Nuts and seeds are essential elements of a healthy plant-based diet and are often considered superfoods. But nuts tend to steal the limelight, while edible seeds are often overlooked as ingredients to include in everyday meals.
Seeds are kind of like poor stepson: They don’t get a lot of love or attention, says Keith Ayoob, a registered dietitian-nutritionist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx. They’re harder to find on supermarket shelves, and people don’t know them well. Additionally, edible seeds often go unevaluated in clinical and epidemiological studies, according to research in a 2022 issue of Advances in nutrition. That means their health benefits garner no headlines.
This is unfortunate because seeds are nutritional powerhouses in themselves. They’re all good sources of protein, fiber, healthy fats, and antioxidants, but different edible seeds vary in their macro- and micronutrient content. For example, a study in a 2021 issue of Asian Journal of Medical Sciences compared the nutrients in five different seeds: The researchers found that sunflower seeds have the highest protein and fat content, while pumpkin seeds have the highest moisture content and greatest amounts of potassium, and pumpkin seeds watermelon have the highest amount of calcium (who knew?!).
Seeds and eggs are similar in that they both contain stored nutrients that can later form a future planter animal in the case of eggs, notes Janet Colson, a registered dietitian and director of the nutrition and food science program at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro. . The stored nutrients are very concentrated because the seeds contain very little water. They contain a lot of nutrients in a very small space.
Here’s a closer look at how seven seeds compare nutritionally, with ideas on how to incorporate them into your meals:
Small but mighty, chia seeds are believed to have originated in Central America, where they were an integral part of the ancient Aztec diet. You need a hefty dose of protein, unsaturated fats, calcium and zinc, plus plenty of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA, a plant-derived omega-3 fatty acid) and fiber. Chia seeds are high in soluble and insoluble fiber, which help lower high blood pressure and cholesterol, says Wendy Bazilian, a San Diego-based nutritionist and public health consultant. They absorb up to 12 times their weight in water, which is why they’re great for making chia seed pudding. Alternatively, you can sprinkle the seeds on salads, yogurt or cereal or blend them into smoothies, salad dressings or batter for muffins or breads.
These tiny seeds have been consumed in various forms for more than 5,000 years. Traditionally used as flaxseed oil in Egyptian cooking, flaxseeds are high in fiber and are good sources of protein, calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, selenium, folate and vitamin K. They also contain ALA and antioxidants such as lutein and zeaxanthin, which are good for eyesight, notes Bazilian, author of the Eat clean, stay slim series. The snag: Flaxseeds have a husk that the human digestive system won’t process unless they’re ground up, he says. Once ground, they look like wheat germ and can be added to smoothies, oatmeal, plant-based burgers and other foods, adding a hint of earthy flavor and a little crunch.
Native to Central Asia, hemp seeds are having a moment due to their association with marijuana, but these edible seeds won’t get you high, says Bazilian. But they might give your health a boost because they’re high in protein, as well as potassium, iron, magnesium, manganese, zinc and folic acid, as well as ALA. They have a softer texture than most seeds, which means you can eat them anytime (they often come hulled). They can also be used in smoothie bowls, cereal, bean or rice dishes, muffins, cereals or pancakes.
People often don’t think of poppy seeds unless they’re baked into bagels, breads, sandwiches, or muffins. That’s a shame because these little black seeds are versatile—you can add them to hot cereal, soups, casseroles, or toppings. They are rich in protein, fiber, calcium, magnesium, potassium, zinc, selenium, vitamin E and other nutrients. Keep in mind: Poppy seeds contain chemicals that some drug tests will find as similar to the drugs being tested for, says Ayoob. In fact, the US Department of Defense issued a warning in February 2023 to military service members to avoid consuming poppy seeds for this reason.
Not only are they protein powerhouses with 20 grams in about a cup, but pumpkin seeds (also known as pepitas), which originated in Mexico many thousands of years ago, also contain fiber, iron, magnesium, potassium, zinc and selenium. These larger, olive-colored seeds have a pleasant crunch, making them great for snacking. They have a personality, says Bazilian, who recommends putting them in a homemade mix or drizzling them over pumpkin soup or yogurt or using them in breading fish or chicken. You can also roast fresh pumpkin seeds with different spices, such as paprika or turmeric, suggests Dolores Woods, a registered dietitian and nutritional supervisor for the Nutrient Program at UT Health Houston School of Public Health.
Used to make tahini, a Mediterranean condiment, sesame seeds are a good source of protein, fiber, calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, zinc, selenium, ALA, and antioxidants. Their toasted or roasted nutty flavor really makes them stand out: They go well with marinades, stir-fries, or rice dishes; black sesame seeds can be used as a breading for fish or poultry. Pro tip: Measure them over the sink because if you spill them, you’ll never stop finding them, says Ayoob. A note of caution: Some people are allergic to sesame seeds, which is why in January 2023, the Food and Drug Administration began requiring packaged food manufacturers to label sesame as an allergen on products that contain it.
A good source of fiber and protein, sunflower seeds also contain iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium, zinc and selenium, among other micronutrients. They are also a rich source of vitamin E and folic acid, Bazilian notes. For a little crunch and nutty flavor, you can add the hulled seeds to yogurt, oatmeal, or salads. They also come prepackaged on their own or in trail mixes, as a snack. Many people eat them salted, Woods says. It’s best to opt for unsalted if you’re watching your salt intake.
Due to their healthy fat content, these seeds can spoil quicker than you might expect. Ayoob suggests, if you’re not going to use them right away, putting them in the fridge or even the freezer, to extend their shelf life.
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