When it comes to smart foods in small packages, nuts like almonds and walnuts tend to hog the spotlight. But there's a whole other arsenal of other tasty, nutrient-dense foods you might want to tap into — seeds. They may be tiny but they're nutritional powerhouses loaded with healthy fats, fiber, protein and minerals. Supercharge your diet by snacking on these five seeds and sprinkling them into your dishes.
1. Chia Forget about “ch-ch-ch-chia pet plants.” As this ABC video shows, the ancient Aztec chia is making a strong comeback as a “hip” food ingredient. Eat the seeds raw on their own or add to almost any kind of food, like juice, yogurt, soup, eggs, pancakes, salad dressing and smoothies.
Nutrients A whopping 10 grams of fiber in one tablespoon is a good start. But chia seeds pack a whole lot more in their little round package. So count on good amounts of protein, iron, calcium, magnesium, zinc and plenty of those plant-based omega-3 fats (alpha linolenic acids).
The Newest Research Despite the hype, a 2012 study suggests that eating chia seeds isn’t a “cure” for what ails you, at least in the short term. “It didn’t magically change disease risk factors,” Appalachian State University researcher David Nieman said in a North Carolina paper. “It isn’t like taking a pill to lower your cholesterol.” Nor does it help with weight loss, as Nieman and colleagues found in an earlier 2009 study. It’s just a good, nutrient-rich food.
A Few Tips 1. Soaking chia seeds in fruit juice or water allows them to swell to several times their initial size and become gelatinous, a plus for people who want their beverages, puddings and cereals to be more filling. 2. New research suggests seeds need to be milled to release plant-based omega-3 fats. That's because your body may not get the benefits of the whole seeds if your digestive track can't break them down. Milling them — aka grinding them into a flour — is needed to "release" the good nutrition.
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2. Flax Food companies may add them whole to snacks, but the only way to open yourself up to the health benefits of these tiny, nutty-flavored seeds is to grind them (or buy them already ground into flaxseed meal). Try them in a healthy smoothie or sprinkled on yogurt and cereal. And don’t worry about seed color. Dark brown or golden-hued, the nutrition profile is identical.
Nutrients Rich in plant-based omega-3 fats, each 35-calorie tablespoon of ground flaxseed meets government guidelines for alpha linolenic acid — 1.1 grams per day for women and 1.6 grams per day for men. Also, count on that same tablespoon giving you 1 to 2 grams of soluble fiber, a big reason why flax is considered such a good laxative.
The Newest Research A 2012 study by the American Heart Association finds that eating an ounce of ground flaxseed daily for six months can lower blood pressure. Some small studies find the seed might help protect against prostate cancer and a 2013 Canadian study reports a link between eating flaxseed and reduced breast cancer risk.
A Few Tips 1. Flaxseed can stand in for eggs in pancakes or baked goods; mix 2 tablespoons of ground flaxseed with 3 tablespoons of water to replace each egg. 2. There have been some reports of drug-flaxseed interactions so check with your doctor if you take statins, blood thinners, NSAIDs or the antibiotic cyclosporin.
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3. Sunflower Seeds The beautiful yellow flower is a sight to behold, but its real gold can be found in its black-and-white hulled seeds. Great for snacking or as a topping for cereal, crisps and yogurt. Or chop them into a healthy coating for pan-fried chicken tenders.
Nutrients An ounce (1/4 cup) of shelled seeds delivers one-third of the daily requirement for vitamin E and phosphorous. That same 170-calorie serving also offers up small amounts of protein, fiber, zinc, folate, vitamin B6 and choline, which has been linked to better memory and cognitive performance in older adults.
The Newest Research A large 2012 German study notes a reduced risk of breast cancer among postmenopausal women who eat high amounts of sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds and soybeans, compared to women who don't eat those foods.
A Few Tips 1. Consider avoiding sunflower seeds if you have a latex allergy since it could put you at increased risk for an IgE-mediated, food-induced reaction. 2. Resist stirring seeds into muffin or quick bread batters made with baking soda — the two ingredients chemically interact to tint baked goods a harmless, but unappealing, blue-green hue.
4. Pumpkin Seeds (Pepitas) Raw pumpkin seeds are a rich, green color, but they turn brown when toasted. Easily found in whole food or natural grocery stores, they make a crunchy topping for baked goods, yogurt and cereals.
Nutrients An ounce of roasted pumpkin seeds has 126 calories, 5 grams of protein and 5.5 grams of fat, giving it the skinniest nutrition profile of the seed family. Like other seeds, they’re also a good source of minerals, including magnesium, potassium and zinc.
The Newest Research As mentioned above, a recent German study reported a reduced risk of breast cancer among postmenopausal women who eat high amounts of pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds and soybeans. In a 2011 study, Jamaican researchers noticed higher levels of HDL, or “good” cholesterol, and improvement in menopausal symptoms for women supplementing their diets with pumpkin seed oil.
A Few Tips 1. For a healthy snack, buy raw pepitas and toast them with lime juice and a spice rub, as Martha Stewart suggests. 2. Or save seeds from a pumpkin and roast them yourself.
5. Hemp Seeds At $15 a pound or more, tiny hemp seeds are pricey little devils. But their high-quality protein and stellar nutrition numbers make them a heavenly choice for anyone following a plant-based diet.
Nutrients The big plus of hemp seeds, a factor that separates them from all others, is that they’re a complete protein, one of the few plant foods that contain all nine essential amino acids or building blocks of protein. Also noteworthy: generous amounts of vitamin E, plant-based omega-3 fats and minerals, including phosphorus, potassium, sodium, magnesium, sulfur, calcium, iron and zinc. Two tablespoons contain 90 calories, 6 grams of fat, 5 grams of protein and 2 grams of fiber.
The Newest Research Just about everything in their nutrition profile suggests hemp seeds might help protect against heart disease and other ills. But we don't have a lot of research to support what hemp seeds can do. That's because people and food companies have shied away from a food plant that is related to marijuana. When in reality there are no marijuana-like effects to be had from hemp seeds. They are entirely safe.
A Few Tips 1. New to most kitchens, look for recipes using hemp seeds at Vegetarian Times or try this Fruit and Hemp Seed Muesli.