Q: I went to a restaurant last night and with my chicken breast came a grain called quinoa on the side. The waitress said it’s supposed to be much better for you than rice or potatoes. Is that true? And if so, is this something I should be cooking at home?
A: Yes, quinoa is a better choice than rice or potatoes. But I’ll get into the reason for that in a minute. First, let me cover what quinoa is. Although it looks like a grain, quinoa is actually a seed of the goosefoot plant, and is a relative of spinach. It has been cultivated in the Andes Mountains for thousands of years. Because it is physically similar to grains and can be ground into flour, it’s often called a pseudocereal.
Quinoa is a far better choice than just about any whole grain you can name. The main reason for this is because most grains are not complete proteins. That is, they lack one of the essential amino acids your body needs to build proteins. That amino is lysine. It’s the main reason vegetarians eat rice and beans. The beans supply the lysine that the rice lacks, while the rice provides an amino acid that the beans lack (methionine). Together, rice and beans make up a complete protein. With quinoa, you don’t need to pair it with anything else, because it is rick in lysine, making it a complete protein. Not only is quinoa a better kind of protein than whole grains, but it provides almost twice the amount of protein as most grains. One cup of cooked quinoa has 8 grams of protein, while one cup of brown rice supplies only 5 grams.
Quinoa also supplies more fiber (5 grams per cooked cup) and healthy fats (4 grams per cooked cup) than most whole grains like brown rice, which provides 4 grams and 2 grams, respectively. That means it’s a slow-digesting carb source, meaning it won’t spike insulin levels. That means it won’t promote fat gain or diabetes when eaten in moderation.
Plus, quinoa has higher levels of minerals and vitamins that are important for muscle recovery, growth and strength than most whole grains. It’s rich in magnesium, which helps to increase muscle strength and aids sleep quality. It loaded with potassium, which is critical for muscle contractions and also helps to pull water into your muscles. And a mineral that assists in pulling fluid from the bloodstream into muscle cells (creating the pump), is also important to recovery after exercise. And it’s a good source of folate, which is a B vitamin that is required for muscles to make new cells, and can aid nitric oxide (NO) production.
As if that weren’t enough, there’s even more in favor of quionoa. One study from the University of Lund (Sweden) found that , researchers found that eating quinoa was associated with an increase in levels of insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1). This growth factor is crucial for muscle growth and strength gains.
So having quinoa as the side dish to your chicken breast means you get all the benefits that a whole grain offers, plus an extra serving of quality protein, and micronutrients. That ultimately means that quinoa can enhance your results in the gym, leading to a leaner, more muscular physique.