Last week, I gave you the definitive guide to nuts, focusing on the ten most widely available types. Today I give the same treatment to edible seeds. If you’ve ever wondered whether chia seeds are good to eat, or sesame seeds can be legitimate snacks, or flaxseed actually isn’t as good (or bad) as you may have thought, this is the post for you. If you need to choose sides in a long-standing and bitter blood feud pitting the sunflower seed farmers on your mother’s side of the family against the pepita producers on your father’s, this post will help you decide. If your trustafarian friend’s obsession with the industrial applications of hemp is getting on your nerves, this post will give you the tools to analyze his arguments.
As you’ll see below, seeds are nutrient-dense little guys that can really pack in the minerals. Let’s get to it:
Multi-level marketers hawk it. Food manufacturers add a teaspoon of it to juice drinks and double the price. Bulk bins in health food stores across the world stock it. The prominence of the chia seed as a dietary supplement has supplanted its prominence in the “As Seen on TV” market. Should you be eating it?
In an ounce:
11.9 g carbs: 9.8 g fiber
8.7 g fat 0.7 g MUFA, 1.7 g LA, 5.1 g ALA (omega-3), 1.1 g SFA
I’m not gonna lie. The broad range of nutrients you get from just an ounce of chia seeds is impressive.
Chia seed fiber absorbs a lot of water. So much that if you let whole chia seeds sit in liquid, they’ll become gelatinous globules. If you blend the seeds in a liquid, it becomes gelatinous pudding. This is handy for creating dishes with interesting textures, and although no studies show this to be definitively the case, it also indicates prebiotic potential.
Great for thickening smoothies.
The magical health claims, which are overblown and exaggerated. In overweight women, chia seed supplementation increased plasma levels of ALA and EPA, suggesting the successful conversion of short chain omega-3s to long chain omesga-3s. However, chia seed had no effect on inflammatory markers or risk factors for metabolic diseases, and DHA decreased slightly in another study of postmenopausal women. Chia also seems to have no effect on bodyweight (good or bad) or disease risk factors in overweight adults. Chia seeds aren’t miracles, in other words. They’re probably just a decent source of micronutrients, (hopefully prebiotic) fiber, and vegetarian-friendly omega-3s.
The fiber is mostly insoluble, large amounts of which can aggravate IBS and other intestinal conditions.
Short chain omega-3s (ALA from chia, flax, and hemp) cannot replace long chain omega-3s (EPA and DHA from seafood). Conversion from ALA into EPA/DHA is just too inefficient in humans.
Flaxseed gets a bad rap in the ancestral health community. Sure, when it goes bad it smells like paint thinner. Sure, flaxseed oil is actually used as paint thinner. It doesn’t taste particularly good, and the seeds get stuck in your teeth if you’re not careful about thoroughly milling them. The accolades it receives in both conventional and alternative health circles can be cloying, I know. And yeah, the omega-3s aren’t a good replacement for fish fats. But don’t count flaxseed out just yet. As you’ll see, it has some interesting components that may offer unique health benefits — even if you eat plenty of wild salmon.
In an ounce:
8.2 g carbs: 7.7 g fiber
12 g fat: 2.1 g MUFA, 6.5 g ALA, 1.7 g LA, 1 g SFA
Phytic acid is high. It’s a seed, so there’s really no getting away from phytic acid.
If you’ve spent any time in hazy college dorm rooms with towels blocking the space under the door and “Buffalo Soldier” playing on repeat, you’ll have heard about the universal utility of hemp. It makes better, stronger, and more breathable clothing than cotton. It can replace synthetic building materials. It doesn’t use many pesticides. It’ll save the world, man. And, they say, it can even feed it. Yeah? Well, I wouldn’t go quite that far, but hemp seed is a viable food source, certainly edible and pleasantly nutty. How does it stack up nutritionally?
Hemp seeds contain a host of bioactive compounds with potentially beneficial health effects (PDF), including cannabidiol, beta-sitosterol, methyl-salicylate, tocopherols, and unique antioxidants.
