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Quinoa -- Can You Get Too Much of a Good Thing?

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September 7, 2015

By ARIADNE WEINBERG, Featured Columnist




Quinoa is a trendy food these days. It's been transported from Central America worldwide, touted as one of the staples of a healthy diet.

I am a fan of this textured pseudo grain, that can be mixed with salad, vegetables, on the side, or by itself. Why pseudo? It is gluten-free and technically a seed. There are lots of varieties, in several different colors (black, red, yellowish-white.) When cooked, it looks a bit like a fluffy, curly rice or couscous.

Although it is a relatively new trend, quinoa is hardly innovative. We just haven't seen it in most parts of the world.

In fact, this little curly seed has been in South America for thousands of years. Called the “gold of the Incas”, the crop was sacred to these people.

Quinoa was also named “Chisaya mama” or “mother of all grains.” When the Spanish colonists arrived, they deemed it “food for Indians” and actively suppressed its cultivation. People native to South American countries were forced to grow wheat instead.

Perhaps by poetic cultural justice, wheat is now being severely criticized, and quinoa is the new poster child of nutrition buffs. And perhaps sadly, quinoa is disappearing from the diet of the farmers who cultivate it because it's being exported to so many places.

Quinoa is not “bad for you” per se, but there are plenty of good reasons not to binge on it. Concerned about the health dangers of quinoa? Here are the Top 7:










  1. Quinoa Contains Saponins Which Can Punch a Hole in Your Intestines

Nope, nothing to do with the stuff that comes out of trees. Saponins act as anti-nutrients.

In quinoa, saponins are concentrated in the external layer of the grain, and look like little curly cues (If you have eaten cooked quinoa, you've probably seen them.)

According to a 2002 report, “Trends in Crops and New Uses” from the ASHS Press in Alexandria, VA, by J.B. Solíz Guerrero, saponins are used for protecting the plant from birds. They are also effective in growing crops, because bugs won't eat them, either.

Unfortunately, they have serious side effects for humans, as well.

Saponins create miniscule holes in the small intestine, which prevent your body from absorbing nutrients (hence the term “antinutrient”). 

These holes can let food particles enter your bloodstream, which can potentially lead to the appropriately-named "Leaky Gut Syndrome" and a host of autoimmune disorders.

If you eat out and order quinoa, it's difficult to be sure if it still contains saponins. If you buy it for yourself, you can rinse the product several times to eliminate them. You can tell if it's still full of saponins, because it will produce a white foam. When it stops producing that foam, you're fine.

2. Quinoa Is a High- Carb Food

Quinoa became so trendy mostly because of its reputation as a grain that was really a protein, so it inspired a lot of guilt-free eating from those of us who normally avoid  carbs.

But remember that quinoa is still a pseudo-grain and, like all grains, it has its fair share of carbohydrates.

A single cup of cooked quinoa contains 13% carbs (or 39/185 grams).

Ergo, go light on it, or mix it with something else. This can be dangerous for anyone, as it causes a spike in blood sugar, but even more so for diabetics.

According to a 2011 article from cardiologist Dr. William Davis from the St. Louis University School of Medicine, quinoa has a glycemic index of 53, which will send blood sugar to 150 mg/dl.

That's almost as bad a table sugar, which increases blood sugar increase to 158 mg/dl.

If you look at it that way, well, you might want to be careful. If taken in little bits, quinoa is fine. Mix it with salads or put it on top of vegetables, and you'll probably be okay. But start using it as a main dish, and you might feel that famous after-lunch carb drop.

3. Quinoa Is Relatively Low in Protein

Wait, what? But doesn't quinoa have a reputation for its protein?

While quinoa does have more protein than wheat, rice, and corn, it also has a lot of carbohydrates (as mentioned above), and a lot of calories.

So while quinoa has approximately 14% protein (according to a 1992 article by G.S. Chauhan and colleagues, titled “Nutrients and antinutrients in quinoa seed”), it's also a high-calorie food.

In other words, in one cup of quinoa, there are 8 grams of protein and 222 calories.

You're better off eating meat, dairy, or other products for your protein source. For example, four ounces of cottage cheese contains 13 grams of protein and fewer than half the calories of quinoa.

Eating quinoa can be fine, but don't look to it as your main protein source, or you'll be nutrient-deficient in no time.

4. Quinoa Contains Phytates

This is another one of those anti-nutrient things,

which means it removes nutrients from your body. Binding to important minerals in foods, phytates unfortunately blocks their absorption.

Quinoa is a food that is rich in both magnesium (30%) and phosphorous (28%). But given the phytates, it absorbs less than their full percentage.

According to a 1992 article by G.S. Chauhan and colleagues, titled “Nutrients and antinutrients in quinoa seed”, a whole seed of quinoa has approximately 174.4 milligrams of phytates per hundred grams, and a hulled seed contains 79.6 milligrams.

In order to reduce phytates in quinoa, you can soak a cup of quinoa in warm water with two tablespoons of lemon juice or apple cider vinegar.

5. Quinoa Could Be Unsafe for Celiacs and Those Who Are Gluten Intolerant

Unfortunately, Celiac's disease and gluten intolerance are getting downright normal. Sometimes you may not know you have it until later.

If you do know you have Celiac's disease, you'll want to be careful about the kind of quinoa you are buying, and see how your body reacts.

In a 2012 study conducted by Victor F. Zevallos from King's College London, he and researchers examined 15 cultivars of quinoa.

Four had a quantifiable concentration of celiac-toxic epitopes, and two could activate adaptive and innate immune responses (Cultivars Ayacuchana and Pasankalla).

Every body is a universe, so test what quinoa does to yours (in moderation, given the above points). But keep in mind that it may have an adverse reaction.

6. Quinoa Contains Lectins

Anti-nutrients. Anti-nutrients everywhere! Another reason that quinoa has the potential to be unsafe for the gluten-intolerant among us is that it contains chitin-binding "lectins", which actually mimic wheat lectins.

These lectins can also bind to the lining of the villi in your small intestine, causing damage and reducing the absorption of minerals and proteins.

According to a 2014 report by I.M. Vasconcelos at the Universidade Federal do Ceará, in Fortaleza, Brazil, “

Locally, lectins can affect the turnover and loss of gut epithelial cells, damage the luminal membranes of the epithelium, interfere with nutrient digestion and absorption, stimulate shifts in the bacterial flora and modulate the immune state of the digestive tract.”

7. Quinoa -It's Not Particularly Socially Conscious

Apart from all the nutritional detriments, which are many, quinoa is a posh food for posh people. But there is a negative effect on the diet of the people who grow it.

Demand in first world countries mean that in the countries where quinoa is grown --- mainly Peru and Bolivia --- it's too expensive for those who grow it to eat it.

This means that the farmers who grow it end up eating refined sugar and flour products, because it's the only thing they can afford. Quinoa can be grown in some first-world countries, as well. Find out if you can buy more locally-grown quinoa or try growing it yourself, if you'd still like to sprinkle it on your food. 




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