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. Barb says:

    I am so impressed and appreciative that you responded to my question when you are so busy. Here is the response I received from my doctor…in words as close to what I remember him saying. “You don’ need a costly test for LDL size particles nor do you need a heart scan that will expose you to harmful radiation. We already know from your ultrasound that you have moderate plaque. The Lipor will help raise your HDL and dissolve the plaque including the small LDL particles.”. Dr. Davis, what can I learn from the testing that would help me clear my arteries and avoid taking a statin? I did follow your suggestion and read the heart scan blogs. I was interested in the blog about losing weight leading temporarily to increased LDL and Triglycerides. Would this put me more at risk of a heart attack while losing weight on your plan? If so can anything be done to avoid this risk? An interesting piece of specific data for you… I’ve only been on your plan for one week but something interesting has happened besides losing three pounds and lowering my blood sugar below 100. I do the fat burning cycle on the treadmill three times a week. It adjusts the incline to keep me at my target heart rate of 105. The incline has never gone above 6.5 until yesterday. Yesterday it took an incline of 9.5 to get me to my target heart rate! What do you think about taking cur cumin or pomegranate extract for artery plaque? Also, after searching for a good recipe book for an hour today (most called for using rice flour or cornmeal) I found a great one titled The Gluten-Free Almond Flour Cookbook by Elana Amsterdam. Thanks again for your help.

    • Dr. Davis says:

      Hi, Barb–

      You can see the low level of sophistication that pervades the medical profession. He is practicing at a level of knowledge that reflects 1985 technology, just like you and me typing on a computer green screen and using a 5 1/4 -inch floppy disk and thinking we are up to date. Nope.

      The only way to circumvent the flood of fatty acids that occurs with weight loss is liposuction. In other words, there really is no alternative. Thankfully, it is extremely rare for problems to develop as a result. If this makes you nervous, you can simply do the diet gradually, rather than abruptly.

      The supplements, I believe, are helpful, though mostly “fluff.” The real power is in the diet and supplements articulated. If you are real serious about heart disease risk, then I invite you to join our discussion on the Track Your Plaque program website.

      Elana Amsterdam has great recipes, but be careful of her advice to use agave. Agave is among the most poisonous of sweeteners available and I believe we should NEVER use it.

  2. Mike says:

    LACTOSE…It’s a sugar. I’m using a yogurt with no added sugar, but which is made using nonfat milk that does contain lactose. Is this a no-no? Please reply.

    • Michelle says:

      Check the sugar grams on the package. Most yogurt, even the natural greek stuff, has up to 10-12g o sugar per serving. It’s there b/c milk does have sugar (I’m not the scientist, but I think lactose is milk sugar).

  3. esther says:

    We have your book and have learned so much. You stress the importance of the fasting blood sugar levels – using the number 89 as a pre-diabetic cutoff. We live in Canada and our labs calculate the number differently. Can you tell me what the number 89 would translate into in the Canadian way of measuring blood sugar levels?

    Thanks so much.

    • Pam says:

      Up here in Canada we use mmol/l instead of mg/dl. I googled mg/dl to mmol/l to find the conversion.
      89 mg/dl equals 4.9394 mmol/l, or about 5.

  4. Betty says:

    Is it permitted to use any other kind of flour in cooking to replace wheat flour? I would like to get my hubby on the wheat free regimine with me and he loves baked goods.

  5. Anne says:

    Fascinating article and extremely helpful! Thank you so much for writing this!
    Dr. Davis, would you please explain why you use “glycemic index” to discuss foods like quinoa, oatmeal, etc. rather than “glycemic load”? Quinoa, oatmeal, and so on all have relatively high-ish glycemic indices but medium (lower medium) glycemic loads. I keep instant couscous and quinoa at my desk at work for days I am too busy to go out for a meal and I’m horrified to think these might be almost as bad for my blood sugar as table sugar.

  6. Julie Kiernan says:

    Hi Dr. Davis,
    I just started your book and am reading it from the beginning and have not gotten to the part of how to tell if you”re sensitive to certain other grains (the problem with reading on a Kindle — one doesn”t jump around as much as with a real book. I also am a biology teacher and am fascinated in a very geeky way with the biochemistry sections of the book).

