You know the expression: Good things come in small packages. The same can be said of seeds, with their make-up of protein, fiber, healthful fats and antioxidants, the powerful substances that destroy free radicals and reduce our risk of inflammation, diabetes, heart disease and some types of cancer. All of the seeds discussed here have these health benefits and more. From old standbys to newer favorites, I dug through the data to give you the fun facts on these superfoods.
Sunflower seeds provide copper, selenium and manganese, nutrients you might not hear much about but important for your overall health. They are also a great source of vitamin E, one of those antioxidants. They are pretty inexpensive compared to nuts, which offer similar nutrients. Sunflower seeds are high in (healthful polyunsaturated) fat and calories if you go beyond a one-ounce (1/4 cup) serving, so consider buying them in the shell to slow you down!
Sesame seeds are higher in monounsaturated fats and phytosterols than other seeds. Phytosterols are plant compounds found to lower both total and LDL-cholesterol; these and monounsaturated fats both lower the risk of heart disease when part of a healthy diet. Sesame seeds are also a good source of copper, a cofactor needed for antioxidants to function. Use them to make tahini and hummus, and stir-fry them with your favorite vegetables.
Pumpkin seeds have fewer calories per ounce than most other seeds, while still delivering a fiber and protein punch. They are a good source of zinc, and have been linked to muscle and prostate health. Roasted pumpkin seeds, pepitas, make a great snack and a crunchy addition to salads.
Flax seeds are rich in plant-based omega-3 fats and a great source of soluble fiber; they have been linked to improved bowel function as well as reduced blood pressure. Be sure to grind them, or buy them ground as flaxseed meal, to obtain these health benefits.
Chia seeds are higher in fiber than most other seeds (10 grams/ounce) and swell when mixed with water, making them filling and a great addition to everything from smoothies to meatballs. Like their fellow seeds, they are a good source of protein and healthful fats.
Hemp seeds are a particularly good source of protein, and thought to be a complete protein, making them a nutritious alternative to animal protein. The protein, along with their high fat content, contributes to a longer feeling of fullness after eating. Hemp seeds are also high in potassium, vitamin E and zinc. Add them to smoothies or baked goods.
Nigella seeds have displayed both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, and there is evidence they help manage asthma, high blood pressure, rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes. They are popular in Indian cuisine, contributing a tasty kick to meats and vegetables.
If you are wondering which seeds to choose, try a variety to increase both health benefits and enjoyment!
Melissa Wdowik, PhD, RDN is an assistant professor at Colorado State University in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, and director of the Kendall Reagan Nutrition Center.