Shifting your focus to eating a healthier plant-base diet doesn’t need to be overwhelming and can have a phenomenal effect on your health and longevity.  Eating a plant-based diet can lower your risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, cancer and brain-related diseases as well as lower blood pressure and help you live longer. But what happens when you start to forgo animal proteins and try to eat a more plant-based food like vegetables, whole grains, seeds, nuts, and legumes? Where does one get their protein from? Does it matter?

The short answer is, yes it matters and it’s very important.

Protein is a very important and necessary macronutrient to eat every day; it is responsible for building and maintaining our body’s muscles, organs, tissues, enzymes, and hormones and is made up of up of building blocks called amino acids.  There are 20 different types of amino acids that your body uses and 9 of these are called “essential amino acids”. Essential means that your body doesn’t make them on its own- you must EAT them in order to get them inside you. If you don’t eat them, your body will break down muscle tissue in order to get them. Some foods contain all 9 essential amino acids and are known as Complete Proteins.  Animal protein is the easiest way to find a complete protein. red meat, poultry, fish, dairy, and eggs all contain all 9 essential amino acids. Other foods may have some amino acids, but not all of them. These foods are known as Incomplete Proteins and include nuts, seeds, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes (beans). There are only 3 plant sources that contain all 9 essential amino acids. Soy, Quinoa, and Buckwheat.  Knowing that these three foods supply us with a substantially complete source of protein that doesn’t come from an animal source arms you with some ways to make a small step improvement in your diet that can greatly benefit your health.

Harvard Medical School found that substituting just 3% of the calories that you would normally get from animal protein with a plant protein was linked to a 12 % reduced risk of dying from heart disease, and a 10 % reduced risk of dying from any cause.

Let’s look at one of these popular superfood plant proteins that you may have seen popping up on menus across the country- quinoa.

What is Quinoa?  If you’re new to the undertaking of adding more plant-based proteins into your diet as an alternative to that piece of red meat that has been your plate’s centerpiece all your life you may not have ever heard of quinoa and may wonder how you even pronounce it.  Quinoa is pronounced KEEN-wah. It looks like a grain when it is cooked and is it classified as a ‘Whole Grain” but it is technically a seed that comes from a plant called chenopodium quinoa and is a relative of beets, chard and spinach.

There are 1800 different varieties of quinoa and the seeds can be black, white, red, purple, pink, yellow, or grey but you will most likely find white, black and red here in the US.  The red is packed with a higher density of nutrients and it is reported that the white has a bit more flavor, but you can try them all and see what suits your taste buds. It has a nutty flavor and is easy to to prepare (see below).   Most varieties can be prepared in 15-20 minutes on the stove or microwave. Unlike other whole grains, however, Quinoa is a complete protein that contains all of the 9 essential amino acids that animal proteins would give us. This makes it a superfood for changing out that heavy animal meat-laden plate. It is also gluten-free making it a wonderful resource for those who cannot tolerate wheat gluten.

Quinoa has a fascinating history; dating back almost 5000 years to when it was first discovered as edible by the Incas.  It was dubbed ‘the gold of the Incas” as they regarded it as sacred food that could help increase the stamina of the warriors.  Laden with complete protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and complex carbohydrates it’s no small wonder that this ancient seed was elevated to sacred status and is, to this day, considered one of the healthiest foods that we can eat.  It can be easily grown and inexpensively cultivated, and serves has served as a world-class protein source for many cultures around the world for centuries.

Nutritional composition of Quinoa:
  Quinoa is one of the most nutritious foods that you can include in your diet.  In one cup of cooked quinoa, you are getting about 222 calories, 8 grams of complete protein, 5 grams of fiber, 6 grams of healthy fats, and about 39 grams of complex carbohydrates and a host of power-packed vitamins and minerals.  It is very rich in manganese (58 % of the RDA) and magnesium (30% of the RDA) as well as phosphorus, folate, copper, iron, zinc, potassium, calcium, B vitamins (B1, B2, B3, B6), Vitamin E and is rich in antioxidants. Unlike most plant-based food sources, the protein composition of quinoa is complete; providing you with all 9 essential amino acids.  It is especially rich in the amino acid called lysine, which helps with tissue growth and repair.

Quinoa and Heart Health:  We know that eating more plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, legumes, and fatty fish are good for our hearts and that sitting down to a meal from a poorly sourced animal protein (like processed and fried meats) is not.  Including some Quinoa in your diet provides an excellent way to not only get that complete protein that would otherwise come from an animal protein like meat or poultry, but it also provides other ways to improve the quality of your heart health. Quinoa is rich in dietary fiber and has been shown in studies to lower both LDL levels and triglyceride levels.  Studies also demonstrate that quinoa helps to improve the heart health and lipid profiles of those who are taking statins as compared to those who were only taking the statins. It is anti-inflammatory and helps to reduce C-reactive protein; a marker for inflammation that is linked to heart disease. Quinoa also provides 30 % of the RDA for magnesium. Magnesium relaxes blood vessels, so it is beneficial for healthy blood pressure.  Quinoa is rich in flavonoids. Flavonoids are naturally occurring plant pigments that have been shown to reduce the risk of mortality from heart disease (as well as cancer, asthma, and stroke). The fats in Quinoa are heart-healthy monosaturated fats.

