Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
3 Jul

Reader Response: Alternatives to Grains? What about Quinoa?

QuinoaThe Definitive Guide to Grains post last month got people talking about alternatives to the traditional rice, potato, and breads that load up the typical American dinner plate. For some, gluten is the major consideration. For others, it’s the glycemic load itself. While the Primal Blueprint recommends avoiding grains and higher glycemic foods altogether, at some point or another most of us partake in the context of occasional compromise. Additionally, some of us consciously choose to include grain alternatives in our diets more regularly for varied reasons surrounding personal taste, economical savings, environmental commitments, or alternative nutrient sources (particularly for vegetarians).


One of the most popular choices in grain alternatives, particularly among the more moderate paleo set, is quinoa. Technically not a grain but a relative of green leafy vegetables like spinach and Swiss chard, quinoa is a complete protein that offers a respectable serving of all nine essential amino acids as well as a strong showing of manganese, magnesium, iron, copper and phosphorus. For those reasons, we can understand its popularity and agree that it does, indeed, have a lot to offer, particularly considering its low cost and shelf stability. Nonetheless, we’d offer a caution to its praises. While quinoa offers a decent helping of protein, it’s still pretty carb intensive, clocking in at a 53 on the glycemic index. Also, though quinoa is technically gluten free, it does contain a protein substance that has been known to cause digestive reactions in some.

So, what are some other options if you’re looking for grain alternatives in your meals? We’d first say, while it can initially be difficult to lose the meat and potatoes mindset, it does get easier with time. Eventually, meat and a salad will seem just as normal a dinner routine and you won’t even miss the starches. Nonetheless, when you’re looking for “closer” grain alternatives and have taken into account the added carb load, we do have some suggestions.

Sweet Potatoes

Nutrient-loaded squashes and sweet potatoes can serve as a respectable grain alternative. Likewise, lower glycemic beans such lentils can be a decent fill-in. One suggestion is to use these items, or quinoa, as a single ingredient in a veggie and meat dish rather than as the full dish itself. If you want or need to serve a grain alternative, use the substitute as a base for a more complex recipe. Say, add quinoa to greens and tuna, or use it sparingly as a base for meat and veggie stuffed peppers. Try cubed butternut squash in a rich fall salad full of nuts, chicken, and autumn veggies. Use summer squash and parmesan to make a warm but summery casserole side.

Eggplant Sandwich

Another possibility is the humble but scrumptious eggplant, an ingredient that takes on the flavor of any sauce you make but adds a pleasant substance and texture to the dish. Baked eggplant slices also serve as a terrific substitute for pizza crust or bread sticks with the right dipping sauce. Use it and/or bits of roots and tuber veggies, tomatoes, onions, and herbs to create rich, flavorful “stews” that feel and taste like a hearty accompaniment or a main course. A dash of pine nuts or aged cheese can make it that much heartier

Other options yet? Mushrooms can take on the role of buns or crusts. Cut up and added to hot veggie dishes, mushrooms can offer the warm, pleasantly mild taste that we might crave from grains. Crustless quiches can do the same. Long julienned strips of cabbage or spaghetti squash can serve as a “pasta” of sorts for light summer fare or even warm, meaty sauces come fall.

Acorn Squash

These are just a few ideas for some inspiration, but we know where to turn for an endless supply of great suggestions? To our seasoned Apples: What Primal-friendly alternatives have you found or created in your own kitchen that satisfy the tastes and textures of each season? What suggestions would you offer to those who are trying to edge out grains from their diet and starchy cravings from their mealtime expectations?

