Quinoa is a popular grain-like food with an impressive nutritional profile, boasting high amounts of protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty acids (
It’s often enjoyed as a part of dishes like soups, salads, veggie burgers, and even breakfast items.
However, as some diets like the paleo diet exclude many grains, you may wonder whether quinoa is allowed when you follow this eating pattern.
This article discusses whether quinoa is paleo-friendly.
A traditional paleo diet excludes grains, including breads, pastas, and foods like barley, rye, and wheat.
While quinoa isn’t technically a grain, it has many grain-like qualities and is used similarly to traditional grains. It’s often called a pseudograin, which means it’s more of a seed than a whole grain like buckwheat, rye, or oats (
Still, quinoa is typically avoided on a paleo diet.
Dr. Loren Cordain, a well-known advocate and leader of the modern paleo movement, says that one reason quinoa is avoided on a paleo diet is that it’s a source of antinutrient compounds called saponins.
Saponins act as natural pest-repellents on the quinoa plant, as most creatures find them unpalatable (
According to Cordain, saponins should be avoided, especially in high amounts, given concerns about damage to the intestines that could ultimately lead to inflammation, the trigger of autoimmune disease.
One animal study found that saponins from soybeans increased the intestinal permeability of fish, meaning things that weren’t usually able to enter their intestinal tracts were more able to do so and potentially cause harm (
Due to these concerns, quinoa is avoided on a standard modern paleo diet.
However, keep in mind that most scientific evidence shows that saponins may be beneficial. They may help bind cholesterol, neutralize free radicals, reduce inflammation, and inhibit the growth of cancer cells (
Plus, saponins are most concentrated in the leaves of the quinoa plant, which are not usually eaten, as well as on the surface of grains, so it can be rinsed off. Many brands are prewashed to save you this step.
What’s more, much of the quinoa you can buy today has been bred to be lower in saponins, as lower saponin quinoa is sweeter (
Quinoa is not considered paleo-friendly. Paleo advocates say this is because it contains antinutrients like saponins, which are presumed to be harmful to the intestinal tract in large amounts. However, most evidence shows that saponins have benefits.
While quinoa is not considered to be paleo-friendly, some people may follow the diet less strictly or abide by certain variations that allow for the occasional consumption of quinoa.
In this case, since most of the saponins found on quinoa reside on the outermost part of its shell, you can remove many of them by rinsing quinoa and using a little friction before cooking (
It’s also important to note that quinoa is a rich source of carbs, which may be limited on a paleo diet.
A 1-cup (185-gram) serving of cooked quinoa contains 39 grams of carbs (
If you follow a less strict version of the paleo diet, with proper meal planning, you could incorporate quinoa. Simply ensure it fits into your daily carb allotment, keeping in mind that most of your carb intake should come from fruits and vegetables like tubers.
People who choose to sometimes eat quinoa on a paleo diet may wish to remove some of the saponins by thoroughly rinsing quinoa before cooking it. Meal planning can also be helpful to make sure quinoa aligns with any carb restrictions.
Quinoa itself cannot be prepared or altered in a way to make it more paleo-friendly. Therefore, if you’re a more strict follower of the paleo diet, you may choose to avoid quinoa completely.
Still, there are some substitutes you can make if you’re missing grains and pseudograins like quinoa.
For example, many vegetables that are either nonstarchy or low in starch are allowed in moderation on the paleo diet and can be used to make “rice” or pastas.
Some of the most commonly used include cauliflower, zucchini, broccoli, butternut squash, or spaghetti squash.
While quinoa itself cannot be made paleo-friendly, you can use some vegetables to make rice and noodles, which can serve as substitutes for grains you may be missing on a paleo diet.
While quinoa isn’t truly a grain, it’s still not considered to be paleo-friendly.
That’s because quinoa contains saponins, a source of antinutrient compounds. Advocates for the modern paleo movement say you should avoid these compounds due to concerns around their digestive health effects.
However, most scientific evidence supports the consumption of saponin-containing foods, as the compounds offer some health benefits.
Furthermore, quinoa is high in carbs, a macronutrient that may be limited on a paleo diet. Grain-free alternatives, such as rice made from broccoli or cauliflower, as well as noodles made from zucchini and squash, can be used on a paleo diet.
That said, if you choose to include quinoa on a paleo diet, you may want to rinse the saponins off before consuming it and plan ahead so you don’t exceed your daily carb allotment.