Before Europeans ever came to the new world, the Incas ruled a great empire in Latin America. They were fueled by a few incredible superfoods, native to South America, that gave them strength, endurance, and vitality. Many of these foods have recently become widely available in North America, and they offer great health benefits. Quinoa, for instance, is a staple of Peruvian cuisine. It is delicious, versatile, and filled with an array of nutritional properties. The cultivation of quinoa dates back over 5000 years, and the ancient civilization of the Incas, who discovered it, named it “the mother grain,” for they believed it was a gift from their gods.
Let’s find out why:
*Quinoa has an exceptional balance between carbs, proteins, and fats, and although we commonly refer to it as a grain, it is technically a seed. And what a seed it is: one half cup of quinoa contains 340 calories, 12 grams of protein, 32 grams of carbohydrate, 10 grams of fiber, and no saturated fat or cholesterol.
*Protein is made up of amino acids and there are a total of 21. Eleven of these amino acids can be synthesized by our bodies and are therefore nonessential. However, there are 10 amino acids that we must consume in our diet, hence the name essential amino acids. Quinoa is considered a complete protein because it contains all 10 essential amino acids, making it the only seed, or grain-like product, that is a complete protein. Quinoa has a similar protein value as milk, and it also contains a high content of calcium, magnesium, iron, copper, and zinc. Calcium is an important component to bone health and a deficiency in iron will lead to anemia.
*Quinoa also has a significant value of B-vitamins and vitamin C. Compared to other cereals, quinoa has also been found to have a higher content of vitamin E. Both vitamin E and vitamin C are antioxidants, which have been shown to protect the body’s fat cells from free-radical damage. Free radicals are naturally occurring by-products of chemical reactions in the body. Left alone, free radicals can cause oxidative damage, which has been linked to many serious conditions including cancer and heart disease.
*In the same way that our bodies need us to consume essential amino acids from diet, the body also has fatty acids (fats) it must consume because it is unable to synthesize them. These are called essential fatty acids or EFAs. Quinoa contains some of these EFAs, specifically, linolenic acid and linoleic acid. Consumption of these polyunsaturated fatty acids has been linked to improved blood sugar control as well as positive effects on cardiovascular disease.
*For people suffering from diabetes, quinoa is a great source of carbohydrate, because of the slow rate that it affects blood sugar once consumed (it has a low glycemic index of 35.)
*Quinoa is gluten-free and lactose-free, which makes it a great source of protein for those who either have Celiac’s disease or who are lactose-intolerant or gluten-intolerant.
*Quinoa also contains phytosterols which are a natural component of their plant cell preventing cancer growth, and with the ability to lower cholesterol. Phytosterols have anti-inflammatory effects, making quinoa a potentially great food for people experiencing inflammatory diseases such as arthritis, metabolic syndrome, or the many gastrointestinal inflammatory diseases.
Now that we know all of these amazing properties, let’s talk about how to use it. I find quinoa to be extremely versatile, and normally prepare it in advance and then add it to many different recipes. Starting off my day with hot quinoa, milk, and blueberries instead of oatmeal is a personal favorite. Quinoa is also perfect in a mixed green salad, with hot roasted vegetables, in soups or with whatever your heart desires!
Below is a delicious and beautiful recipe for a simple salad containing quinoa, avocado, and pichuberries. Also, if you have never prepared quinoa before, I’ve included video instructions. I hope you give quinoa a try, if not for your health, then for the great taste!
Manuel Villacorta is a award winning registered, owner of MV Nutrition, award winning weight loss center in San Francisco. He is a health blog contributor for Huffington Post, Fox News Latino, on air contributor for Univision and past national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Manuel is the founder of Eating Free and author of Eating Free: The Carb Friendly Way to Lose Inches, Embrace Your Hunger, and Keep Weight Off for Good!