Autumn Sweater, RaeA, roboppy, breezeDebris, VeganWarrior Flickr Photos (CC)

Further Reading:

Ten Awesome Carbs

Acorn Squash Recipes

Dear Mark: Vegetarian Protein Possibilities

KEEN-WAH What? Video Post

44 Finger Lickin’ Recipes for Vegetarians and Carnivores Alike

Subscribe to Mark’s Daily Apple feeds

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. thank you, mark! I most often use quinoa flour to make muffins or breads. I don’t much like it whole. Just thought I’d mention that in case others were wondering if it had different uses. I’ll post a recipe later!

    hedda wrote on July 3rd, 2008
    • I have a gluten intolerance and suffer from Hashimotos a.k.a. hypothyroid. In
      my research I’ve learned that there are 13 foods that cross react with gluten, and one should be careful and not overindulge in substituting one grain
      for another. My M.D. requested I remove all grains from my diet and my Hashimoto’s went into remission. Cyrex labs offers a test so you can identify further foods that cross react with gluten. Quinoa which I used to love was rated high on the test. I had a Hashi’s attack where I had to lie down for three days after eating quinoa, but didn’t know why-now I no and what I’ve realized is everyone is different so please be careful and evaluate your diet.

      karen wrote on March 2nd, 2012
      • I know this is very late to this post but I read that you were saying your doctor suggested you eliminate certain foods, I was wondering exactly what?! thanks in advance! Suze~

        Suzan wrote on February 18th, 2015
        • I meant to say your doctor suggested you eliminate certain foods for hashimoto

          Suzan wrote on February 18th, 2015
  2. Definitely a fan of quinoa and root vegetables.

    I’m also somewhat of a recovering pasta addict. I’ll still eat it every once in a while, but that’s a change from several meals of pasta a week. If I do eat it, I keep it in small amounts and usually use a kind of noodles made from sprouted grains. I definitely use spaghetti squash, especially in fall and winter.

    But a few months ago, I tried something new. Mixing in only a few of those sprouted grain noodles for texture, I substituted in strips of sauteed portabella mushroom. It was a mushroom-based pasta dish anyway (with lots of sauteed onion and garlic, various other mushrooms, parsley, smoked tuna, lemon juice, parmesan and greens). That sauce made up the bulk, enhanced by the portabella strips and only a little actual sprouted-grain pasta. It was really tasty.

    Food Is Love

    Huckleberry wrote on July 3rd, 2008
  3. Hooray for quinoa! I’ve been using it a lot this summer, mixing it with more “pure” protein (tofu, tempeh) and legumes for all sorts of salads and warm dishes. Red quinoa is nice too–much prettier than regular.

    Jen wrote on July 3rd, 2008
    • Actualy tofu shouldn’t be considered a health choice, since its made from soy…
      And probrably GMO soy, which makes it worse.

      Jack wrote on February 5th, 2013
      • I would rule out soy as well. From my research not only is soy GMO unless labeled otherwise it is also not the same crop as in Japan. If you are going to eat soy it should be Natto and Non-GMO.

        sara wrote on April 14th, 2016
  4. I eat quinoa pretty regularly and enjoy it. It’s critical to soak it before cooking like you should any other whole grain or legume. Soaking breaks down some of the anti-nutrients like phytic acid, making it more digestible and nutritious.

    Sasquatch wrote on July 3rd, 2008
  5. This is all new to me except that a friend recently showed me an article on quinoa. I was impressed with the nutritional value of the grain. I’ve been trying it now that it is more readily available. At first, I couldn’t find the product. Thank goodness I did. I am VERY pleased with this great food.

    Rose wrote on July 3rd, 2008
  6. I do love quinoa. Heidi at 101 Cookbooks had a nifty idea for cutting out the bread from the usual burger: use the burger as the bun. She did this with a chickpea burger. I wonder if the same would work with meat? Meatloaf sandwich, anyone?

    monica wrote on July 3rd, 2008
    • I use sturdy lettuce leaves. Meat tends to more juicy than a chickpea burger.

      Tracy wrote on February 20th, 2010
      • I always order burgers and sandwiches wrapped in a lettuce leaf when I eat at a restaurant.

