Can I eat quinoa? Carb counting basics

It’s a frequent question: Can I eat quinoa . . . or beans, or brown rice, or sweet potatoes? Or
how about amaranth, sorghum, and buckwheat? Surely corn on the cob is okay!

These are, of course, non-wheat carbohydrates. They lack several undesirable ingredients found in wheat including no:

Gliadin–The protein that degrades to exorphins, the compound from wheat digestion that exerts mind effects and stimulates appetite to the tune of 400 additional calories (on average) per day.
Gluten–The family of proteins that trigger immune diseases and neurologic impairment.
Amylopectin A–The highly-digestible “complex” carbohydrate that is no better–worse, in fact–than table sugar.

So why not eat non-wheat grains all you want? If they don’t cause appetite stimulation, behavioral outbursts in children with ADHD, addictive consumption of foods, dementia (i.e., gluten encephalopathy), etc., why not just eat them willy nilly?

Because they still increase blood sugar. Conventional wisdom is that these foods trend towards having a lower glycemic index than, say, table sugar, meaning they raise blood glucose less.

That’s true . . . but very misleading. Oats, for instance, with a glycemic index of 55 compared to table sugar’s 59, still sends blood sugar through the roof. Likewise, quinoa with a glycemic index of 53, will send blood sugar to, say, 150 mg/dl compared to 158 mg/dl for table sugar–yeah, sure, it’s better, but it still stinks. And that’s in non-diabetics. It’s worse in diabetics.

Of course, John Q. Internist will tell you that, provided your blood sugars after eating don’t exceed 200 mg/dl, you’ll be okay. What he’s really saying is “There’s no need for diabetes medication, so you’re okay. You will still be exposed to the many adverse health consequences of high blood sugar similar to, though less quickly than, a full diabetic, but that’s not my problem.”

In reality, most people can get away with consuming some of these non-wheat grains . . . provided portion size is limited. Beyond limiting portion size, there are two ways to better manage your carbohydrate sensitivity to ensure that metabolic distortions, such as high blood sugar, glycation, and small LDL particles, are not triggered.

So these non-wheat carbohydrates, or what I call “intermediate carbohydrates” (for lack of a better term; low-glycemic index is falsely reassuring) still trigger all the carbohydrate phenomena of table sugar. Is it possible to obtain the fiber, B-vitamin, flavonoid benefits of these intermediate carbohydrates without triggering the undesirable carbohydrate consequences?

Yes, by using small portions. Small portions are tolerated by most people without triggering all these phenomena. Problem: Individual sensitivity varies widely. One person’s perfectly safe portion size is another person’s deadly dose. For instance, I’ve witnessed many extreme differences, such as 1-hour blood sugar after 6 oz unsweetened yogurt of 250 mg/dl in one person, 105 mg/dl in another. So checking 1-hour blood sugars is a confident means of assessing individual sensitivity to carbs.

Some people don’t like the idea of checking blood sugars, however. Or, there might be times when it’s inconvenient or unavailable. A useful alternative: Count carbohydrate grams. (Count “net” carbohydrate grams, i.e., carbohydrates minus fiber grams to yield “net” carbs.) Most people can tolerate 40-50 grams carbohydrates per day and deal with them effectively, provided they are spaced out throughout the day and not all at once, i.e., 13-16 grams carbs per meal. Only the most sensitive, e.g., diabetics, people with the genetic pattern apo E2, those with familial hypertriglyceridemia, are intolerant to even this amount and do better with less than 30 grams per day. Then there are the genetically gifted from a carbohydrate perspective, people who can tolerate 50-60 grams, even more.

People will sometimes say things like “You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about because I eat 200 grams carbohydrate per day and I’m normal weight and have perfect fasting blood sugar and lipids.” As in many things, the crude measures made are falsely reassuring. Glycation, for instance, from postprandial blood sugars of “only” 140 mg/dl–typical after, say, unsweetened oatmeal–still works its unhealthy magic and will lead long-term to cataracts, arthritis, and other conditions.

Humans were not meant to consume an endless supply of readily-digestible carbohydrates. Counting carbohydrates is a great way to “tighten up” a carbohydrate restriction.

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154 Responses to Can I eat quinoa? Carb counting basics

  1. Ken says:

    What do you say about the role carbs play in building muscle? I am just getting into the paleo thing and am curious about this. Is a little fruit in a green smoothie enough? I traditionally just eat like a monster( eat with little discretion) to bulk up while lifting heavy weights, compound exercises and then when I want to cut weight do more reps with lighter loads and include interval training but lay off the carbs. Also, is there a form somewhere with all the right questions to take to my doctor if I want to know my optimal blood sugar and hormone levels? I work in Law enforcement and just want to get to know my body better to think and perform at my best. Getting your book soon!


  2. Josefin says:

    Hello Dr.

    I have read you book (great great book!), and I am also starting paleo.
    I am making my own wheat free bread (almond flour/coconut flour) and so on… However, I have read that red rice and black rice are both ok. Is this correct? And if eating brown rice, this should be consumed short after workout as the body keeps burning (especially after weight lifting or intervals). Correct or not at all?

    Many thanks in advance,

  3. anvariel says:

    Dr. Davis,
    I have read two your books. They are really great and interesting.

    I’m really interested about calculating carbohydrates in meal. You wrote that one meal shall contain between 13 to 15 grams of carbohydrates netto. Should I calculate all carbohydrates in meal (from grains, vegetables ect) or is this values related to carbohydrates from cereal products/rice only?

    Thank you.
    Best regards,