    Anyway, I feel full after eating just a little oatmeal and it keeps me satiated for hours. Is that a good test as to whether I”m not sensitive to something? I feel very hungry after wheat products so I understand the connection to the blood sugar spike/drop. I also experience this with white rice. Not so much with corn (I mostly just feel sick so have always limited intake of it). Anyway, I”d like to still eat oatmeal for breakfast (I eat the steel-cut, no-sugar added kind and would appreciate your input to this.)

    Julie

  7. Ellen says:

    Dr. Davis, is arrowroot powder an acceptable thickener? It could be used in place of cornstarch in recipes.
    Thank you!

  8. Louise says:

    I am new to your blog and am learning lots and enjoying it very much! I try to limit my carb intake to about 20 gms per meal and am getting so-so results in the weight loss category. Could you tell me why none of the wonderful recipes offered on the Wheat Blog include the nutritional breakdown. Thanks!

    • Dr. Davis says:

      I did that on purpose, Louise, to discourage calorie counting. They all fit within your carbohydrate limitation. By the way, to accelerate weight loss, you might consider cutting carbohydrates further, e.g., no more than 12 grams “net” carbs per meal.

      The new Wheat Belly Cookbook, however, will include nutritional analyses.

  9. Dana says:

    Dr. Davis, you make several assertions regarding the negative benefits of various alternate flours. Search as I might I have been unable to come across any research confirming those assertions. Could you please provide links to some reputable institutions who have done that research. We’re on the world wide web after all and anyone can say anything anytime.

    No offense intended,

    Dana

    • Dr. Davis says:

      Could you be more specific, Dana?

      It might be simply a matter of glycemic index.

  10. Pat says:

    Dr Davis:
    I have recently began trying to eliminate all wheat from my diet due to arthritis pain across all my knuckles, finger joints, ankles and knees. How long will it take before I notice a change in my pain relief? A doctor recently “guessed” all my pain may be from fibromyalgia. I use to take gabapentin and have stopped since it made no difference in my pain. It has been 9 days, wheat-free and have noticed a slight difference. I take no medication besides aleve. Also is it possible to make the flaxseed wraps without the egg as I am allergic to them. Is there something else I can substitute for the egg?? Looking forward to a life changing eating habit!!

    • Dr. Davis says:

      Hi, Pat–

      If your experience is like most people, the hand/wrist/elbow pains usually disappear within about a week, with the major joints like knees, back, and hips taking 6+ months.

      While wheat elimination is powerful, not all joint pain/swelling responds, as there are indeed conditions that have nothing to do with wheat, or they are simply worsened, not caused, by wheat consumption.

      Nonetheless, I am hoping that you experience at least partial, if not total, relief, given sufficient time.

  11. kim says:

    Is it ok to eat 100% Sprouted Whole Grain bread without additives…an example being Food for Life Ezekiel 4:9 loaf??

  12. Lisa V says:

    Hi! I’m in the midst of your book and much of what you write resonates with me, despite the fact I’m a very slender athlete with no ‘wheat belly’, GI tract issues, skin rashes or unusual blood work. I do understand that much of what you write is geared towards an overweight population with a host of health issues. I don’t fit that profile, but truly wish to join the wheat/gluten-free revolution. It simply makes sense to me to avoid wheat given its recent bastardization (if I may say that?) via genetics. However, as an endurance athlete, carbohydrates must dominate my diet or I can’t train as heavily as I need to… what are your suggestions? Your suggestion above of “no more than 12 net carbs per meal” seems dangerously low for an athlete: recent research suggests 10-12g of carbs per kilo of body weight; even at the low end, I’m still looking at more than 500g of carbs a day. Thoughts?? How would someone maintain their muscle glycogen levels safely while only consuming 30 GRAMS of carbs a day? No quinoa? No brown rice? Please provide your thoughts on this, I’m very interested.

    • Lisa V says:

      **sorry, I meant to write that your blog post says 50g of carbs per day, not 30. Still, that’s only 1/10th of what I’d typically eat. I look forward to your, or any other low-carb athlete on this forum, response. So curious!!

    • Dr. Davis says:

      The problem with advice such as “consume 500 grams carbs per day” is that, not only is it unnecessary, it is incredibly destructive. People who follow such advice develop hypertension, heart disease, cataracts, arthritis, cancer, and other health issues. Intensive training does NOT eliminate the dangers of such a lifestyle. This is pure fiction.

