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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Comments & Feedback...

  1. Shelly

    I’m not totally understanding about carbs and glycemic index. In looking up glycemic charts they all say that a food with a number of 50 or less is considered low. What is the highest number of a single food that you recomend? The same question for carbs. ( For example, on a chart I was looking at avacados were very high in carbs but you recommend eating.) I’m not exactly sure how to work the two together. And why, exactly, do I subtract the protein?

    • Boundless

      > I’m not totally understanding about carbs and glycemic index.

      Focus on net carbs, which is total carbs minus fiber carbs.

      I completely ignore GI. It seems to be frequently optimistic compared to net carbs. You’ll get an eyeful searching on “glycemic index misleading”. GI seems to be a useful number for the food industry to keep diabetics dependent on insulin. Going very low net carb, on the other hand, can remiss the entire condition.

      > What is the highest number of a single food that you recomend?

      The WB recommendation ignores GI entirely and targets 50 grams net carbs per day and no more than 15 grams per meal or six-hour period.

      > … on a chart I was looking at avacados were
      > very high in carbs but you recommend eating.

      One avocado is 12 grams total carb, 9 grams fiber carb, for a net of 3. That’s pretty low.

      > And why, exactly, do I subtract the protein?

      Um, where did that come from?

  2. Rob Wolfe

    Dr. Davis,

    I bought your book last summer and have eliminated wheat from my diet, but fall of the wagon every so often. I lost 20 pounds pretty easily but have stalled still ABOUT 45 POUNDS overweight. I watched a talk show with the host of extreme makeover, weight loss edition and was intrigued. he promotes a healthy carb on carb off diet and seemed to have impressive results. A carb on day tout boosting metabolism, then the carb off day burns fat. he suggests eating brown rice, beans, oatmeal, lentils as carb sources not wheat or potatoes. I did some research into the cyclic ketogenic diet (or carb-cycling).
    The goals of a refeed or carb day are threefold:
    a) to refill depleted glycogen stores
    b) to upregulate hormones and thyroid activity that is depressed during dieting
    c) to provide a psychological “break” that makes the rest of the diet easier to bears.
    The refueled glyocgen stores can then be used for higher-intensity training to maintain or increase endurance / muscle mass after the refeed. Normally this sort of training would be relatively impossible on a pure ketogenic diet, as glycogen stores in the body are almost constantly depleted.

    For example, if I scheduled a high carb day, say Saturday that I could look forward to red beans and rice, or black beans and rice with pork or shrimp and grits I think I could better avoid slip ups.
    I think if I allowed myself a carb day now and then I might be better at sticking to the carb moderation you suggest and would be less likely to crack for a pepperoni pizza , the main food I seem to fall of the wheat wagon for. What is your opinion of this type of approach? would you recommend alternating days at all as extreme weight loss suggests using healthy carbs, then no carbs?

  3. Anne B.

    Dr Davis,
    I have a couple of questions.
    My major obstacle in moving what I eat to your wheat belly or paleo(which I did do for 2 months, felt great) is getting my husband on board. He is a wheatophile, fattymeatophile, you get the picture. I was recently diagnosed with Wheat allergy, dairy and other things. Since there is now a physican diagnosis I am getting more cooperation but he is reeling from the absence of traditional breads etc. Is there some way to help him bridge this gap.
    Also I am having a hip replacement, will this way of eating help with healing after surgery and slow down the arthritis problems I am dealing with. I tried to put off the surgery but I can hardly walk and xrays have it bone on bone with acetabular cysts. I do think it has to go.


  4. Marsha

    Dr. Davis
    What about other types of potatoes?? If eaten in small portions with the addition of lots of veggies and healthy fats can they be part of a healthy diet?? I’m thinking about half of a small baked potato loaded with broccoli, a lean protein and some plain greek yogurt??

    • Barbara in New Jersey


      Potatoes are high glycemic and take up too many of the suggested amount of carbs per meal. Boiling, then mashing them lowers the carb amount somewhat. Please read the book or at least this blog for an explanation of why so many root vegetables are not the best to eat for keeping your blood sugar stable. Paleo sites too. Wheat Belly Quick and Dirty column on this web site will give you a good starting list of foods that are low carb.

      As a shell for your meal, the potato skin works great. There are frozen potato shells available to stuff, but these are treated with lots of chemicals as preservatives and most often are broken in transport.
      There are lots of on line recipes for cheesy hot or cold cauliflower instead of potatoes which use ramekins for individual portions.

  5. Victoria

    I have been eating a breakfast of only fruits every morning and only veggies and fruits for lunch is this healthy carb wise? Dinner I usually eat lean meat, fish, or egg whites. Is this this a sensible low carb healthy diet?

  6. Frederick Mann

    I am one of the low tolerance folks. I dropped all grains and sugar products. I dropped 30 lbs and fasting blood sugar dropped from an average 125 to the liw 90s. I have to stay at 30gm or less of carbs to stay in balance. I tried a bite of chocolate chip cookie and got a headache — one bite. Payoff: I feel so much better! My Type II Diabetes of 4 yrs seems tobe I check. Thanks! Frederick Mann, Sarasota, FL

  7. Madeleine

    what about cooking quinoa in coconut oil or eating it with some healthy fat and protein to slow its absorption thus decreasing its glycemic index?

    • > … or eating it with some healthy fat and protein to slow its
      > absorption thus decreasing its glycemic index?

      Is that conjecture actually true? It is common mythology, certainly. I see people suggest that here from time to time, but they never respond when asked for results of blood sugar monitoring with and without the supposed fat slowing.

  8. Ken

    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!


  9. Josefin

    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,

  10. anvariel

    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,