the best side dish by the National Restaurant Association in its annual chef survey.

Most notable was the "International Year of Quinoa" launched in 2013 by United Nations leaders and the Andean communities of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. The celebration was an effort to increase awareness of the crop's nutritional value as well as to pay tribute to the cultural merit of a grain that has been grown traditionally for thousands of years, carried from one generation to the next. Today, quinoa is enjoyed nearly across the globe.

Health Benefits of Quinoa

Quinoa is one of the few plant-based foods that has all nine essential amino acids, making it quite the anomaly among its grain counterparts, according to Authority Nutrition. Gluten-free and packed with protein, it's also high in numerous antioxidants that are beneficial for the body.

The Many Health Benefits of Quinoa

One cup of cooked quinoa generally has 39 grams of carbs, 4 grams of fat and 222 calories. Quinoa has several omega-3 fatty acids. It's also high in iron, potassium, magnesium, B-vitamins, vitamin E and phosphorus, making it the perfect whole grain to add to your healthy eating plan.

"[Guests] are usually surprised by how easy it is to cook, as well as the flavor profile and nutritional value of quinoa," explained Pritikin's Chef Anthony. "It contains more protein at 8 grams per cup compared to other grains and is in high fiber at 17 grams per cup."

Quinoa health benefits even go beyond vitamins and minerals: It also contains high amounts of trace nutrients including flavonoids, according to the source. Plant antioxidants found to have various beneficial effects on health, the two flavonoids in quinoa are quercetin and kaempferol, which are good for the heart, according to Chef Anthony.

Health Benefits of Quinoa by Type

The differences between golden (white), red and black quinoa are nuanced. Golden is the mildest and least crunchy. Black is on the other end of the spectrum. And red is somewhere in the middle. They all share similar health benefits.

How to Buy Quinoa

As part of the Pritikin Diet and Eating Plan five or more servings of whole grains daily is encouraged. Among these whole, unprocessed grains is quinoa, making it a perfect addition to your healthy grocery list.

The WGC reported that there are nearly 120 different varieties of this trending grain but the three most common types sold in stores are black, white and red. According to The Huffington Post, the red variety of quinoa holds its shape best, making it a great option for salads, stuffing and meal-fillings. White quinoa is the most commercialized of the three and black quinoa varieties have a sweeter flavor. Quinoa flakes and flours are also available at most local grocery shops.

How to Cook Quinoa

Depending on the variety you purchase, quinoa may have to be pre-soaked prior to cooking. The coating around quinoa seeds – intended to keep birds at bay – is naturally bitter, according to Reader's Digest. To remove the coating, soak 1 cup of quinoa in 2 cups of water for 5 to 10 minutes, until its coating has dissolved. Then drain and rinse the quinoa so that it is ready for cooking. If it was bought packaged however, it's likely that this step has already been done for you.

Healthy Quinoa Recipe Ideas

Enjoy the health benefits of quinoa in many ways. It’s delicious in soups or salads, as a side dish, or these zucchini & quinoa fritters.

"For the best quality and flavor, toasting the quinoa before adding liquid is great," said Chef Anthony. "It brings out that 'nuttiness' in it which makes it more enjoyable and satisfying."

Then, to cook this protein-packed grain, pour it into a pot with 1 1/2 cups of water over medium-high heat. Add any additional spices if desired. Bring to a boil and then simmer for 15 minutes, covering with a tight pot cover. Once finished, remove from heat and let it sit covered for 5 to 10 minutes. Before serving, fluff quinoa with a fork until it's at the desired consistency.

How to Eat Quinoa

One of the best things about this healthy grain is its versatility. With nutty, earthy and sometimes sweet flavors, it can be enjoyed as a side dish to accompany dinner, as part of breakfast or lunch and even as a tasty midday snack. It can serve as a healthier alternative to rice, used as a baking grain for more nutritious muffins and cookies or made into meatless stuffing and burgers. As part of your healthy eating plan quinoa can transform into a variety of tasty meals, protein bars and baked goods. When it comes to using quinoa in the kitchen, Chef Anthony has a few favorites.

"My favorite is adding it to my oatmeal, using it to stuff acorn squash or adding it in a white bean paella," he said.

Wake up with this Pritikin recipe for Strawberry Quinoa Oatmeal or enjoy a light and refreshing Quinoa Salad for lunch, packed with plenty of zest and crunch. You can even indulge in this Mexican-inspired Fajita Chicken over Black Bean and Lime Quinoa dish – the grand prize winner of the 2013 Pritikin Recipe of the Year Contest.

Learn to cook quinoa and other healthy foods in hands on cooking classes at the Pritikin health resort and weight loss spa.

Health Trend to Highly Processed

In today's world it seems that healthy foods only enjoy a short period of freedom before becoming a popular trend that is picked up by the food industry and then highly processed and redistributed in a way that strips it of its original health benefits. Unfortunately, quinoa is one of those foods.

Similar to marketing schemes that label products as "fat-free," "low-fat" or "all natural," the food industry takes healthy foods like quinoa and incorporates them into other products. This can be deceiving: Adding quinoa to a sugar-filled cereal, granola bar or snack food doesn't override the long list of unhealthy ingredients.

Food Trend: Highly Processed Quinoa Products

The food industry is quick to process healthy ingredients like quinoa into calorie dense concoctions loaded with salt, sugar and oils that have few, if any, of the food’s original health benefits.

By including small amounts of these foods that are known to be healthy, the food industry successfully convinces consumers that they are making "healthy" choices at the grocery store. This is a simple marketing trick. The amounts of these nutrients are often negligible and do nothing to make up for the harmful effects of the other ingredients.

Even the packaged version of quinoa itself is now often sold with flavoring packets that include unhealthy additives such as sugar and sodium. To avoid the dilemma of navigating the misleading nutrition labels and ingredient lists, Nutrition Authority advised one rule: Stick to real, unprocessed, natural whole foods. When purchasing quinoa, ensure that it is in its most natural, raw form.

Quinoa as Part of a Healthy Eating Plan

Another great thing about quinoa is its versatility in pairing with other wholesome, natural foods because as said time and time again, there is no one super food that trumps the rest. The best practice for a balanced diet is following a healthy eating plan full of fiber-rich whole foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans like the Pritikin Diet and Eating Plan. Incorporating a variety of these healthy foods helps to ensure that your body receives the benefits of each and every one!

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