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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

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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. Disclaimer: You have most likely heard this question or complaint before, but I am fairly new to Paleo…

    After doing some research, I still cannot understand, for the life of me, why it is not o.k., even beneficial (or maybe even preferable) to allow pseudograins and certain higher carb foods in the Paleo diet if you fit into any or all or combination of the following three categories: you’re active, you have hypothalmic amenorrhea, or if you are breast-feeing?

    Can someone point me to some good resources? Books? Other of Mark’s articles? What is the original book on Paleo? (There are SO many out there…and some are over the top (Whole30)

    Thanks so very much. Any help would be appreciated for this little lady…

    monika wrote on January 13th, 2013
  2. Hi, I’ve been experimenting with a semi-primal diet (kind of mixed with the traditional foods: lacto-fermented/sprouted), and I was wondering if anyone knows what sprouting quinoa does to its nutritional profile? Or any of the other grains, say buckwheat, amaranth, millet, barley, oats, etc…

    If you sprout them first, are they still considered a grain? To what degree would they need to be sprouted? Just to the point of a rootlet peeking out of the seed husk, or must you allow them to fully germinate and produce cotyledons?

    Dee Jones wrote on January 19th, 2013
  3. I am particularly interested in the use of konnyaku noodles with Thai foods.
    The nutritional breakdown and type of plant they originate from would be fascinating. Thanks’ Petra 1.

    petra 1 wrote on February 11th, 2013
  4. Useful info. Fortunate me I found your site by chance, and I’m stunned why this twist of fate did not came about earlier! I bookmarked it. Rippln App – rippln Mobile – rippln mobile

    Susana wrote on May 11th, 2013
  5. How did you make that eggplant sandwich? It looks amazing and I couldn’t find a recipe for it on your site. Thanks! Love you, Mark!

    kim wrote on May 24th, 2013
  6. It just turned chilly where I live, and I found a recipe the other day for chicken thighs with apples and onions over polenta with sharp cheddar. I used the same basic premise as mashed cauliflower “potatoes” but added a bit more liquid in the form of chicken stock and cream. Then I pureed the crud out of it. It was delicious, and it had a nearly identical texture to soft polenta (i.e., the kind you could eat with a spoon rather than fry into cakes).

    Jennifer wrote on October 20th, 2013
  7. I thought I was safe with a little bit of quinoa and found myself so bloated by about 5 pounds, total inflammation and intestinal trouble. I can actually handle gluten better than quinoa. Having said that, everyone else does rather well with it. I can also handle all potatoes very well. If I’m really needing some carbs my first option is the sweet potato, but every now and again I eat white potatoes, with no appetite increase (from glycemic load) and no weight gain or problems. I guess it all comes down to knowing what you can eat. My husband can do the quinoa and be just fine. We both follow primal blueprint most of the time.

    angela wrote on January 15th, 2014
  8. Crumbled mushrooms are a great replacement for ground meat in chili and stews.

    jennifer wrote on July 28th, 2014

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