There is an old saying that “great things come in small packages”–a way of expressing that the size of something does not always properly indicate its value. When it comes to edible seeds and their role in our diet, this surely holds true. Don’t let their diminutive size fool you: “In many cases, the nutritional make-up of seeds rivals that of nuts,” says Julie Andrews, MS, RDN, The Gourmet RD. “Each seed has a unique nutrition profile, but they’re all similar in the sense that they’re very nutritious.”
So it’s a shame that nuts get the lions-share of research dollars and attention in our kitchens. Not only are pumpkin, sesame, and other seeds dense in minerals, healthy fats, antioxidants, and other nutritional goodies, they are also delicious and undeniably versatile in the kitchen. So with that said, here are the ones to sprinkle into your diet every which way.
You might be surprised to learn that sesame seeds are a good non-dairy source of calcium with a tablespoon providing about 10 percent of the daily need. “Bones store calcium and it’s an essential mineral for maintaining bone mass,” notes Andrews. Sesame seeds also supply good amounts of copper, a mineral needed for proper energy production and neurotransmitter synthesis.
Sesame seeds with the husk intact are referred to as unhulled and are golden in color, while those with the husk removed are considered hulled and are off-white. Andrews says that the unhulled variety will have a bit more calcium. There is also a black variety of unhulled sesame seed which has a deeper flavor and more crunch as well as higher antioxidant levels. When sesame seeds are blended into a creamy spread you get trendy tahini.
Tame hunger with: Chia Seeds
What these seeds lack in size they make up for with impressive amounts of soluble fiber. When the soluble fiber in chia mixes with fluids in your stomach, it turns gellike which slows down food digestion to create a sense of fullness. So, chia could be a way to help put the brakes on overeating. “Soluble fiber also slows the absorption of sugar to help better regulate blood sugar levels,” Andrews adds. Small but mighty chia seeds also supply a bounty of heart-healthy omega-3 fat and bone-benefiting phosphorus. Chia is available in both black and white hues, but important nutritional differences have not been shown.
Drop blood pressure with: Pumpkin Seeds
The only time you eat these seeds shouldn’t be when pulled from your Halloween pumpkin. Often called pepitas when they’re hulled to reveal their green interiors, crunchy pumpkin seeds are a great way to boost your intake of magnesium, an often under-consumed nutrient that has been linked to improved blood pressure numbers which may translate into a lower risk for cardiovascular events like stroke. Magnesium may increase the production of nitric oxide–a signaling molecule that relaxes blood vessels. The salubrious seeds are also a reliable source of vitamin K, which we need to make proteins involved in blood clotting and bone metabolism. As with other seeds and nuts, select unsalted pumpkin seeds to keep your sodium intake in check.
Build muscle with: Hemp Seeds
These nutty-tasting seeds or “hearts” from the hemp plant are lauded for their plant-based protein–about 10 grams in a three tablespoon serving–to aid in strengthening and building lean body mass, a key part of maintaining fat-burning metabolism and preventing injuries as we age. Unlike many plant foods, the protein contained within hemp is considered “complete” in that it provides all the essential amino acids needed for bodily functions like muscle-building. The nutritional wealth of hemp seeds includes magnesium, omega fatty acids, and iron to help keep you feeling energized. It’s important to know that hemp seeds contain virtually none of the psychoactive compound THC found in marijuana.
Fortify heart health with: Flax
Inexpensive yet highly nutritious flaxseed is a leading source of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fat considered to be important for heart health. “A small amount of ALA is converted into the fats EPA and DHA, which have a host of benefits, such as improved cardiovascular and brain health,” explains Andrews. Like chia, flax is a good source of soluble fiber which confers more heart protection by helping to keep cholesterol numbers out of the danger zone. Flaxseeds are best consumed ground because the hard shell of the whole seed resists digestion.
Boost Brain Power with: Sunflower Seeds
Sunflower seeds are a stand-out source of vitamin E. Research suggests higher intakes of this fat-soluble vitamin with antioxidant efficacy can help delay aspects of cognitive decline like memory loss associated with aging. More good news: vitamin E from food sources may help lessen the risk for certain cancers like colon, breast, and prostate. Both unshelled and shelled sunflower seeds are available with the latter being a more convenient way to get them into your diet.
Seeding Your Diet.
It’s easy to incorporate seeds into your diet. Andrews recommends sprinkling them on salads, roasted vegetables, soups, oatmeal, and yogurt bowls, or mixing into smoothies, granola, and baked goods like muffins. “They can also be ground up and used as a coating for fish.” Use ground flax as a binder in veggie burgers and meatballs. And the gel-forming nature of chia seeds can be exploited to create healthy jams and puddings.