What is amaranth and its nutritional benefits? Can amaranth be a part of a modified paleo diet? Plus, how to use and cook amaranth if you choose to include it in your eating plan.
In some of my recent posts, I shed light on some of the safest and most beneficial reintroductions of foods you can do on a modified paleo diet. These grey area foods are eliminated entirely on a strict paleo diet, but I like to emphasise the importance of sustainability, variety, and bio-individuality when it comes to maintaining health long-term. As well as buckwheat, quinoa, white rice and hemp seeds, I’ve decided to include amaranth in the list of these foods.
So, what is amaranth? It’s a ‘grain’ that has been cultivated for upwards of 8,000 years by the Aztecs. Even if you’ve never heard of it, it’s been around for quite some time now, and I like to think it’s making a big comeback. Like buckwheat and quinoa, amaranth is a pseudocereal grain, and its grown for its starchy seeds.
The nutritional profile of amaranth
When it comes to the reintroduction phase of your personal paleo journey, I like to recommend it to folks to occasionally include in non-paleo recipes. That’s because of its nutritional profile, sustainability, affordability, and versatility. Let’s chat about what a typical serving of amaranth looks like and how it stacks up.
One cup of cooked amaranth has 252 calories, 4 grams of fat, 10 grams of protein, 45 grams of carbs (including 5 grams of fibre), and it’s high in the following nutrients:
- Vitamin B6: 0.3 mg (14% DV)
- Folate: 54.1 mcg (14% DV)
- Calcium: 116 mg (12% DV)
- Iron: 5.2 mg (29% DV)
- Magnesium: 160 mg (40% DV)
- Phosphorus: 364 mg (36% DV)
- Potassium: 332 mg (9% DV)
- Zinc: 2.1 mg (14% DV)
- Copper: 0.4 mg (18% DV)
- Manganese: 2.1 mg (105% DV)
- Selenium: 13.5 mcg (19% DV)
As you can see here, amaranth contains tons of important vitamins and minerals that are easily available for use by our bodies when prepared correctly (and we’ll get to those details down the road). Most notably, amaranth is an amazing source of magnesium, calcium, phosphorous, vitamin B6, folate, manganese, and selenium. Some of these are quite difficult to get – especially selenium!
This is one of the primary reasons I really encourage paleo eaters to step outside the box and practise reintroducing different foods. While I do believe a strict paleo diet is one of the most nutrient-dense ways to eat, there are more possibilities when we can include more foods. Sometimes, those foods just so happen to be grains or grain-like ingredients.
Another thing I love about amaranth – and something that needs to be taken into consideration with any grain – is its low glycaemic index. It comes in at a very low 21 out of 250 on the scale which means it has less impact on blood sugar which won’t send you into severe spikes and drops. It’s also a decent source of plant protein, including some important amino acids such as lysine. This makes amaranth a stable source of long-lasting energy derived from carbohydrates, which is great for someone who could use the boost or who wants a few more plant-based sources in their diet.
The benefits of amaranth
Now that we know more about what amaranth is truly made of, let’s discuss some of the reasons you might want to eat it. No food is without its negatives and positives, but for now, let’s focus on the latter. Grains can add a lot of substance to a diet. Many folks are hesitant to take on a strict paleo diet because the abundance of fresh food required to sustain energy can be quite expensive. By being able to supplement with healthy grains that provide us with essential nutrition and uphold vibrant health, we can save some money without sacrificing the beneficial aspects of eating real food.
- It’s gluten-free. Gluten-free grains are my top choice for grain reintroductions overall, perhaps for obvious reasons. The entire premise of adding new foods into the diet is to reduce the chances of having a negative reaction as much as possible while still being inclusive. Because it’s not a wheat grain, there is less of a chance that amaranth will irritate the gut, cause bloating or indigestion, or cause an autoimmune flare. It also makes it suitable for more individuals because it’s safe for coeliac people.
- It’s rich with lysine – an amino acid. Amaranth is a complete protein so it contains all essential amino acids that your body can’t produce on its own. This puts it high up in the ‘good grains’ category for me. Namely, it includes an abundance of lysine. It is responsible for the conversion of fatty acids into energy which can lead to better cholesterol levels and lower LDL cholesterol. It also helps the body absorb and use vitamin C which can improve immunity and even help with symptoms of anxiety. Lysine also improves gut health with its anti-inflammatory benefits.
