Quinoa, pronounced as “Keen-wah” has been a staple in many South American homes for thousands of years, but has only really surfaced in other countries during the past decade. Since the gluten-free lifestyle trend hit the scene in 2013, it only seemed appropriate that the gluten-free ancient grain, quinoa, finally made its debut in pantries across the globe. Many health enthusiasts have dubbed this Andean Mountain treasure a superfood because of its various health benefits and extraordinary protein content, which also makes it the perfect addition to any vegan diet.
While this grain may have a great reputation in the health food sector, many low carb dieters have one question on their minds. Is quinoa an exception to keto diet rules or should it be written off from the menu entirely?
Is Quinoa A Grain Or Seed?
In a world where peanuts are considered legumes and tomatoes are classified as a fruit, it’s not surprising that there is confusion around the classification of quinoa. Quinoa is a seed that is harvested from the Chenopodium quinoa or Goosefoot plant, which is native to the Andes Mountains. Typically, whole grains and cereal grains like barley and oats are derived from different types of grass, not plants. However, in the nutrition world and according to the Oldways Whole Grain Council, quinoa is quantified as a whole grain, or “pseudocereal.” What this term means is that while quinoa may have a similar nutrient profile to whole grains and is commonly eaten and prepared the same way, in a botanical sense, it is neither a grass nor a true whole grain. It is actually closely related to spinach, beets, and chard – both the leaves and grains of the Chenopodium quinoa plant are edible.
Nutritional Value And Carbs In Quinoa
Quinoa is an extremely nutrient-dense food, in fact, no plant or animal source comes as close as quinoa when it comes to supplying the body with all the essential nutrients needed to survive. There are over 120 different variations of quinoa, but each variation has a similar nutrient profile. The pseudocereal has earned itself a top spot on the superfood list and for very good reasons. Uncooked quinoa has a higher concentration of essential amino acids like methionine and cysteine in comparison to most other cereal grains, which is why it is a great meat alternative for those who are vegan or following a Mediterranean diet. It is also abundant in protein, fiber, phytosterols, saponins, polyunsaturated fatty acids, and phenolics.
While quinoa may reign supreme on the superfood index, it is not exactly considered a low carb food. Let’s take a quick glance at the figures.
One cup serving (185g) of cooked quinoa contains:
- 222 calories
- 39 grams of carbs
- 5 grams of fiber
- 8 grams of protein
- 4 grams of fat
- 34 grams of net carbs
Minerals and Vitamins
- Vitamin E – 12% RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance)
- Thiamin – 24% RDA
- Riboflavin – 19% RDA
- Vitamin B6 – 24% RDA
- Folate – 19% RDA
- Vitamin B5 – 8% RDA
- Iron – 15% RDA
- Magnesium – 30% RDA
- Potassium – 9% RDA
- Zinc – 13% RDA
- Manganese – 30% RDA
Based on the daily values, quinoa has a balanced macronutrient ratio, making it a great addition to a healthy diet. However, quinoa is not very keto-friendly thanks to the high number of carbs. But that doesn’t mean it has to be ruled off the menu entirely.
How Does Quinoa Fit Into The Keto Diet?
The carb count in quinoa is high and may not be the best choice for maintaining a state of ketosis. Half a cup of quinoa provides about 17 grams of carbs, which on a standard keto diet leaves little to no room for other meals. The ideal amount of carbs you should be consuming on a standard keto diet is between 20 to 50 grams or around 10 net grams per meal. However, if you are following a different version of the keto diet, then quinoa can be incorporated into your meal plans. These are the two variations of the diet:
The Targeted Keto Diet
The targeted keto diet or TKD allows for a higher carb consumption throughout the day depending on how active your lifestyle is. This variation of the diet is more suited for those who regularly attend the gym or participate in other exercise intensive activities. Dieters are allowed to eat an extra 20 to 30 grams of carbs up to an hour before a workout. Half a cup of quinoa mixed with other low carb or zero carb foods can be eaten just before training sessions and won’t have much of an impact on your ketosis.
The Cyclical Keto Diet
The cyclical keto diet or CKD follows the same principles as the standard keto diet for five to six days of the week followed by a day or two of carbohydrate refeeding. On refeed days, the carb consumption allowance is much higher, about 60 to 70% of the meals for that day should contain carbs. This diet is aimed at athletes who participate in high-intensity workout programs and want to build more muscle mass. Instead of reaching for unhealthy refined carbs, quinoa is the perfect refeed meal.
Is It Best To Avoid Quinoa On A Low Carb Diet?
The answer depends on the individual. If you are following the keto diet with the sole goal of losing weight, then you may want to avoid quinoa altogether. It has a relatively low glycemic index of 53, meaning that it doesn’t get absorbed rapidly by the body, but it does still cause a rise in blood glucose. When glucose is present in the body, it will use that as the main source of fuel instead of producing ketones, which is exactly what you don’t want on a keto diet.
If you are following a low carb diet for medical or health reasons and not too concerned with maintaining a constant state of ketosis, then quinoa can be eaten in moderation.
Low Carb Quinoa Substitutes
There is no denying that the ancient grain is one of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet, but there are many low carb alternatives that come a close second.
- Chopped nuts
- Chia seeds
- Flax meal
- Shredded cauliflower
- Hemp seeds
- Shredded broccoli
- Shredded water chestnut
The texture and flavor of these foods may differ, but with a few culinary tricks and the right recipes, they make the perfect keto-friendly quinoa substitute.
Quinoa And The Keto Diet: Our Final Takeaway
Quinoa adds great value to a healthy lifestyle and provides essential vitamins and minerals we need to survive. The ancient grain is loaded with protein, which is why many plant-based dieters eat this superfood in place of rice, meat, and couscous. While the balanced macronutrient profile forms part of a healthy lifestyle, quinoa is not suitable for most keto dieters. If you are following a standard keto diet and want to lose weight, then it’s best to leave quinoa off the menu. However, if you are following another variation of the diet like the targeted keto diet or cyclical keto diet, then quinoa can be incorporated into pre-workout and refeed meals. There are many low carb quinoa substitutes that contain a similar nutrient profile and offer many of the same health benefits that will help you achieve weight loss success without compromising your state of ketosis.