Is Quinoa Good for People with Diabetes?

I never tire of recommending quinoa to my nutrition counseling clients. It's a great mix of blood stabilizing nutrients, such as protein and fiber, while also providing the fill-me-up feeling that starchy foods are known for!

To balance blood sugar, one of the first things people with diabetes usually do is cut out carbohydrates. That’s simply not necessary—nor do I or many other diabetes educators and dietitians recommend it!

Instead, I teach people about healthy carbs for people with diabetes, such as quinoa, which can give meals and recipes that filling, starchy satisfaction while also sneaking in fiber and protein. It keeps my clients happier and more well-nourished, so they’re enjoying meals while also seeing positive changes in their blood sugar over the long term.

Why is quinoa (pronounced keen waa) so good for people with diabetes? Because it looks like, is cooked like and is eaten like grain—yet is not a grain at all. It’s a protein-rich seed, which makes it more related to a nut than something like wheat, rice or oats.

What Are the Health Benefits of Quinoa?

Lasting Impact on Lowering Blood Sugar

In one study on people with prediabetes, increasing the amount of quinoa in the diet caused a significant decrease in hemoglobin A1c levels, which is an important three-month average of blood sugar that endocrinologists use to diagnose diabetes. What’s more? Study participants also reported feeling fuller and more satisfied after meals containing this fluffy, grain-like seed. The diabetes-reversing results were likely due to quinoa’s nutrition: It’s packed with fiber and protein.

Increased Overall Nutrient Intake

When you have diabetes, you usually feel more pressure to cut out or avoid foods than you do to include them. Since eating a wide variety of foods is key when it comes to optimal nutrition, this idea of limiting and avoiding could put people with diabetes at a higher risk of deficiency. But quinoa is powerfully positioned to combat that problem!

Use quinoa instead of other grains to boost intake of a host of vitamins and minerals. For example, quinoa has 95% more calcium than rice and 50% more than wheat. It also boasts 95% more iron than rice and 70% more than wheat, 70% more magnesium than rice and 33% more than wheat, 87% more potassium than rice and 38% more than wheat.

Improved Heart Health

If you’ve had diabetes for a while, you’ve probably heard your doctor explain that it’s important to be on the lookout for signs of heart disease. If that’s the case, then you might be extra interested to know that carbohydrate-rich foods aren’t totally off-limits.

A promising lab study found that a complex carbohydrate in quinoa altered beneficial bacteria in the gut, leading to lower triglycerides and low density lipoprotein (or LDL, also known as the “bad” cholesterol linked to heart disease) particularly in the context of a high fat diet! That means this super seed has the potential to protect against heart attacks and other threats to cardiovascular health.

How Much Quinoa Can People with Diabetes Eat?

Despite what most nutrition guidance tells us, there is no perfect portion size or amount per day that applies to all people. We are all different sizes and have different metabolic (or energy burning) rates, which can change from day to day depending on a host of factors, like physical activity and stress.

The amount of quinoa we eat from meal to meal may depend on other factors such as how hungry we are and where our blood sugar has been trending prior to the meal. If we’ve been consistently high, for example, we might eat less quinoa at one meal compared to another.

Another reason I avoid recommending hard limits or finite portion sizes: Research shows that limiting and restricting foods is linked with overeating. Instead, I encourage my clients to think about carbohydrate-rich foods as part of their larger meal, making up about one-quarter of the total food on their plate. This is typically about three-quarters of a cup or one large serving spoon. Aim to eat enough of the foods you enjoy, including quinoa, until you are comfortably full.

If you find that you are regularly eating past fullness or until the point of discomfort, enlist the help of a professional such as a registered dietitian (RD) or certified diabetes counselor and educator (CDCES).

Is Quinoa or Brown Rice Better for People with Diabetes?

That depends! Which one do you like better? When I work with clients, I always emphasize that enjoying your food is a critical part of being a healthy eater. Nutritionally speaking, quinoa and rice are very similar, with quinoa being slightly better for people with diabetes as it has 40% more protein and 50% more fiber, both of which are blood stabilizing nutrients.

If you like both equally, I recommend choosing quinoa. If quinoa isn’t available, brown rice is a good alternative. Never force yourself to eat a food based on nutritional value alone, as this can create a negative relationship with food, making eating more stressful than it needs to be. Ultimately, it will lessen your nutritional health and blood sugar control in the long run.

How to Cook Quinoa

When cooked correctly, quinoa will be light and fluffy. Water is the only ingredient needed to mix with the dry seeds; for best results, use a 1-1/2 to 1 ratio of water to quinoa.

To cook quinoa, combine quinoa and water in a pot and stir gently. Bring the water to a boil, then cover the pot, lower the heat to simmer and set a timer for 15 minutes. Once it’s done, turn off the heat and let it sit for 10 minutes, still covered. After that, remove the cover and fluff it up with a fork.

Not happy with the consistency? Take note and adjust for next time, adding an extra quarter cup of water if it feels too dry or less water if it feels too mushy.

Quinoa can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a week. You can use it like rice. For example, make a quinoa salad, replace other grains and pasta in stuffed peppers, add it to veggie burgers as a binder or stir it into soups to make them more hearty.

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Amelia Sherry, MPH, RD, CDN, CDCES
Amelia Sherry, MPH, RD, CDCES, provides nutrition therapy via a New York-based private practice and has special training in family feeding dynamics and disordered eating. She is also the founder of NourishHer, which supports mothers who want to protect their daughters who have happy, healthy relationships with food and body. She has written for publications including Reader's Digest, Family Circle, Fitness, SELF, Redbook, Latina, Today's Dietitian and Woman's World.