      You start by eliminating this destructive grain, wheat, then cutting back on other carbohydrates. You will experience fatigue, lethargy, mental “fog,” and inability to exercise to the usual high levels for about 4 weeks until your body accommodates to a fat oxidation metabolic pattern, i.e., converting to burning fat rather than carbohydrates. You will then find that the only carbohydrates you need are DURING your long-distance effort, e.g., bananas or other fruit, cooked sweet potatoes, Goo, or non-wheat energy bars.

      Note that primitive humans who run for hours to hunt do NOT eat large quantities of carbohydrates, only meats and similar fatty, protein-rich foods.

      • Lisa V says:

        Thank you for your prompt response – wow! And I’m very interested in finding out more. Where should I look for guidance? Your suggestion of meat and fatty-protien rich foods to make up the majority of calories of an athlete’s diet seems so counter-intuatitve to every sports nutrition article and book I’ve ever read… but frankly, it also seems sort of “common sense” which of course isn’t very common. I’m tempted to try this, but am wary of a month-long fog… gradual change for this item, I think.
        And has there been any research (preferably peer-reviewed, but since I expect it’s slim pickin’s on the research front, I’ll take anecdotal evidence!) on the performance of athletes on such a low carb diet? I’m just starting “Born to Run” which I expect has some interesting info on the Tarahumara tribe and ultradistance runners… some of whom are vegan so even meat is out. I will have little problem cutting out wheat but lowering my carb count to personally unprecedented levels is a bit unnerving.
        Again, thanks for your input. Your book has been a very interesting read, to put it mildly. I’ve passed it on to a friend who is more along the profile you often refer to – she’s a very active triathlete and soccer player, she’s a “healthy eater” who just can’t seem to lose the weight.

        • Pau says:

          Hi Lisa, I hope you check back here as i am really curious about what happened to you; did you go wheat free? I am in a similar situation to you

  13. Joyce says:

    Dr. Davis,
    I have been diagnosed as a Type II Diabetic approximately a year ago. I have not started medication as my AIC has been between 6.7 & 7.1, with a recent reading of 7.5. I have high cholesterol, high blood pressure, acid reflux, hiatal hernia & overgrowth of bacteria in the stomach. At times I experience a “flipping” or “skipping” in the abdominal area. I cannot seem to get specific results from the medical team here in Michigan. All they do is try to medicate me with statins & medication for high blood pressure. I have tried the statins, and although they work, they affect the muscles & put a strain on the heart, as I feel the tightness in my chest, so I refuse to take them. I am taking a vitamin D supplement to boost my low level, and take Fish Oil daily to bring down the triglycerides. The counseling I received on my diabetes is to eat 30 carbs for breakfast, 45 for lunch & 45 for dinner. That does sound like too many carbs per day. What is your opinion on this & my other issues? I would like to reverse the above issues naturally & without medication, if possible. I’m at the end of my patience with the advice the medical staff have given me.. My weight is 160 & I cannot drop one pound even under the help of a dietitian. I have never had a weight problem most of my life, but I am battling abdominal fat, where the rest of my body is normal size arms & legs. I need a physician that will solve the problem & not just treat the symptoms.

    • Dr. Davis says:

      Run, don’t walk, run to get yourself a copy of the book, Joyce!

      You sound like a perfect poster child for what wheat can do to ruin health in so many different ways, none recognized by most of my colleagues.

  14. Robert McKnight says:

    Dr Davis,
    I have stopped the wheat and löst a Little weight. I am having trouble keeping the carbs down. Can you suggest an acceptable Protein supplement that isn’t full of carbs and a good source of Protein, ditto.
    R M

    • Dr. Davis says:

      Sorry, Robert, I’m not big into the protein powders.

      But I believe the closest you can get to truly healthy protein powders are the vegetable-based proteins, followed by whey. (Whey has the peculiar effect of tripling the output of insulin from the pancreas, which can cause metabolic distortions and/or stall weight loss in some people.)

  15. Boundless says:

    “Most people can tolerate 40-50 grams [net] 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 [net] carbs per meal.”

    Based on some other sources I’ve perused, this level of carb consumption puts the body in ketosis, and this seems to be the goal, based on other remarks you have made: “… assessing blood ketones may be the gold standard method to ensure low-grade ketosis on a long-term low-carb effort.” The WB book doesn’t seem to mention the term at all (ketone, ketogenic and ketosis are not in the Index).

