Quinoa has gone from superfood trend to supermarket staple in recent years, but this pseudograin still poses a question for many healthy eaters: Is quinoa high in carbohydrates, like rice or bread?
While quinoa resembles a grain nutritionally, it’s actually a seed harvested from the goosefoot plant, which grows throughout the Andean highlands in South America. A ½-cup serving of quinoa provides 20g carbohydrates. By comparison, a ½-cup serving of brown rice contains 22g carbohydrates, and two pieces of whole wheat bread contain 24g carbohydrates. (Here’s your ultimate guide to cooking whole grains.)
But although quinoa is a moderate source of carbohydrates, you don’t need to ban it from a low-carb diet.
“Quinoa is a great food to include in your diet because it’s a good source of fiber,” says Lori Chong, RDN, a certified diabetes educator at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “When people try to go on a low-carbohydrate diet, I worry they’re not getting the healthy carbohydrates you find in whole grains, starchy vegetables, beans, or lentils.”
In other words, before writing off a food due to its number of carbohydrates, consider what beneficial nutrients it offers. A diet soda is free of carbohydrates, but it’s far from a healthy option. Quinoa may have carbohydrates, but it also provides 3g fiber per serving, which slows digestion and helps to prevent blood sugar spikes and crashes (those crashes can cause you to become hungry again quickly). It is also a good source of magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, and vitamins B1, B2, and B6.
If you’re tracking your carbohydrate intake because you’re trying to lose weight or because you have diabetes, use quinoa in place of other carbohydrates. “It can be a healthy, lower-carbohydrate replacement for breadcrumbs in meatballs or for rice in a side dish,” says Kristen Gradney, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. (You can also use quinoa in these eight one-pot quinoa recipes.)
How much quinoa you include in your diet depends on what “low-carb” means to you. Some people following a low-carb diet may aim to get 35% to 40% of their calories from carbohydrates, or about 175 to 200g per day. Others may eat fewer than 50g of carbohydrates per day if they’re following an extremely low-carb plan like the ketogenic diet. (However, many experts advise against highly-restrictive diets; they’re rarely sustainable in the long-term and can cause you to miss out on valuable nutrients.)
If you’re trying to cut carbohydrates to lose weight, a doctor or registered dietitian can help you determine the best target range for you. However, remember that one diet never fits everyone. While some research has shown low-carb diets may aid in weight loss, other studies have shown that even extreme carb-cutting may not have a significant effect on fat loss or metabolism.
In fact, in a new study, researchers from Stanford University School of Medicine recruited more than 600 men and women between the ages of 18 and 50 to randomly follow either a low-carbohydrate or low-fat diet for one year. Both groups focused on healthy whole foods, including plenty of vegetables, and avoiding added sugars and high processed foods. The two diets resulted in a similar proportion of weight loss—showing the importance of food quality over macronutrient quantity.
It’s best to consider what healthy benefits food offers, rather than just what it excludes. When you do that, you’ll naturally crowd out foods like nutrient-void crackers, pretzels, and cookies, to make room for healthy foods that can help you meet your diet goals.