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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72 thoughts on “Reader Response: Alternatives to Grains? What about Quinoa?”

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  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!

    1. 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.

      1. 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~

        1. I meant to say your doctor suggested you eliminate certain foods for hashimoto

  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

  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.

    1. Actualy tofu shouldn’t be considered a health choice, since its made from soy…
      And probrably GMO soy, which makes it worse.

      1. 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.

  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.

  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.

      1. I always order burgers and sandwiches wrapped in a lettuce leaf when I eat at a restaurant.

  6. 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.

    1. Wow. Thanks for sharing this nifty food gadget. I’m putting spiralizer on my Christmas list!

  7. 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.

  8. 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

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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:

  13. 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.

  14. 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!

  15. 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.

  16. 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!

  17. 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 🙂

    1. 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!

    2. 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!


  18. 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.

  19. 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?

    1. 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.

  20. 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!

    1. “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 🙂

    2. 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!

  21. 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!

  22. ^ 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”.

  23. 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!

  24. 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.

  25. 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!

  26. 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!!!

  27. This is all very interesting. I ended up here because I was wondering why today I’ve been craving carbohydrates (namely chick peas and quinoa) all day. Normally I have to force myself to eat things like that and am quite happy just eating meat and vegetables and dairy. But not today. Today I genuinely want the quinoa, want the taste not just the texture. It feels good to eat it. No idea why. Nevertheless, I’m going to consider this to be just a weird day and not how I should eat normally. The chickpeas and quinoa has filled me up more than my usual diet, but I just feel like it was indulgent. I look forward to the day it is easy and cheap to test what our bodies actually need each day to tailor our diet appropriately.

  28. I have quinoa for breakfast, put almond milk, Greek yogurt, coconut oil, nuts, strawberries & blueberry’s in, good substitute for any cereal breakfast! lovely!!;o)

  29. I love quinoa but every time I eat it, I get a pin prick rash all over my body and my face turns red and starts to burn. Does anyone else get this kind of a reaction?

  30. I agree quinoa is an acceptable grain when other grains fail due to the protein content, but it still has phytates. Soaking with an acid mixture for 7-12 hours overnight (1tbsp raw ACvinegar per cup of quinoa) before rinsing and cooking makes it more nutrient dense. I like to consume it in miso broth with kelp and a splash of lemon juice. I’m not sure why, but it seems to help with summer heat.
    Great blog here. Namaste! N

  31. Have you heard about a paleo bread coming out at the end of June 2012? Made by the Jillian Bakery. Looks intriguing – no grains and low carbs.

  32. “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 …”

    I had to laugh at this exchange on a blog devoted to going PRIMAL!!! Thanks for my daily guffaw 🙂

  33. My staple vegan food right now is a ph balanced super dish. 1/2 quinoa and veggies. I combine 1 tomato, handful of chopped cilantro, fresh ginger, 1/2 of lemon’s juice, cayenne pepper, powdered ginger, powdered shitake mushroom and a heaping scoop of sunwarrior (warrior blend) (On a side note I find liquid proteins useless without food as they pass right through and stress the kidneys). I eat with Nori sushi paper. I use a little organic salsa to give it some kick. I eat very little fats also which is a huge factor in digestion. I do use 2 3-6-9 oil pills with each meal (fish oil). (This somewhat mimics the Incans war balls). I have found I can’t thrive without fish oil. I used to use a lot of coconut and nuts. I am finding by just allowing nature to provide me most of my fats naturally along with some 3-6-9 pills my fats don’t get out of wack. After all if the Incans could baffle us building pyramids in the middle of the jungle they must have been on to something with their sacred staple Quinoa (which when taken from them they lost their power). Quinoa is the key to stength and power as a vegan.

    1. Their soil may not have been depleted of minerals, etc.

  34. Several pizza parlors have delicious gluten free crusts. I buy them without topping and eat them like bread. I love them. Fireside Pie has a good one about $ 5 or $6.

  35. I love using caulifower as a substitue for rice or mashed potatoes (grated or mashed, and steamed). Also turnips/parsnips on occasion (roasted or mashed). Also love zucchini for it’s ability to pick up flavours, and cut into slivers to mimic pasta and diced to add a “fullness” to sauces. Eggplant is good but I never seem to get the right texture from it…And (high nutrient not button) mushrooms…amazing in ANYTHING to add texture and flavour. Spaghetti squash is also amazing, even just with butter n spices. And pumpkin, also great in coconut curries as well as traditional spices. I also indulge occasionally in green split peas as their protein and fibre content is through the roof.

  36. 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…

  37. 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?

  38. 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.

  39. 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

  40. 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!

  41. 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).

  42. 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.

  43. Crumbled mushrooms are a great replacement for ground meat in chili and stews.

  44. I bought into the HFLC and paleo ideologies. I don’t know if the arguments are more persuasive or it just fits my personality. But on a LCHF my LDL went to 300 and on a ‘moderate’ fat and moderate carb diet, my LDL went down but my inflammation went up. All this has cost me about 30 lbs. I was not looking to be skinny, I was a solid 190 and now and a super-lean (but skinny) 160. Eat fat, but not too much, eat carbs, but not too much, eat protein but not too much. Meanwhile I am turning into a 90 lb weakling. Is high LDL from diet as bad as chronically high LDLie Familial hypercholesterolemia ?

  45. Never think like that before, the alternative of grains. Surely it’s a worth reading. I should try Quinoa one day.

  46. For first few days, I think it’s hard to take grain alternative. I will try 2-3 days. Let’s see what happened then…

    By the way many thanks.