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Quinoa vs. Brown Rice: Which is better for carb recovery?

By Larry Carroll

Much like ultra-marathoning itself, in life everybody has their own races to run. For some, a healthier overall lifestyle filled with important vitamins and nutrients is the goal. For others, quick recovery is the key target. Such self-exploration is at the core of one controversial word tossed around in dietary circles all the time: carbs.

If you’re regularly burning hundreds of calories a day with multiple hours of training, your body will crave carbs, you have the most to gain from them, and you are the least likely to gain body fat. If your lifestyle is less active, however, you’ll want to prioritize other health concerns.

Which brings us to two of the top carbohydrate sources in the modern diet: The classic bowl of rice, and the trendy serving of quinoa. What are the benefits and drawbacks of both? Which one is the true powerhouse? Read on for those details, then plan your diet accordingly.

A Brief History of Rice

Rice is the seed of a grass species, and as a cereal grain is one of the most popular foods in the world; in fact, it has been estimated that rice provides more than one-fifth of the calories consumed worldwide by humans. While it is especially popular in Asia, there are many varieties of rice, and its flavors and nutritional value vary widely throughout the world.

One thing to consider when you’re consuming rice is the difference between long-grain (whose grains tend to remain intact after cooking), medium-grain (which tends to get sticky, such as in risotto or sushi) and short-grain (think rice pudding). After that, it becomes all about preparation: If your rice is rinsed, it may remove excess starch, but also nutrients; if your rice is soaked, it could improve texture and activate enzymes. Boiling, steaming, frying or using a rice cooker can also have a major impact on rice’s taste, texture and ultimate health benefit.

When considering rice as a factor in your diet, you should also consider other variables. Are you consuming white, brown, red, black, or some other variety? What is the nutrient quality of the soil that the rice has ben grown in? How processed has the rice been between its trip from farm to table? The good thing about rice is that it is so easy to find – but you’ll want to make sure you’re consuming a variety consistent with your nutritional needs.

A Brief History of Quinoa

In some ways, quinoa is a master of disguise. It has a texture reminiscent of rice, is often presented as an alternative to rice at restaurants, and can typically be found alongside rice on supermarket shelves. Both are considered ancient ingredients, are easily cultivated, and have been fueling diets for millennia.

That, however, is where the similarities end. While rice is a grain, quinoa is the seed of the goosefoot plant. Rice is believed to have first been domesticated in China’s Yangtze River basin around 12,000 years ago. Quinoa originated in the Andean region of northwestern South America nearly 7,000 years ago – and subsequently spent several thousand years as a food for livestock, before humans consumed it. 

But instead of rice, we should think of quinoa as a closer relative to spinach, beets and leafy vegetables. What makes it exceptional, however, is the fact that quinoa is a complete protein, containing all nine of the essential amino acids – a true rarity compared to plants. It also has very high levels of minerals and fiber, meaning a serving of quinoa checks off multiple boxes on anyone’s healthy living checklist.  

Rice vs. Quinoa

For the sake of comparison, it is best to examine white and brown rice since they are by far the most prevalent in terms of consumption. And right off the bat, you can pretty much eliminate white — because as delicious as it may be in so many dishes, it has limited nutritional value and does little more for your body than increase your blood sugar level. During processing, white rice commonly has its husk, bran and germ removed, then is artificially enriched. 

Brown rice is a much healthier option, and offers such benefits as high levels of fiber and the potential to lower blood pressure. By retaining its bran and germ throughout processing, it retains minerals like phosphorous, manganese and magnesium. 

Comparing quinoa to brown rice head-on, both have their advantages. Quinoa has nearly twice as much protein, wins hands down in amino acids, and has three to four times more micronutrients (iron, phosphorus, calcium, etc.) than brown rice. Rice, meanwhile, has slightly fewer calories, and like quinoa is gluten-free. 

But when it comes to athletic benefits, the most important criteria may be carbohydrate replacement. When participating in an endurance sport, you need to fuel your body via carbs, which contain glucose – essential for muscles and the liver but stored in limited amounts. It is believed that once your exercise exceeds 75 minutes, your body’s glycogen begins facing depletion – in laymen’s terms, this is when you hit the wall. 

The USADA calls carbohydrates “The Master Fuel” and offers a formula to calculate the recommended grams of carbohydrates needed per pound of body weight. The formula breaks down to your weight in kilograms, multiplied by five per hour of activity.  

Although they aren’t far apart, brown rice has slightly more carbs. Indeed, a cup of quinoa offers 39 grams of carbs compared to a whopping 45 for rice. So, for the ultra-athlete seeking to simply replace carbs as quickly as possible, reach for the rice.

Obviously, sitting down and eating a bowl of rice isn’t always the most practical notion within an hour or two of participating in an event, however. And quite often, you’d be better off choosing quinoa since it wins in all those other categories, offers those amino acids, and has just slightly less carbs. 

Either way, the first time you’re able to set aside the Gu and PowerBars and have a true meal, it’s a great idea to include either brown rice or quinoa. And since both can be prepared in a myriad of ways, you’ll never get sick of the taste or consistency – and when you’re talking about healthy foods, that isn’t always the case.

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