Quinoa, Amaranth, and Blood Sugar Problems

February 13, 2017
Leigh Erin Connealy, M.D.

Food has fashions, just like clothes. Lately, gluten-free carbohydrates and high protein foods are all the rage. You may have heard of the “superfoods” amaranth and quinoa, which fit these trends to a tee. It might come as a surprise that you can over-eat these superfoods. If they’re so super good for you, shouldn’t they be a regular part of your diet, the more the better? Why do we need a limit?

What’s so super?

Quinoa and amaranth have been praised to the skies by the food media for several years. Indeed, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) officially made 2013 “The International Year of Quinoa” for its super nutritional value and potential to eliminate food insecurity worldwide. It’s an easygoing, easy growing source of boatloads of protein, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and good carbs—the works.

Amaranth shares all the same generous attributes.

Both of these superfoods have histories dating back thousands of years. Today, both of them regularly and rightfully appear on “healthiest foods” lists. And thankfully, we’re paying attention. Google “USA quinoa import growth” and find 7.6 million pounds imported in 2007 and a whopping 68.9 million pounds in 2014. Talk about skyrocketing.

Amaranth? Sales up 123 percent July 2013– July 2014.

Healthy growth!

Why is quinoa so super?

The list of the nutrients quinoa provides in abundance is impressive indeed.

A rarity among plant-based foods, it’s rich in complete protein, thanks to its full complement of all nine essential amino acids.

It contains almost double the fiber of most other grain-based foods (it’s not a grain per se, but the seed of the grain quinoa). This helps to reduce high blood pressure and the risks of heart disease and diabetes, and keeps your digestive system running comfortably.

It’s loaded with iron, the essential workhorse that helps keep our red blood cells healthy, our neurotransmitters firing, our muscles working, our brains sharp, and countless other vital functions.

It’s rich in lysine, essential for tissue growth and repair.

It’s rich in magnesium, which helps keep blood vessels supple, neural pathways open, body temperature regulated, and cellular energy production efficient.

It’s got high riboflavin (B2) content, improving energy metabolism within our brain and muscle cells and helping to create proper energy production in all our cells.

It’s got high manganese content—a potent antioxidant that protects mitochondria while they’re doing their essential energy production duties, and protects red blood cells and other cells from injury by free radicals.

Quinoa also contains high levels of:

  • Potassium
  • Calcium
  • Phosphorus
  • Vitamin E
  • Additional antioxidants

Could you ask for more? Sure, but it doesn’t get much better than this.

What’s so super about amaranth?

Its name originates in the Greek word “amarantos,” which means “one that does not wither,” a reference to its easygoing nature—grows almost anywhere, doesn’t demand a lot of care, and regrows without being asked.

It’s gluten-free, great for people who are celiac or gluten intolerant.

It’s got plenty of lysine, which helps our bodies absorb calcium, build muscle, and produce energy—as well as being an essential amino acid that completes amaranth’s complete protein.

It’s a heart health hero, with cholesterol reducing and antioxidant properties, that’s linked also to reductions in breast cancer risk.

Key vitamins and minerals? Sure, plenty of:

  • Calcium
  • Magnesium
  • Potassium
  • Phosphorus
  • Iron

 So why the limit, and what is it?

As super as amaranth and quinoa are in so many ways, there’s one simple fact that can’t be overlooked.

They’re carbohydrates. Their nutrients, fuels, enzymes, and fiber do fine and necessary things as they travel through our digestive systems. But when the show’s over, and the lights come up, what do we see?

Increased blood glucose. Which, depending on the person, can be a well-managed, everyday, non-threatening condition—or a dangerous spike. There’s always a fine line that’s crossed or not, depending on each individual’s health, habits, and genetic makeup.

Yes, quinoa and amaranth have a lower glycemic index (GI) than other carbs—meaning their carbohydrate content converts to blood glucose more slowly than pure glucose.

And quinoa’s GI is far higher than refined carbohydrates like breads, pastas and rice. But it’s still a carb, so you have to be careful.

Normal total blood sugar levels change as the day begins, proceeds to include meals and activity, and ends. For a nondiabetic, blood sugar should be:

  • Less than 100 mg/dl when you wake up
  • 70–99 mg/dl before meals
  • Lower than 140 mg/dl two hours after meals

So now, when we see quinoa sending blood sugar to 150 mg/dl—higher than normal, no matter what time of day, and close to nasty table sugar’s 158 mg/dl—we’ve identified the issue with our lovable, but carby, superfoods.

Even if you’re healthy, you don’t want that high blood glucose level to be an everyday thing.

And if you’re prediabetic or diabetic, you don’t want it to be an any day thing.

My intake recommendations:

If your blood sugar is normal, you’re good to go with anywhere from 20 to 100 grams of carbs per day, depending on other health factors, like exercise, smoking, genetic makeup. Work with your doctor to get your particular number.

That usually comes in around a half-cup of quinoa or amaranth for women three-quarters of a cup for men.

If you have any blood sugar issues, limit yourself to 20 to 25 grams of carbs daily.

And please don’t be scared away from quinoa and amaranth. They’re extraordinary, natural gifts that deliver terrific, and tasty plenty of bang per bite. But they can pack an unwanted, unhealthy sugar punch if you overdo them.

Think of them as almost like alcohol. Small amounts, no more than 2–3 times per week.

That’s the way to get all of their “superness” and help you get super, yourself.

Take good care.

References

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