        Karen wrote on May 17th, 2014
    • i like that idea of using the burger as the bun

      don wrote on January 5th, 2013
  7. Hey Mark, I was just reading this and thought your readers may like to know about the “spiral slicer” made by Saladacco. I use it to turn raw zucchini and summer squashes into angel hair “pasta.” The consistency is really that of an al dente pasta and I think is much tastier and fresher than cooked spaghetti squash. Here is a recipe that I recently posted for Angel Hair Pasta with Heirloom Tomatoes and Pesto.

    Stephanie wrote on August 8th, 2008
    • Wow. Thanks for sharing this nifty food gadget. I’m putting spiralizer on my Christmas list!

      Liv wrote on November 28th, 2009
    • Great suggestion, Stephanie! I bought my spiralizer about 4 months ago – I’ve spiralized zucchini, beets, sweet potatoes… One of our household favorite recipes is now marinated zucchini with an Indonesian-style peanut sauce – yumm!

      Siobhan Landis wrote on October 25th, 2011
  8. I wonder if I’m the only one who takes raw quinoa with milk from a shotglass. With half a banana and yogurt it gives awesome indurance to a workout as a source of fuel. I can go for hours on it while avoiding junk food. I stopped for a while as I needed to get my glucose down and lose weight and was cutting out on ALL grains and sugars (but I’m glad to know quinoa isn’t a grain). Very convenient to carry when you’re separated from everything but junk food. I highly recommend it for energy level and endurance.

    Alpan wrote on September 3rd, 2008
  9. Another thumbs up for quinoa. I avoid most grains and most fruits except berries as they spike my blood glucose unacceptably (wheat is far and away the worst, oatcakes and ryebread quiye tolerable) quinoa has enabled me to put many dishes back on the menu: by substituting it for rice, pasta etc. my BG hardly shifts (NOT true for all diabetics but many might agree) I use the red and toast it gently in a dry pan before boiling for extra nutty flavour

    Trinkwasser wrote on September 17th, 2008
  10. Just saw this vid on how to use cauliflower as a rice substitute…

    Mike wrote on March 9th, 2009
  11. You can also use jicama as a grain substitute: just chop it up, put it in yr food processor for a minute. Then put it into a colander & press down to extract excess water & voila – jicama “rice”! But quinoa is pretty awesome,and along with a little wild rice and/or baby brown basmati, a sensible vice for those of us transitioning from pescatarian to Paleo to Primal. As a newbie to the PB & MDA I’m thrilled to discover this site & wonderous community.

    marci wrote on March 24th, 2009
  12. Thanks for the tips and kinds words, marci. Welcome to the MDA community. I publish a new article every day so come back regularly and tell your friends!

    BTW – The site is getting a redesign and is going to have a ton of new features including a forum.

    Also, I have a book that’s coming out soon that you may be interested. Read more about it here:


    Mark Sisson wrote on March 24th, 2009
  13. Shirataki noodles.


    Shirataki (shee-rah-TAH-kee) noodles are thin, low carb, chewy, and translucent traditional Japanese noodles. They are also sometimes called konnyaku noodles. Shirataki noodles are thinner than wheat noodles, do not break as easily, and have a different texture. They are mostly composed of a dietary fiber called glucomannan and contain very few calories and carbohydrates (sometimes even zero). They do not have much flavor by themselves, but absorb flavors well from other ingredients you can combine them with. Shirataki noodles are made from Konjac flour, which comes from the roots of the yam-like Konjac plant grown in Japan and China.

    Mike wrote on April 30th, 2009
  14. With regard to your post on quinoa, one way to reduce the carb content of the quinoa dish is to add a lot of veggies. For example, in this quinoa tabouli recipe, adding 2 cups of parsley and 1 cup of minced scallions lowers the carb-density. Call them “quinoa-helpers”. I agree w/the reader who recommends soaking quinoa for 6 to 8 hours or overnight. That makes it more digestible and reduces the phytate content.

