Seeds and their Nutritional Benefits
Seeds are tiny powerhouses filled with nutrients, and they offer our body a wealth of benefits when we eat them. They are a great source of plant-based protein, fiber and energy. They also contain healthy monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats and many important vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, and when consumed alongside a healthy diet they can help reduce blood sugar, cholesterol and blood pressure. I’m also a huge fan of seeds because they leave a low environmental footprint on the earth.
I’m going to walk you through the nutritional benefits of some of my favorite seeds and how they can easily be incorporated into your snacks and meals. After reading this, you will see why seeds deserve a place in everyone’s pantry.
Chia seeds have been consumed for thousands of years, but they have garnered a reputation in the weight loss arena for being fat-busters. Looking at the scientific evidence, chia seeds do appear to cause early satiety – that feeling of fullness after eating – than similar caloric intakes of fibrous foods. Caveat: chia must be ground to reap the benefits. In a large randomized control trial, those who ate ground chia seeds lost more weight, lowered their waist circumference and had lower levels of inflammation (measured by a test called C-reactive protein) than those in the control group. Chia seeds soaked in water for half an hour form a gel that is a great egg or oil substitute in cooking, but chia seeds are great in yogurt-based breakfasts or desserts and are excellent for boosting levels of omega-3 and those fatty acids that are vital for brain function.
Flaxseeds provide gut-strengthening fiber with a heart-healthy blend of fats as one of the best sources of plant-based omega-3 fatty acids. The fibers in flax contain a unique type of plant chemical called lignans– molecules found in plant-based whole foods that have profound effects on hormone-mediated cancers such as breast and prostate. In fact, a teaspoon of flax per day has been found to reduce the risk of breast cancer by up to 30%, as well as prevent the spread of these diseases throughout the body. As if that’s not enough reason to consume these tiny seeds, an incredible prospective, randomized, placebo-controlled trial (the gold-standard in scientific research) showed that flaxseed is a potent anti-hypertensive, even better than any single pharmaceutical intervention, and was able to lower blood pressures of people with chronic hypertension, thus reducing the risk of strokes and heart attacks by up to 50%.
Though technically hemp seeds are nuts, I’m including them here as they are such great all-rounders. They are high in both protein and fatty acids, providing omega-3 and omega-6 in good amounts, which are necessary for joint and brain health. Hemp seeds are a source of vitamin E, which is often used to quell dry and itchy skin conditions, and the oil has been used topically in China for over 3,000 years. Another great reason to increase your hemp seed intake is that one of its amino acids, arginine, is converted in the body to nitric oxide, which causes blood vessels to relax and can reduce blood pressure - this lowers your heart disease risk. The protein levels in hemp seeds rival those of beef and lamb, so if you’re looking for a plant-based source of protein, look no further. Hemp seeds are versatile, and can be consumed raw or roasted. They have a lovely nutty flavour to them, which can enhance leafy salads or temper down sweet smoothies.
Dried or fresh, pomegranate seeds have overtaken goji berries in the health food stakes, being used to help beat cancer cells in men with prostate cancer. High in vitamin C as well as fiber, pomegranate seeds are a low-calorie snack considered a “superfood,” because of the many benefits they provide. Pomegranate seeds contain a high number of antioxidants, referred to as polyphenols, including tannies, flavonoids, and anthocyanin, which help protect the body against inflammation and free radical damage. You can eat pomegranate seeds all by themselves. sprinkle them onto desserts, mix in yogurt or oatmeal, or really sweeten a salad!
“Pepitas,” the Spanish for “little squash seeds” are those flat, dark green roasted treats otherwise known as pumpkin seeds. Beneficial components of pumpkin seeds are the plant sterols, tocopherols, and magnesium, the latter of which is key in the prevention of type 2 diabetes. You might know that diabetes is an independent risk factor for heart disease and strokes, so this is a big deal for cardiovascular health. Similarly to other seeds, pumpkin seeds have high levels of omega-3 and -6, which contribute to heart and brain health, whilst also lowering levels of ‘bad’ cholesterol and improving blood flow. Pumpkin seeds are my go-to snack when I’m out and about, as they are so readily available and quickly get on top of those food cravings. Fun fact: they are known to be high in tryptophan, which our bodies convert to serotonin and melatonin, helping us to feel happier and relaxed.
