Medically reviewed by Kelly Van Gorden, MS, RD, CD
Is Couscous Healthy?
Couscous is a popular side dish that’s often found in many Middle Eastern and North African meals. Despite looking like a grain, the tiny granules that make up a serving of couscous are actually made from a wheat or semolina dough that’s rolled up and shaped into tiny balls. Most people wondering “Is couscous healthy?” assume that since it’s made from grain it must not be that healthy, but it’s more complex than that.
Once it’s prepared, couscous is dehydrated and packaged so it’s shelf-stable. Like pasta, couscous needs to be cooked in boiling liquid like water or broth. Once it’s fully cooked, it can be combined with a variety of ingredients into grain salads, or serve as a side dish for almost any meal.
When It Comes to Nutrients, is Couscous Healthy?
One of the unique aspects of couscous is that it can be made from a variety of different grains. It’s most commonly made from durum wheat semolina (like most other types of pasta), but you can also find couscous made from whole wheat, spelt, or barley. It can be made by hand or shaped into larger balls through a mechanical process. These larger shapes are commonly referred to as Israeli, pearl, or Lebanese couscous.
The average serving of refined durum wheat couscous contains 150 calories and 30 grams of carbohydrates. It also offers 5-6 grams of protein per serving, a little less than a standard-sized serving of refined pasta.
It also contains some similar nutrients to pasta, including the nutrients and vitamins below:
Both regular and whole-grain couscous are rich in fiber and offer 2-3 grams per serving. This fiber helps to regulate blood sugar, offering a steady supply of energy and keeping you fuller for longer.
Couscous contains the majority of your daily recommended intake of selenium, an important nutrient that helps limit oxidative stress and inflammation throughout the body.
It also helps protect the thyroid against damage and contributes to the production of healthy thyroid hormones. It’s also been shown in several studies to contribute to a lower risk of some cancers.
Calcium is an important nutrient that’s known for its many health benefits. It’s critical for healthy bones, and helps to regulate heartbeat and muscle function. It can help control and prevent high blood pressure, and researchers have even examined its role in weight loss. One serving of couscous contains 20 mg of calcium.
One serving of couscous contains 1-2 grams of iron, an important mineral that’s critical for the growth of red blood cells. If you’re not getting enough iron in your diet, you may develop anemia, which indicates that your level of red blood cells is too low.
Although couscous contains many of the same nutrients as pasta, it does not contain fat. That’s why it’s a popular choice for many people who are trying to stick to a healthy, low-fat diet.
Is Couscous Healthy for Weight Loss?
Couscous has been studied for its role in weight loss, and many people who are trying to lose weight love it since it’s quick to prepare, low in fat, and high in fiber. It also has 5-6 grams of protein per serving, which helps to keep you fuller for longer. Despite these benefits, it is high in calories, with 150-160 grams per serving.
Since couscous can be made with many different grains, you do have the option to choose a heartier, unprocessed variety like whole-wheat, spelt, or barley. These can help offer different nutrients as well as more insoluble fiber.
Is Couscous Healthy for People Who Are Gluten-Free?
Since couscous is made from durum wheat semolina, it is not gluten-free, and should not be consumed by people who are trying to live a gluten-free lifestyle or have celiac disease. However, you may be able to find some varieties of couscous that are made with gluten-free alternatives like cassava flour, corn flour, or tapioca starch.
If you like the idea of couscous but need to eat gluten-free, try alternatives like quinoa, farro, or even riced cauliflower. Their flavors and textures will be different, but all are available widely and are just as versatile as couscous.
Is Couscous Healthy for People with Diabetes?
Couscous can be eaten by people with diabetes, but like any other food that’s high in carbs, it should only be consumed in moderation. It should always be eaten with protein or soluble fiber, which helps to even out your blood sugar levels.
People with diabetes should be careful not to consume couscous with too many other foods that are high in carbohydrates, like starchy veggies.
The American Diabetes Association also recommends opting for whole wheat couscous, rather than refined semolina couscous. The whole wheat option offers more dietary fiber and is lower on the glycemic index.
Is Couscous Healthy for Your Heart?
Couscous can be good for your heart, since it’s rich in both selenium and calcium. These nutrients can help lower your risk of heart disease by limiting harmful inflammation and keeping the muscles and rhythm of the heart strong and regular. The fiber in couscous also helps to reduce your levels of LDL (bad cholesterol), keeping your cholesterol rates more balanced.
While couscous is best consumed with protein, you can make your meal even more heart-healthy by choosing lean options like chicken breast or beans instead of fatty, sodium-rich processed meats.
How Can You Incorporate Couscous into Your Diet?
One of the reasons why couscous is so popular is because of its versatility. It doesn’t need to be cooked extensively before it’s ready to eat, so all you need to do is pour boiling water over it and let it sit for a few minutes to rehydrate. You can even use low-sodium broth instead of water, infusing it with a rich, flavorful taste.
Want some more ideas of how to incorporate it into your next healthy meal?
- Serve it alongside lean proteins: The next time you make a delicious stew, braised meats, or roasted vegetables, serve a small helping of couscous on the side.
- Make a grain salad: Couscous tastes great served warm or cold, and absorbs dressing and sauce beautifully. The next time you’re in the mood for a salad, bulk it up with some cooked couscous. You can use any vegetables you want, and add nuts, seeds, or even raw or dried fruit to make a delicious, tasty dish with tons of different vitamins and minerals.
- Stuff it: Couscous mixes well with a variety of different ingredients and can be used as a stuffing for an impressive roasted vegetable dish. Just mix your couscous with cheese, herbs, vegetables, and other additions, then stuff the mixture into the vegetable of your choice.
- Couscous cakes: With the addition of a binder like egg, you can turn couscous into patties or cakes that can be baked or fried to make a creative and delicious side dish.
Should You Be Eating Couscous?
If you’re looking for an easy, versatile, and healthy side dish, couscous is a great choice. It’s available widely, and can be prepared in less than five minutes. It’s also low in fat, and rich in vitamins like calcium, selenium, and iron.
However, it’s important to remember that couscous is still largely made up of carbohydrates. It should be eaten in moderation, and preferably with a side of vegetables and lean protein.
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