Native to the rocky terrain of the Andes Mountains, quinoa has served as a staple food for a variety of indigenous groups in South America for over 4,000 years. In fact, quinoa was considered sacred and known as chisaya mama, or the “mother grain,” by the Incas; and legend has it that the Incan emperor would ceremoniously plant the first quinoa seeds every year.
Quinoa, which is technically a seed but considered an ancient grain, boasts a delicious nutty flavor and high levels of key nutrients such as fiber, protein, B vitamins, and a variety of minerals, including magnesium. It’s also one of the few plant-based “complete” proteins, meaning it contains all 9 essential amino acids your body can’t make on its own—making it an ideal addition to plant-based diets. Bonus: It’s gluten-free!
Here’s a look at some of the most exciting potential health benefits of quinoa (and its various nutritional compounds).
6 Health Benefits Supported By Quinoa
1 Balanced blood sugar.
A recent 2018 study found that bread enriched with quinoa flour led to a significantly lower blood sugar response than bread made with typical wheat flour. This is likely because quinoa contains several key nutrients that support balanced blood sugar—which, in turn, could also help curb food cravings and overeating.
In a cup of cooked quinoa, for example, there’s 8 grams of protein and 5 grams of fiber (or 21% of your recommended daily intake, RDI)—significantly more than most other grains. Compared to quickly digested grains like white rice, foods rich in fiber and protein stay in your digestive system longer and help prevent the drastic spikes and dips in blood sugar that can lead to intense feelings of hunger.
Quinoa is also high in magnesium, with one cup containing about a third of what you need in an entire day. A 2013 study found that higher magnesium intake was associated with lower fasting blood sugar. Additionally, a 2005 study revealed that participants found quinoa to be more satiating (filling) compared to other grains, including wheat and rice.
2 Optimized gut and digestive health.
Incorporating fiber-rich foods like quinoa into your diet does a lot more than just keep you full—it also supports your gut microbiome in a big way.
Fiber is actually what the “good” probiotic bacteria in your gut need to feed on so they can grow and thrive. Additionally, when your gut bugs break down fiber, the resulting byproducts are called short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), including butyrate, which feed the cells in your colon and enhance gut barrier function, helping prevent what’s known as “leaky gut,” or gut permeability. Not to mention, fiber can help add bulk to stool, helping ease both constipation and diarrhea.
Quinoa also contains a good amount of zinc, a mineral that’s essential for cellular turnover and repair. Replenishing low zinc levels has been shown to improve the integrity of the intestinal lining in patients with Crohn's disease and reduce gut permeability.
3 Elevated mood.
While no studies have been done on quinoa and mood specifically, quinoa’s ample micronutrients do seem to have a mood-elevating effect. Magnesium, for example, plays a role in brain neurotransmitter pathways, and low magnesium levels have been associated with anxiety and depression—but research suggests that increasing levels may help stabilize mood and counter stress.
Additionally, quinoa contains the flavonoid antioxidant quercetin, which was shown in a 2010 study to have antidepressant effects. It’s also very high in manganese, which supports overall brain health.
4 Better all-around heart health.
Considering quinoa’s antioxidant content and high levels of fiber, it’s probably no surprise that this ancient grain is believed to support cardiovascular health, too. While more research is needed in this area, one 2017 study found that consuming under a half a cup of quinoa per day significantly reduced serum triglyceride levels. Triglycerides are fats that circulate in the bloodstream and contribute to plaque buildup in arteries and risk of stroke.
High-protein, high-fiber diets have also been associated with improved weight and fat loss compared to standard dietary recommendations; and losing weight (if you’re overweight) and replacing fat mass with lean muscle mass is a great way to improve overall heart health.
5 Enhanced energy levels
Eating more quinoa certainly won’t give you a buzz like caffeine, but it contains micronutrients that can help keep you fueled on a cellular level, including B vitamins, iron, and phosphorus.
B vitamins are particularly important for converting carbohydrates, fats, and proteins from the food you eat into a form of energy your cells can utilize. Iron helps produce hemoglobin, a protein that allows red blood cells to carry oxygen all over the body. Phosphorus helps make ATP—a molecule the body uses to store energy and power a variety of biological processes. And with low iron, not enough oxygen reaches your muscles or brain, which can lead to fatigue and weakness.
6 Reduced inflammation.
While processed, refined grains are known to drive inflammation in the body, compounds in healthy whole grains like quinoa may actually help combat inflammation. A 2017 research review identified a range of micronutrients in quinoa—various phenolics, betacyanins, fatty acids, tocopherols, and carotenoids—that may help lower the risk of oxidative stress-related diseases like cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity.
Why quinoa is considered a superfood
Nutritional analysis shows that quinoa is incredibly nutrient-dense for a grain (or, technically, grain-like seed). Far from a source of empty calories like some grains or grain-based foods, quinoa contains ample fiber and a good amount of complete protein (containing all 9 essential amino acids), along with high levels of iron, magnesium, phosphorous, zinc, manganese, and the B vitamins folate, riboflavin, thiamin, and vitamin B6. Quinoa is also a good source of the antioxidants quercetin and kaempferol, which have been shown in research to have anti-inflammatory as well as mood-enhancing properties. Together, these properties yield a food that’s truly balanced and nutritious, and worthy of its superfood reputation.
Bottom line on quinoa.
Quinoa is one of the most nutritionally well-rounded grains you can eat, containing enough protein and fiber to keep your mood and cravings stable, and ample micronutrients to support a range of physical and mental health benefits. It’s a worthy addition to any diet, and may be particularly beneficial if you’re trying to balance your mood, energy, or blood sugar; support heart health; or optimize digestion.