What are the health benefits of Quinoa? Quinoa, a grain that originates in South America, is a real staple in my house, and we often serve it with things like roasted vegetables, feta cheese and rocket salad. It’s tasty, has an interesting texture, and is incredibly sustaining. Quinoa is a complete protein, and contains all the essential amino acids that we need for making our own proteins.
Low glycaemic impact
Unlike many grains, quinoa is very, very low in carbohydrates and is very low GI. This means it will release its energy slowly, and won’t cause blood sugar spikes, making it a perfect alternative to rice for anyone wishing to stabilize their blood sugar more effectively. There are several reasons for the low glycaemic impact of this grain. Firstly is the amount of fibre present. As it is a high fibre grain, it takes quite a long time to digest. Even if the carbohydrate content of a grain was quite high, when there is a lot of fibre, its sugars are bound up within this fibre. As this takes a long time to digest, the sugars are released in a drip feeding fashion rather than an outright carpet bombing as would be the case with a refined grain such as white rice. The second reason for lower glycaemic impact is the high protein content of quinoa. Protein, like fibre, takes a long time to digest and also slows gastric emptying (the rate at which food leaves the stomach and enters the small intestine, where carbohydrate absorption takes place). This further adds to the drip feeding of blood sugar. Add to this the low carbohydrate content to start with, and you have a grain that will tick all the boxes when you need something like rice, but won’t cause the same health challenges.
So why is a low glycaemic impact important? Flooding our blood sugar is detrimental to our health. It is as simple as that! When blood sugar rises, we secrete the hormone insulin. This tells our cells that more glucose is available, so they increase their absorption of it. No big deal. We eat something sweet or with fast release carbohydrates in it, then this is what happens. In normal circumstances this isn’t an issue. However, if we consume a diet that is high in refined carbohydrates, then this system can start to break down. Firstly our cells have a cut off point as to how much glucose they can take in in one sitting. If they take in too much, the excess glucose can easily oxidise and cause damage inside the cell. To safeguard against this, when a cell is full, it is full, no argument. The problem is, if blood sugar is still high when the cell is full, then it still has to be dealt with and gotten rid of as excess blood sugar is extremely toxic. The body has a plan B when it comes to getting rid of excess blood sugar. The excess sugar goes through a reaction called lipogenesis – where the sugar is converted into something called treacly glycerol aka triglycerides or blood fats. It is turned into fat so it can be shuttled away. First it is carried away in the blood, where it can begin to compress and turn into VLDL which in turn converts into LDL i.e. “bad” cholesterol. These fatty acids can also be stored easily. Where are they stored? In our fat cells. Remember insulin? Well during this whole process insulin will remain high. Insulin actually creates a one way traffic flow into our fat cells. They open the gate, and shuttle the fats inside. This is a normal mechanism designed for our survival. These fats would be stored, then when food was more scarce, the gate would open the other way and the fats could leave fat cells and be a valuable source of energy. However, when insulin is heightened, the flow of traffic only goes one way.
Another benefit of quinoa is its mineral content. Quinoa is a pretty good source of calcium, magnesium, and iron.