You might have heard some hype around an ingredient known as quinoa. And the great thing about this carbohydrate: Most of that hype is true, considering it can help you meet many of your dietary needs.
Quinoa packs vitamins, minerals, and protein, which makes it an ideal part of a healthy diet for everyone, but especially cyclists who need to stay in peak condition for their performance. The food is also pretty easy to find at any grocery store or even as a menu option at health conscious fast-food chains, like Sweetgreen.
Many people, cyclists included, favor this grain as a substitute for rice because of its high protein count and richness in vitamins like thiamin that help your body stay energized. For cyclists in particular, eating quinoa can help your muscles recover postride and provide your body with sustainable energy as you’re pedaling, Su-Nui Escobar, R.D.N., doctor in clinical nutrition, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and nutrition professor at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida tells Bicycling.
Wondering how quinoa stacks up to its reputation? Here’s what to know and why you should incorporate this food into your diet, according to Escobar.
What is quinoa and what are the nutrition facts?
There’s one big misconception about quinoa—it’s not technically a grain. It’s actually a seed that comes from a plant. The quinoa plant is harvested in South America and its seeds are often hand-picked to ensure quality. According to the Whole Grains Council, quinoa is considered a “pseudo grain.” It’s classified as a grain because of the way you cook it, and its nutritional make-up.
According to the USDA, just one cup of cooked quinoa contains:
- 8 grams protein
- 39 grams carbohydrates
- 5 grams fiber
- 3 milligrams iron
You also get a mix of magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, zinc, and a host of vitamins like folate and vitamin B6—that’s a lot of nutrients for a cup of tiny seeds.
Quinoa continues to collect health wins: “It is a complete protein so it’s not missing any of the essential amino acids,” Escobar says. And for an added bonus for those with celiac disease or food sensitivities, it’s also a gluten-free grain.
What are the health benefits of quinoa?
Escobar says quinoa contains essential nutrients needed to maintain an overall healthy diet. “It provides benefits beyond just getting fat and calories. You have all of these extra nutrients that come with quinoa that will promote a healthier body,” she says.
Here are all the different ways cyclists can benefit from adding quinoa to their diet:
1. It can keep you energized for longer
Eating quinoa or products rich in quinoa can provide more sustainable long-lasting energy. Escobar says in comparison to other white refined grains that might make your energy spike and then crash, “the carbohydrates [in quinoa] are released slowly.”
2. It packs health-boosting fiber
When cooked, those 5g of fiber quinoa offers can help keep you fuller longer. Even better: the fiber count can also influence your cholesterol levels. Escobar says the fiber in quinoa binds with the cholesterol in your body and in turn, that lowers your levels.
3. It helps your body recover postride
“If you’re biking for longer distances, you’re going to break and tear your muscles, so the protein [in quinoa] is going to help those muscles repair,” Escobar says. Plus, if you have a quinoa-rich meal about two hours after a ride, the carbs from quinoa help replenish the glycogen in your muscles. That will give you the energy you need if you plan to ride the next day, she says.
4. It offers a mineral many people lack
Iron deficiency affects nearly 30 percent of non-pregnant women and 40 percent of pregnant women worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. It is also a common deficiency that plagues many cyclists, Escobar says. There are 3mg of iron in just one cup of cooked quinoa, so eating it can help can help boost iron levels.
5. It’s a good option for those living with diabetes
A major study comparing two different diets for patients with type 2 diabetes found patients who followed a low-glycemic diet—which included quinoa bread, among other foods—had lower blood glucose levels than those who followed a diet featuring foods like whole wheat bread or crackers.
6. It promotes good gut health
Quinoa contains probiotics that can help you maintain a healthy gut. Escobar says, the probiotics in quinoa can help boost good bacteria in your digestive system, which can protect your whole body—not just your gut.
After learning all the advantages of quinoa, it can be difficult to argue a case against eating it. But there are a few caveats. One disadvantage, Escobar says, is that cooking quinoa requires a bit more patience and water than other grains. Another, as with any food rich in fiber, Escobar says, it is a good practice to be mindful of how much fiber you eat a day to avoid any stomach upsets or unplanned bathroom breaks. That’s something you definitely want to keep in mind when considering foods to eat before a long ride.
Lastly, researchers believe there is still more work to be done to find all the health benefits of quinoa. Researchers who conducted a study published in the journal Nutrients tested how eating a quinoa bread roll a day impacted markers of cardiovascular disease on men—and they found it had no impact. (Their findings did support eating quinoa rolls for the short-term effects on blood sugar levels.)
How to add quinoa to your diet
It’s easy to add quinoa into your diet—just follow Escobar’s tips:
- Mix quinoa with tomatoes, beans, and parsley to make a tasty salad or topping for a grain bowl that might also include rice.
- Add quinoa to a Buddha bowl, which is typically a vegetarian or vegan meal served cold with vegetables, grains, and plant-based proteins.
- For breakfast, swap oats with quinoa and top it with your favorite fruit.
- Consider trying a blend of quinoa and other grains, like this rice blend from Good & Gather.
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