Quinoa and Blood Sugar:  One cup of quinoa can supply you with 5 grams of fiber which is higher than any of the typical whole grains that you may eat.  That is about 20% of your daily requirement for fiber. Fiber slows down digestion and slows the absorption of glucose into the bloodstream.  The high fiber content in quinoa makes it a low glycemic food, meaning that it doesn’t spike blood sugar in the ways that other carbohydrates may do.  Quinoa is very high in quercetin. Quercetin is a plant antioxidant and it has been shown to lower blood glucose levels in animal studies. It also helps with exercise performance, blood pressure regulation, allergies and has anti-cancer properties as well as being neuroprotective.

Digestion and Gut Health:  The combination of being gluten-free and exceptionally high in fiber helps with digestive health.  The fiber provides relief from constipation, slows down digestion so you stay full longer and provides a wonderful number of prebiotics to feed the probiotic bacteria in your gut.  A healthy balance of probiotics in your gut is now known to affect your overall immunity, your mood, and your heart and brain health.

Quinoa may help with Weight Loss:  With it’’s high fiber and high protein content quinoa is a favored win for weight loss; especially if you are substituting quinoa for other less fibrous grains or otherwise incomplete proteins.  The fiber slows down digestion and keeps you full longer, which can equate to lower caloric consumption. Protein is a metabolic burner; spurning an increase in your metabolism after you eat it and protein also signals your brain that you are ‘full’

Preparing Quinoa:  Quinoa is very simple to prepare but one thing you should be mindful of is that it is beneficial to rinse quinoa thoroughly and then soak it (overnight or about 6 hours) prior to cooking.  Quinoa has a natural coating on it that repels bugs. It is mostly removed in the processing but if some lingers it can add a bitter taste to your quinoa. After it is first thoroughly washed to make sure the bitter coating is gone, soaking then helps to reduce a substance called phytic acid.  Phytic acid is a naturally occurring substance that occurs in plants and seeds and although it has some benefits it can impair the absorption of iron, zinc, and calcium and promote mineral deficiencies. If it sounds like a “catch 22”, it is; you can choose quinoa for its high mineral content but that can be compromised if you don’t soak it thoroughly. Soaking reduces the amount of phytic acid and helps improve the digestibility of quinoa. You can also look for ‘sprouted’ quinoa. Sprouting also reduces the phytic acid content of the quinoa. An organic variety is best to choose as it decreases the amount of pesticides in quinoa.

Once soaked, the quinoa becomes quite easy to cook.  Just cover the amount you are cooking with about 1 ½ times that amount (see label on package for exact directions) of water or low-sodium broth and it cooks in about 20 minutes.  As with rice, you can cook a batch and refrigerate for a few days to reheat for convenience. It is wonderful mixed with some healthy olive oil and your favorite herbs and seasonings and you can enjoy it hot, in soups and stews or cold in salads.  You can even pop quinoa (making it a tasty snack instead of popcorn) for a high protein take-along.

By:  Cindy Luisi WHE, WHC, CCP, CDL Wellness Coach

Sources:
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“Quinoa: Health Benefits & Nutrition Facts.” LiveScience, Purch, www.livescience.com/50400-quinoa-nutrition-facts.html.

Spiridakis, Nicole. “Quinoa: A Sacred, Super Crop.” NPR, NPR, 31 Oct. 2007, www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=15749697&storyid=15749697.

Paśko, Paweł, et al. “Effect of Quinoa Seeds (Chenopodium Quinoa) in Diet on Some Biochemical Parameters and Essential Elements in Blood of High Fructose-Fed Rats.” Plant Foods for Human Nutrition (Dordrecht, Netherlands), Springer US, Dec. 2010, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21104320.

PubMed – NCBI.” National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21104320.

“Phytochemicals: Quercetin and Diabetes.” Quercetin and Diabetes Patients, www.phytochemicals.info/phytochemicals/quercetin/diabetes.php.

https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/11-proven-benefits-of-quinoa#section7

https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/phytic-acid-101

https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/quercetin

Blazes, Marian. “For a Tasty, Andean-Inspired Snack, Try Popping These Grains.” The Spruce Eats, The Spruce Eats, 28 July 2019, www.thespruceeats.com/how-to-pop-andean-cereals-3029692.

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