Sesame oil has been used as a conduit in joint injections for over a century, being used to target osteoarthritis as part of gold-based therapy. However, you don’t need to be injecting sesame to benefit. It has potent anti-inflammatory properties and just a quarter of a cup per day over a couple of months has been seen to reduce verbal pain scores in arthritis patients otherwise suffering awful daily joint pain by as much as 60%. Additionally, a spoonful of sesame seeds a day can have benefits to cholesterol levels as well as blood pressure, thought to be due to the chemical sesamin. I like to sprinkle sesame seeds across healthy rice and quinoa dishes, but you can always hide them away in smoothies if you’d prefer.
Sunflower seeds are seasonal superheroes - they are high in vitamin E, which as we know is great for dry skin conditions; they also have 109mg of calcium in a cup, so they are also good for promoting bone health. Sunflower seeds are made up of about 20% protein, so they are also great for those looking to boost their protein intake from plant-based whole foods. They are a great crunch addition to a salad, or mixed in granola to increase the protein intake. A word of caution: processed seeds commonly have added salt and are cooked in canola oil, which can increase inflammation in the body, raise blood pressure and also leach calcium from bones, so always choose raw, unsalted seeds.
If you’re a licorice fan, consider adding fennel seeds to your diet. Whilst the whole fennel bulb is edible, the seeds are easily added as a spice or condiment to flavor dishes. High in selenium, fennel seeds can help with the production of particular immune cells that fight infection. There is actually not a single body system that doesn’t benefit from fennel seeds. From cardiovascular health due to potassium, to metabolic support from vitamin B6, and anti-cancer properties, there is not much fennel seeds can’t do. Women (and some men!) will be pleased to hear that fennel can help to reduce the symptoms of premenstrual syndrome: think less bloating, fewer mood swings, and even less painful cramps. TIP: Try a fennel tea to help wind down at the end of the day!
Caraway, or Persian cumin, is an aromatic cousin of fennel which just inches ahead in terms of protein content and fiber. It is a veritable storehouse of minerals and vitamins, being high also in phytonutrients which are responsible for lowering cholesterol levels and acting as antioxidants, which have a range of benefits to health. Furthermore, caraway seeds soaked in water has been used as a treatment for flatulence and indigestion, or is used in dental care to flavor mouthwashes or pastes due to its sweet peppery taste as an alternative to mint. It has even been shown to reduce muscle soreness after exercise! Cabbage soups and leafy green salads are always improved by caraway.
It might not look like it would fall under the ‘seed’ category in the supermarket; however, avocado seeds are definitely just that. More stone than seed, these mighty pits are superfoods in their own right and would be put to much better use than being thrown in the trash. Once you’ve scooped out the delicious avocado flesh, there is much left to be enjoyed. Alongside all the fiber and healthy fats, the seeds have been shown to have antibacterial and antifungal properties, which is why they are so often used in traditional medicines to prevent and treat infections. They have been shown to stop the growth of Candida (yeast) infections, and work to prevent the spread of Clostridium bacteria. On top of this, avocado seeds are purported to have anti-hypertensive properties, relaxing blood vessels and protecting the cardiovascular system against heart disease. Avocado seeds can be dehydrated in the oven at 250°F for two hours, and then milled in a food processor until a fine powder forms. This can be sprinkled into sauces, blended into juices, or even steeped in hot water with loose leaf teas for the ultimate antioxidant hit.
I hope this gives you some insight into the wide-range of benefits these seeds can have on our health. Whilst many have high fat content that scares people away, remember it is the good type of fat that our body needs. Our brain is made up of over 60% fat and we need it for brain health, absorbing nutrients, energy, cell growth, and so on. Versatile and flavorsome, seeds can be consumed all by themselves or they can add a new dimension to a favorite dish or drink.
XO - Serena