    Ketogenic vs. glycemic diet is the fundamental choice in human metabolism, with, alas, most of the human race being destructively glycemic. Is it the intention of a WB-friendly diet to be in full or borderline ketosis, and is that most of the time, or all of the time? I see suggestions of carb consumption during athletic events. Does that switch the body to glycemic mode?

    Not that I’m interested in doing it, but what are the consequences of moving between K & G modes on a frequent basis? And are there any warning signs to watch for that we are too deep in ketosis? I’ve always been a “food optional” kind of person, and am mildly concerned that I might not be eating enough.

  16. doreen says:

    Hi Dr Davis-
    I have read so many articles on glycemic index and they all say you can reduce the gi of foods by adding vinegar or fats like olive oil. Is this bs? i am asking because i am having a hard time going completely grain free….so lets say I eat salad with olive oil and vinegar along with my rice or quinoa or corn or oats…does it really make a difference?
    thanks :)
    -doreen

    • Dr. Davis says:

      It IS true . . . but only a little bit.

      You can test this yourself by getting a glucose meter and testing blood sugar just before consuming a food, then 1 hour afterwards. A typical experience:

      1/2 cup quinoa (cooked): blood sugar goes from 100 mg/dl to 160 mg/dl–very high.

      Add olive oil, vinegar, some herbs, etc. to 1/2 cup quinoa: blood sugar goes from 100 mg/dl to 152 mg/dl–better, but still quite harmful.

      So there is indeed truth to this advice: You can make something bad into something LESS bad. But it is NOT good.

      This is typical of the half-a—ed advice from the nutritional community.

  17. Karen says:

    Any suggestions for making meatloaf without breadcrumbs?

  18. Kate says:

    Hi Dr. Davis,
    I am considering going grain free (Paleo). However, I am also breastfeeding and I’m concerned about being in ketosis. What is the minimum amount of carbs I need to consume to keep my baby healthy? I don’t want the detox process to leach all of the toxins stored up in my fat to my breastmilk. Also, I can’t stand squash (texture, tried many ways of eating it), is it okay to consume more fruit or throw in potatoes instead of starchy vegetables?
    Thanks for your site!!

    • James says:

      Hi Kate,

      At the time my wife was breastfeeding, I had the same kind of questions, even though I had not yet found out about the wheat – grain free – high fat – low carb principles.
      However, I sort of got the impression that whatever you ingest, your breast milk will always be healthy. Apart from a possible yeast infection (candida) in case you are eating way too much sugar, if you live rather healthy (don’t smoke, don’t drink alcohol, don’t smear weirdo creams on your breast, etc), you should not worry.

      Dr Davis may chime in though.

      But if you go paleo, it is not only about removing grains and super starchy tubers, you need to increase your intake of good fat (naturally saturated and mono-unsaturated) and proteins. Sugar can be created from proteins via gluconeogenesis so I would not worry too much either. And a last bit of advice, try to balance alkalizing and acidifying foods. I heard something like 70% alkaline vs 30% acidifying but your mileage may vary.

  19. Andrea semenuk says:

    I have three children (ages 15, 13 and 11) who are competitive swimmers and train 1&1/2 to 2&1/2 hkurs per day 5 + days per week. What do you recommend for their carb intake? Thanks.

    • Dr. Davis says:

      I find that, once athletes have accommodated to the wheat-free/limited carbohydrate lifestyle, they benefit from carbs only DURING or just before an event. No pre-event carb loading–a very destructive idea.

  20. Linda says:

    Dr. Davis,
    I have purchased both of your books, just read the Wheat Belly and looking forward to reading your
    latest Wheat Belly Cookbook. I was wondering what kind of syrup would you suggest instead of agave
    or brown rice syrup for pancakes or french toast. Do you plan in the future to have Wheat Belly breads and frozen dinners wheat belly style that we could buy from your website?
    Linda

    • Dr. Davis says:

      Hi, Linda–

      Provided you have no objections to liquid sucralose, Walden Farms and DaVinci have a sugar-free maple syrup. Most sugar-free maple syrups are made with sorbitol and mannitol, which have implications similar to sugar, as well as gas and diarrhea. The sucralose-based varieties do not have these concerns.

      Also, other possibilities include fresh fruit, frozen fruit, full-fat Greek yogurt, sour cream, butter.

      • Boundless says:

        See also Nature’s Hollow brand sugar free maple syrup, which is Xylitol based. SKU B002AJ0SZ6 on Amazon.

        It’s not quite as viscous, maplely or as cheap as I’d like, but it suffices.