Quinoa, A Complete Plant Protein

The days when people worried about combining foods to be sure they got complete protein in every meal are behind us. Experts have concluded that the body can get all the essential amino acids it needs to make protein from foods consumed over a one- to two-day period. [1] But that doesn’t mean you should shy away from complete protein foods, especially when they are low in fat, cholesterol-free and a good source of fiber, vitamins and other important nutrients. Which food can offer all of these healthful characteristics? No, it’s not a meat or dairy product, but a delicious complete plant protein called quinoa.

Some Information About Protein

Proteins are composed of 20 different components called amino acids. Ten amino acids are essential, which means the body is unable to make them so they must come from the diet. The other 10 can be manufactured in the body.

Do you know how much protein you need? Researchers from Purdue University reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that the amount of protein adults need should be based on their weight instead of their age. Some simple multiplication can tell you how much protein you should consume daily. You divide your weight by 2.2 (converting your pounds to kilograms) and then multiply by 0.8, the grams of protein you need per kilogram of body weight.

So if you weigh 160 pounds, you divide that number by 2.2, which yields 72.7. Multiply that number by 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram (2.2 lbs) (which is the Recommended Dietary Allowance) and you get about 58 grams of protein daily. [2]

Where should you get your protein? Foods that contain protein can come from both animal and plant sources, although it is common for people to gravitate toward animal protein sources rather than those from plants. This means many people are missing out on some wonderful plant protein foods that provide benefits not available from animal protein, such as those already mentioned. Quinoa is one of those special plant protein foods.


Quinoa is a grain-like food that has been a staple among people in parts of South America for thousands of years, but it has gradually made its way into North America. Smaller than rice, quinoa is usually prepared in ways similar to this more common seed and is valued for its high protein value and lack of gluten, which means it is safe for people who have celiac disease.

Quinoa also contains 18 of the 20 amino acids; the two that are missing are not essential, which means the body can produce them. This makes quinoa a complete protein, one of the best sources of plant protein and a grain-like food that can be enjoyed in a wide variety of ways.

How does quinoa compare with other grain-like foods? Let’s use brown rice as an example:

Brown Rice (1 cup cooked) [3]
Calories: 216
Protein: 5 grams
Fat: 1.76 grams
Fiber: 4 grams
Calcium: 20 mg
Iron: 0.82 mg
Magnesium: 84 mg
Phosphorus: 162 mg
Potassium: 84 mg

Quinoa (1 cup cooked) [4]
Calories: 222
Protein: 8.14 grams
Fat: 3.55 grams
Fiber: 5.2 grams
Calcium: 31 mg
Iron: 2.76 mg
Magnesium: 118 mg
Phosphorus: 281 mg
Potassium: 318 mg

Quinoa provides an excellent amount of protein, is low in fat (healthy fat), has no cholesterol and is a very good source of essential minerals. Preparation of quinoa is easy: Combine one part quinoa with two parts water in a pot, bring the contents to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes.

Quinoa absorbs the flavors of other foods or liquids, so you can add coconut milk or fruit juice to make a breakfast quinoa or vegetable stock and herbs to prepare quinoa for dinner. If you are looking for a plant source of protein, then quinoa is a wise option. (Also see “8 Tips on Transitioning to Plant Protein.”)

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[1] “Complete” proteins? http://www.vegsource.com/attwood/complete_protein.htm and appropriate planned vegetarian diets are healthful, may help in disease prevention and treatment, says American Dietetic Association. July 1, 2009.  http://www.eatright.org/Media/content.aspx?id=1233#.UH1tVsXR5X8

[2] Dietary protein requirements of younger and older adults. http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/88/5/1322.full?sid=10d569e7-947b-4200-823a-36d7c82ac20e

[3] Brown rice nutritional profile USDA:  http://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/foods/show/6342

[4] Quinoa nutritional profile USDA: http://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/foods/show/6430


Dr. Geo Espinosa

By Dr. Geo Espinosa

Dr. Geo Espinosa is a naturopathic doctor, licensed acupuncturist and certified functional medicine practitioner recognized as an authority in holistic urology and men’s health. He is Clinical Assistant Professor and holistic clinician in Urology at New York University Langone Medical Center. As an avid researcher and writer, Dr. Geo has authored numerous scientific papers and books including co-editing the Integrative Sexual Health book, and author of the best selling prostate cancer book: Thrive, Don't Only Survive.