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Is Quinoa Paleo?

Since building our Is It Paleo app, we’ve had many requests to delve into quinoa (pronounced keen-wah). Quinoa has become one of the more popular “grain alternatives,” with many people thinking quinoa is fundamentally different than grains.  While quinoa isn’t technically a grain (it’s a seed ), it has grain-like properties.

A Pseudo Grain

Quinoa, amaranth, and buckwheat are all pseudo grains.  All of these plant seeds contain antinutrient compounds which can have harmful effects in humans.

Instead of containing gluten, quinoa is filled with saponins (up to 5,000 mg/kg).  Saponins are produced by the plant as a chemical defense, and are similar to soap.  Even with washing or “polishing,” not all the saponins are removed and they produce small pores in the lining of the intestinal wall, irritating the immune system (aka leaky gut).

Quinoa also contains phytic acid and lectins

  • Phytic acid - binds to magnesium, calcium, zinc and iron in your intestines and removes them from your body.  What?!  If that sounds bad, it’s because it is.  Wonder why so many people are mineral deficient?  Look at how many phytates are consumed.
    *Zinc is an important mineral in proper immune system function and reproduction. 
  • Lectins - your body creates antibodies in response to lectins.  This is bad because lectins often look like other parts of your body, and the same antibodies that were created in response to the lectins will begin attacking your own body.  This is how autoimmune diseases develop.

It’s Not All Bad…

It’s just not paleo.  People with finicky immune systems and a sensitive gut should stay away, but some people can eat quinoa without issue.  It is claimed as a good source of protein – a cup of cooked quinoa contains 8 grams and has a low glycemic load of 19.

If quinoa doesn’t upset your system, you certainly could eat it.  I would just want to ask you this… why?

Leave your reasons and responses in the comments.

This is just one of many entries in our Is It Paleo app.  Get it on the App Store today, and your feedback may be the inspiration for my next post!

Resources for this article:

http://paleosimplified.com/quinoa/

http://thepaleodiet.com/healthy-eating/quinoa-paleo/

http://www.paleoplan.com/2012/07-16/is-quinoa-paleo/

About Cole Bradburn

I'm a writer and doctor in lifelong pursuit of health, happiness, and adventure. I currently live in Raleigh, NC with the love of my life and our amazing little boy.

  • SS

    So how does Quinoa affect those with Celiac disease?

    • http://colebradburn.com/ Cole Bradburn

      If you have a sensitive digestive system, the saponins in quinoa can affect your intestines in a similar way as gluten does – by making it a “leaky gut”

      The problem is that it produces pores in the lining of the intestinal wall. This irritates the immune system and increases inflammation.

      If you have further questions, let me know.

      • kate

        So, why was it so revered by the Incans? Were they using it differently?

        • http://colebradburn.com/ Cole Bradburn

          Again, it’s not all bad. Quinoa has some great qualities mentioned in the article (protein content and low glycemic load, less offensive than other grains). But, for people adhering to the Paleo diet, and those with a sensitive gut, I would avoid it.

  • http://colebradburn.com/ Cole Bradburn

    If you have a sensitive digestive system, the saponins in quinoa can affect your intestines in a similar way as gluten does – by making it a “leaky gut”

    The problem is that it produces pores in the lining of the intestinal wall. This irritates the immune system and increases inflammation.

    If you have further questions, let me know.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Blipe27 Michele G Rogers

    As a personal trainer, I have a hard time envisioning a world where you can get most people to change with exclusivity diets. I myself, can cut out whatever I need to in the name of health, because my relationship with food is healthy. But what of the people who are so off the deep end of dietary balance that cold turkey just won’t work? They love cereal for breakfast and hate eggs. They eat a sandwich for lunch everyday, and don’t like salad. They can skip the mashed potatoes with dinner and eat green beans and salmon, but they’re more likely to snack before bed because they “feel” like they missed something.

    This is the “why” should anyone eat quinoa. Because its better than cream of wheat, oatmeal or cold cereal when someone won’t eat eggs and doesn’t want a protein shake for breakfast every morning. Maybe they will eventually open their minds up to healthier options, but for now, they need transition foods.

    • http://colebradburn.com/ Cole Bradburn

      Michele,
      Very well said. I am like you in my relationship with food, but I do understand that transition foods would hold great value for people looking to make a change – as long as the consumer understood that they were transition foods. I wouldn’t want to deceive people into thinking it’s the best option for them, but it is definitely a better one.

      Thanks for coming by and adding a great thought to the conversation.

    • http://twitter.com/JustMeKenna Kenna Williams

      Interesting..I think just about the opposite. I went cold turkey in April 2010 switching my diet up for weight loss and for me, it was just a personal decision I made that I would just make the change and it worked. I’ve recently switched over to the Paleo plan and have had major success with it. I think if a person is truly serious about some life-altering, life-shattering experiences, they will do whatever it takes. I’m truly one of those “ALL IN” type of people and I believe people can break their weaknesses. I look at it like this, I am stronger than food and can make the right decision because food does not select me, I select it. Great discussion here by the way! I like the fact you mentioned eggs. I have a strange aversion to eggs. I won’t even touch them!

  • Marie

    This was the best information I have gotten about quinoa. I am grain free and someone said I could eat quinoa and I see now that because of my sensitive gut, it is really a wrong answer. Thanks for this great help!

    • http://colebradburn.com/ Cole Bradburn

      I’m glad you found it helpful. I used to eat quinoa as well until I looked into it in more detail for this article.

  • Hvsa

    You forgot to mention all the benefits of quinoa. Pretty biased and incomplete article. Well done.

    • http://colebradburn.com/ Cole Bradburn

      Did you read under the heading “It’s not all bad?” Anyway, there are many benefits to quinoa, but the premise of this post was to determine whether or not quinoa is paleo-friendly. There is no bias if that is the purpose, I wanted to make sure someone could understand why it isn’t paleo. That doesn’t mean it’s not “healthy,” it just doesn’t fit into the paleo lifestyle.