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Couscous vs. Quinoa: Which Is Best?

Couscous and quinoa are both side dishes that can be similarly flavored and enjoyed. However, that is just about where the true similarities between couscous and quinoa end. This article explores the nutritional value of each food and lets you know which one is best for your diet and health goals in the couscous vs. quinoa debate.

What Are Couscous and Quinoa?

Though in some senses they are both considered whole grains (if you've chosen whole wheat couscous), that isn't the whole story. 

Couscous is a North African and Middle Eastern food staple comprised of small, steamed wheat balls made from semolina flour (which is the purified wheat middlings of durum wheat), and then flavored with veggies, meat, or fruit, like a breakfast cereal. 

Quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah) is a popular food from South America known as both an ancient grain and a pseudocereal because it's not actually a grain at all but instead an edible seed that contains 8 grams of protein per cooked cup and 5 grams of fiber, making it a good source of each nutrient. Let's explore the other top highlights of each dish.

What Are Couscous and Quinoa?

Couscous Health Benefits

This originally North African dish comes in three types: Moroccan, Lebanese, and Israeli. Moroccan couscous is quickest to cook as it comes in tiny granules, Lebanese is the largest and requires the longest cook time, while Israeli couscous, aka pearl couscous, is in the middle with pearls the size of peppercorns. Each is slightly nutty in flavor and gets chewier the denser they get. There are several health benefits to love.

1. Selenium Content

A single cup of couscous has around 60% of the daily recommended intake of selenium. Selenium is an anti-inflammatory antioxidant that helps decrease free radical damage throughout the body. It's essential for thyroid health and function, plus helps lower plaque buildup and LDL ("bad") cholesterol levels, thus reducing the risk of heart disease.

2. Anti-Cancer

Along with lowering the chances of heart disease, couscous also helps to lower the risk of cancer. Again this is thanks to the selenium content, as research shows selenium-rich foods like nuts, eggs, mushrooms, and shrimp help guard against certain forms of cancer better than taking selenium supplements. Selenium deficiency is linked with prostate cancer, and selenium added to a nutritional regimen helps smokers decrease their risk of lung cancer.

3. Plant Protein

It's not just quinoa that's high in protein. Couscous also provides 6 grams of protein per 1-cup serving, and while it's not a complete protein food (meaning it only has a select portion of the nine essential amino acids necessary for new muscle cell creation and repair), it's nevertheless an important contribution to a vegetarian or vegan diet.

Eating a variety of plant protein foods helps to round out your essential amino acids, as does taking a dedicated supplement, such as VeggieShake's protein powder boost, if you're worried you're not getting enough. Sufficient plant protein helps reduce the health risk of cancer, stroke, and fatal heart disease.

4. Immune Support

Selenium once again provides support for the immune system as an antioxidant and vitamin precursor (specifically vitamins C and E). By helping to reduce oxidative stress and boost important vitamins, couscous empowers your immune system's strength.

5. Easy to Include

There are many healthy foods to be found on grocery store shelves, but food that takes too long to factor into your weekly meal planning may just prove to be more trouble than it's worth. Couscous can be made quickly: just add hot water or broth, allow to steep, and then fluff with a fork. It can be made sweet or savory, enjoyed at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and it's ready with the same or less time and attention required to cook pasta. In fact, since it's made from whole-wheat flour, it's better than consuming refined white pasta or white rice as a side dish, and can be flavored in much the same way.

Quinoa Health Benefits

Quinoa is the seed of the Chenopodium quinoa plant. It's known as a superfood thanks to its high density of important nutrients. A pseudocereal because it doesn't grow on grass like rice, oats, or wheat do, it has the same light, nutty flavor reminiscent of couscous, but with a slight crunchiness when cooked. Quinoa can range in color from pale yellow, pink, or black, and in taste from sweet to bitter. Though it's considered a whole-grain food, quinoa is also gluten-free. Here are the health benefits you have to look forward to.

1. Nutrient-Rich

Along with 8 grams of protein per cooked cup, quinoa also has 6 grams of healthy fats and 39 grams of carbohydrates, 5 grams of which are in the form of dietary fiber. Quinoa has more dietary fiber than yellow corn or brown rice do, which helps reduce the risk of diabetes and provides healthy digestive benefits including prebiotics. Quinoa also includes nutrients like manganese, phosphorus, iron, folate, zinc, a multitude of B vitamins, and copper, an important mineral often missing in Western diets.

2. Complete Protein

Piggy-backing off the nutrients in quinoa, this pseudocereal is a complete protein with all nine essential amino acids. While it's easy to find complete amino acid content in animal foods, eggs, and dairy products, to get the same from plant food is rare and particularly valuable to those who keep a vegan lifestyle. It's also gluten free and contains lysine, an amino acid often missing entirely from plants.

3. Gluten-Free 

For those who are allergic or intolerant to gluten (such as those with celiac disease), quinoa is a perfect food for replacing wheat foods like pasta and bread. Quinoa is far more appropriate for a gluten-free diet and can deliver valuable nutrients without the pain and discomfort of gluten.

4. Stable Blood Sugar

While quinoa is gluten free, it still may not be appropriate on a low-carb diet like keto due to its carb content. That being said, it doesn't have a particularly damaging effect on one's blood sugar levels, with a glycemic index (GI) score of 53 that doesn't cause a rapid blood sugar spike. If you're skipping refined carbs to avoid blood sugar spikes, quinoa is still appropriate as it's been scientifically shown to help lower blood sugar levels, triglycerides, and cholesterol

5. Weight-Loss Aid

High in protein and low on the GI scale, quinoa is ideal for enhancing weight-loss efforts. Similar foods like wheat and rice do not have the same protein content needed for lean muscle growth, and the fiber content of quinoa also helps weight loss by increasing feelings of fullness and reducing caloric intake and overeating.

Couscous vs. Quinoa: Which Is Best for You?

Here's an easy-to-digest look at quinoa vs. couscous that may help you decide which one (if not both) should earn a spot on your meal-planning list.

Couscous

Couscous is best for you if:

  • You can tolerate gluten
  • You don't have any issues with high blood sugar (couscous has a GI score of 65)
  • You're not on a low-carb diet
  • You need more natural selenium intake
  • You want a quick, easy replacement for refined rice or pasta
  • You want a versatile food that can be made into both dinner and dessert

Quinoa

Quinoa is the better choice if:

  • You have a gluten intolerance or celiac disease
  • You are vegetarian or vegan and need a good source of complete plant protein
  • You're diabetic or prediabetic and need food that won't spike your blood sugar levels
  • You're trying to lose weight and need a healthy, filling meal option
  • You're willing to take a little extra time to prepare quinoa in boiling water

Couscous vs. Quinoa: Which Is Best for You?

The Final Verdict

In the end, quinoa is particularly unique in nutrients and so much more appropriate for those with a gluten allergy or those who need more protein for weight loss and fitness. That is why for us here at VeggieShake it's the clear winner. However, couscous has a unique texture and versatility that can't be disregarded, and it's far healthier than white rice or pasta as a side dish. If you have specific health needs that only quinoa can meet, you have your answer, but for many, making a choice between these two sides is unnecessary: both have healthy features that can make them a delicious asset to your table. 

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