- It provides over 100% of your daily recommendation for manganese. Manganese supports healthy bones and wards off osteoporosis, especially in conjunction with the other minerals and vitamins found in amaranth. Manganese deficiency is linked to neurological issues as well, so getting enough ensures that there is enough for the neurons in your brain to use. Finally, manganese is needed for certain digestive enzymes that control gluconeogenesis or your body’s process of converting amino acids into sugar and the subsequent balance of sugar in your bloodstream. This is especially important for people with type 2 diabetes.
- It contains a fair amount of calcium. Many grains contain enough calcium to keep your levels healthy with regular consumption. For people on a modified paleo diet who don’t include dairy and/or nuts, calcium can be tough to get. Amaranth has one of the highest amounts of calcium for a grain with one serving offering up 12% of the daily recommended value.
- It’s anti-carcinogenic. Lysine – in conjunction with other constituents like zinc, iron, and magnesium – acts as an antioxidant to fight free radicals which reduces the risk of cancer by addressing the problem at a cellular level.
- It’s easy to digest. One of the primary reasons the paleo diet eliminates grains in the first place is because they aren’t very easy to digest. Some grains are easier on the gut than others, and amaranth is one of them. Its amino acid complex contributes to this factor. It can even improve digestion.
What to watch out for with amaranth
With reintroductions, it’s important to be careful and mindful of the potential interactions you could experience. Everyone is different, thus everyone will have different success levels with grains. Moreover, that will vary from grain to grain. Let’s discuss some of the potential interactions of amaranth in particular so you know how to prepare it, and if it’s not working out for you.
- It can’t be eaten raw. Some grains are fine to eat raw like buckwheat and oats (though it does reduce your body’s ability to properly digest them). Amaranth cannot and should not be eaten raw. While there are no known toxicities associated with this grain, cooking it is essential.
- It has anti-nutrients. Most grains contain anti-nutrients like oxalates and phytates which can bind to vitamins and minerals, leaving them unavailable to your body. Cooking helps to release some of those and reduce the blow. To lessen the anti-nutrient content further, soak and/or sprout your amaranth before cooking. This sort of gives the cooking process itself a head start.
- It can cause calcium overload. While rare, loading up on calcium while also regularly consuming amaranth can drive levels up dangerously high. Because lysine increases calcium absorption, you should not supplement with calcium while also eating calcium-rich foods.
- It can exacerbate hypoglycaemia. Because of its ability to reduce insulin levels which is often thought of as a good thing, people with already low insulin levels should watch their amaranth intake and limit it appropriately after chatting with their doctor.
- It can cause stomach pain. Most grains have this risk even if they’re gluten-free. Most commonly, amaranth causes digestive distress in individuals with lysinuric protein intolerance (because of its high lysine levels).
How to use and cook amaranth
If you’re at a comfortable stage of your elimination period with the paleo diet and you want to branch out, perhaps amaranth appeals to you. This nutritious grain can be used in a multitude of ways, and can always be used as an alternative to rice, quinoa, buckwheat, or any other grain in similar dishes. You can purchase raw amaranth in most health food stores and online, such as on Amazon.
To cook amaranth, use a ratio of 1 +1/2 cups liquid to 1/2 cup amaranth. (yield: 1 + 1/2 cups cooked.) Place amaranth and water in a small saucepan, bring to a boil, then Bring reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, until water is absorbed, about 20 minutes. You can then use the cooked amaranth in salads, in a porridge, as a side dish or as an ingredient in other dishes. Here are some recipes to inspire you.
- Pumpkin pie amaranth porridge from My New Roots
- Coriander cauliflower amaranth salad from Naturally Ella
- Mexican ranchero amaranth stew from Making Thyme For Health
- Crispy baked amaranth patties from Power Hungry
- Amaranth pancakes from King Arthur Flour
- Blueberries & cream amaranth porridge from Naturally Ella
- Puffed amaranth cereal from Edible Sound Bites
- Puffed amaranth, pistachio & chocolate granola bars from Making Thyme For Health
There you have it! Do you include amaranth in your modified paleo diet? Let me know about your experiences. If you’re looking to enhance your knowledge of what foods work best for you with me as your guide, consider checking out my 8-week paleo program which includes a reset and reintroduction phases and more information about this pseudograin and more.