    Quinoa Tabouli recipe

    I enjoy your blog, which I found through a couple of paleo and fitness sites.

    Chef Rachel wrote on May 25th, 2009
  15. I’m glad you mentioned sweet potatoes as an alternative to grain. Most people don’t know that the tubers labeled “yams” in supermarkets (e.g., red garnet and jewel yams) are botanically speaking actually sweet potatoes.

    Good news about them: This study showed that a compound found in white-skinned sweet potatoes reduces insulin resistance, lowers A1C, and lowers cholesterol in type 2 diabetics.

    The same compound occurs in Beauregard variety of sweet potatoes:

    Chef Rachel wrote on May 25th, 2009
  16. cool stuff i hope i get to read more updates

    Conner wrote on July 6th, 2009
  17. I’ve found quinoa to be a great substitute for rice in various “stuffed” dishes. Stuffed bell peppers and stuffed cabbage leaves being among my favorites. I couldn’t sit there and eat a whole serving of the stuff though, but it makes a great additive ingredient.

    ToddBS wrote on September 7th, 2009
  18. My daughter is a type 1 diabetic who has been off of insulin for over 90 days with the paleo diet…I am going to try to add a little quinoa here and there…maybe just as a garnish on salads. We have to watch how her glucose levels react of course, but quinoa is one of the things she really misses these days…hopefully she will be able to tolerate it well. Thanks for the info!

    Jayne Nelsen wrote on February 2nd, 2010
  19. does anyone know of a source that sells bulk quinoa for a competitive price. I notice the prices are all over the place for this product.

    becalive wrote on March 26th, 2010
    • Coscto sells 2.5LBS (I think) for less than $10

      Scott wrote on May 5th, 2010
      • And it is organic and pre-rinsed.

        Karen Scribner wrote on October 6th, 2013
  20. Amaranth is a great alternative for hot cereal lovers (as well as quinoa flakes). Amaranth weighs in at a GI of 35! Popped amaranth also makes a nice addition to homemade granola (make it kind of like stovetop popcorn). If cooked a just a little runny, amaranth mimics the texture of polenta.
    Buckwheat flour (buckwheat is actually an herb- GI 40) can be substituted in baked goods. I like to make pancakes with almond flour, buckwheat, amaranth, flax, and apple sauce. Not IDEAL, but delicious accompanied by sausage, eggs, and spinach!

    Jenny Lee wrote on May 24th, 2010
  21. I was always a fan of pancakes. Then I went primal… so what do you do? COCONUT pancakes!! I love coconut flour.

    I used to eat a sandwhich everyday for lunch. What do I eat today since I am primal? A big ass salad :)

    Primal Toad wrote on June 16th, 2010
    • You can make some pretty yummy pancakes with a banana, 3 eggs, a good pinch of sea salt (it may even be 1/4tsp- I don’t remember) and a little vanilla. Fry silver dollar sized in coconut oil. Drizzle with melted butter and YUM!

      Barb wrote on August 19th, 2010
    • Going grain free for me I missed my sandwiches – today I just came up with a wrap that tasted delicious and felt like eating a sandwich!

      Here’s what I did:


      Cooked Chicken
      Blue cheese crumbles
      Balsamic vinegar

      Place chicken and blue cheese in a leaf of rinsed kale.

      Drizzle with balsamic vinegar.

      Then wrap in kale.

      It felt substantial and mighty delicious! Plus because kale is so sturdy it held up well when eating it as a wrap. This will now become a regular on my rotation of meals!


      Caroline wrote on October 18th, 2010
  22. The big grain replacements in our house are zucchini strips (instead of noodles), cauliflower (instead of fried rice or mashed potatoes), and almond meal and coconut flour as wheat flour replacements. I made a pot pie with the flourless pie crust recipe from Bruce Fife’s book, and it was great! In fact, every one of his coconut flour recipes that we’ve tried has been very good.

    September wrote on July 8th, 2010
  23. Cauliflower rice sounds great, but I have a problem (well, two actually) – I don’t have a food processor and I don’t (won’t) have a microwave.

    So, first, can cauliflower be grated with a cheese grater? Fine or coarse?

    Next, how to cook. Cauli takes on water fast, so steaming might be out of the question. What about frying … fast in some beef dripping, for example? Nutty flavour, some of the cauli flavour muted and all the texture there.

    What say you guys? How does a regular fellow without a food processor or microwave do cauli rice?

    Paul Halliday wrote on June 12th, 2011

      Here’s the cauliflower rice:) She says it can be grated or chopped. Also, I imagine you could give it a very quick light steam instead of microwaving.

      Naomi wrote on October 6th, 2012
    • I recommend finely grating and then cooking in a pan with oil of some sort. This is how I make it for my Indian husband to stuff it inside parathas.

      Alayna wrote on January 25th, 2015
  24. Paul – break down and join the 21st century. I am sort of kidding you, but, it would be so much easier. If you want to remain a Luddite then you could use a grater and then pan fry with the lid on to preserve moisture.

    Good luck!

    Michael wrote on June 12th, 2011
    • “What say you guys? How does a regular fellow without a food processor or microwave do cauli rice?”
      “Paul – break down and join the 21st century. I am sort of kidding you, but, it would be so much easier. If you want to remain a Luddite …”

      What an exchange on a blog devoted to going PRIMAL!!! Thanks for my daily guffaw :-)

      Petra wrote on July 29th, 2012
    • I have lived my entire adult life without a microwave! And I’m not even a hippy. I love my food processor, but good knives work just as well. Go Paul!

      Sophie wrote on October 9th, 2013
  25. Paul
    Steam the cauliflower and then press it through an old fashioned kitchen utensil know as a potato ricer (it’s purpose was to give boiled potatoes the texture of rice, who knows why). Steamed cauliflower can be mashed and is a good potato substitute. Cauli is also good roasted. I’ve never tried grating a cauliflower so I don’t know how that would work out.
    Good luck!

    Reader wrote on July 31st, 2011
  26. ^ Thanks for the tip on steaming. I’ll get hold of a ricer today since tonight’s dinner will need some “rice”.

    I have grated since and dried it out a little in the oven, then frying off to give a kind of “couscous”.

    Paul Halliday wrote on August 1st, 2011
  27. Just started the Paleo diet today (after dabbling with lots of fruit for the lats two days) — kicking this sugar habit is going to be hard. So these are great things to have in my back pocket. I like the idea of having quinoa as an addition, not the main (ie stuffed peppers or Tabuli). Thanks everyone!

    Aimee wrote on August 17th, 2011
  28. shirataki japanese mountain yam noodles and kelp noodles! and enoki mushrooms! noodles all day long

    Max@flavortogofast wrote on September 10th, 2011
  29. I don’t quite crave carbs, but just meat and a salad kinda leave a textural hole in the plate, if that makes any sense. Even a small amount of quinoa (1/4 cup serving) is enough to provide that texture and fill out the plate.

    I’ve tried amaranth, but it tastes like dirt. I’ll try soaking it longer.

    oxide wrote on October 7th, 2011
  30. Wow, superb weblog format! How long have you ever been blogging for? you made blogging glance easy. The entire look of your site is excellent, as neatly as the content material!

    Lomi Lomi wrote on October 27th, 2011
  31. Hi I just want to say how great it is to find a website/forum/lifestyle where there is support from all over the world. I pray that people will slowly cotton on to this way of eating/living. I am so impressed with everyones passion and it’s great to have all the inspiration at hand. The only hard thing about this website is, I want to read everything! there is soooo much here and I feel that I’m missing out by not reading it all! I have the Primal Blueprint book, and I’m struggling to find time to fit it in as well as reading Marks Daily Apple and forum!!!

    Kelly wrote on January 30th, 2012

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