Hemp seed is high in phytic acid, like essentially all seeds. A recent study into Italian and French cultivars found a range of 64.9-74.1 g phytate/kg hemp seed (PDF), or 6.49-7.41 g/100 g.
Allergy (though uncommon).
Pumpkin seeds, or pepitas, are my favorite. Roasted with a light dusting of sea salt and eaten as snacks, scattered across a salad for texture and crunch, lightly toasted and ground up to make a green mole sauce? It’s a versatile little seed. I have fond childhood memories of scooping out the innards of Halloween jack-o-lanterns, separating the seeds, and roasting them in the oven. That pumpkin and squash seeds get lumped into the same category whichever online nutritional database you use, though, has always irked me. But that’s what I have to go on. Don’t blame me if you rely exclusively on delicata squash seeds for your magnesium and they end up having very little.
In an ounce:
4.2 g carbs: 1.8 g fiber
13.9 g fat: 4.5 g MUFA, 5.6 g linoleic acid (LA), 2.4 g SFA
8.5 g protein
Most research has looked at the health effects of pumpkin seed oil rather than the pumpkin seeds themselves. Still, since the seeds contain the oil, any benefits the oil confers should also apply to seed eaters.
Pumpkin seeds are quite high in phytic acid, with one recent study placing the content at 4.2 g phytate/100 g pumpkin seed. If that holds for other pumpkin seeds, you’d be looking at close to a gram of phytate in an ounce. Somewhat reassuring is the fact that adult women who added pumpkin seeds to their diet saw an increase in iron status
We don’t normally think of sesame seeds as a snack item because trying to snack on a baggie of sesame seeds doesn’t really work. They’re too small to chew and they don’t handle like larger seeds. Instead, sesame seeds are garnishes. They’re sprinkled over dishes as finishers and flavorers. If you want to use larger amounts of sesame, you grind it up into tahini paste, like in hummus, or mix the whole seeds with molten sugar to form clusters or brittle. As a result, sesame seeds rarely contribute much caloric bulk to a person’s diet. Is that a mistake?
In an ounce:
3.3 g carbs: 3.3 g fiber (all fiber)
17.4 g fat: 6.8 MUFA, 0.1 ALA, 7.2 LA, 2.6 g SFA
5.8 g protein
17% vitamin B1 (thiamine)
10% vitamin B3 (niacin)
40 grams a day of sesame seed improved clinical signs and symptoms in patients with knee osteoarthritis.
Sesame paste (just ground seeds) improved triglycerides and triglyceride/HDL ratios.
Growing up a young lad in Maine, my summertime roaming radius was a dozen miles across. And if you wanted to find me, you followed the sunflower seed hulls I spat out at a steady clip all day long. Eating sunflower seeds and spitting out the hulls is about as American as apple pie. Actually, seeing as many Native American tribes grew and harvested sunflowers right along with their squash, corn, and beans, sunflower seeds are way more American than apple pie. And even though they exist, let’s ignore those deviant monsters who eat the entire shell along with the seed inside.
In an ounce:
5.7 g carbs: 2.4 g fiber
14.6 g fat: 5.3 g MUFA, 6.5 g LA, 1.3 g SFA
5.9 g protein
35% vitamin B1 (thiamine)
15% vitamin B3 (niacin)
22% vitamin B6
66% vitamin E
Sunflower seeds possess considerable levels of antioxidant compounds which may reduce oxidative stress.
Rich in phytosterols, which lower cholesterol. Huh? Isn’t that a benefit? Maybe, but there’s also considerable evidence that elevated plasma levels of phytosterols — which are kinda like the plant version of cholesterol — are associated with atherosclerosis and heart disease. Meanwhile, save for studies in animals (who are largely herbivorous and habitual consumers of a high-phytosterol diet), phytosterol supplementation has never been shown to reduce the incidence of heart disease or inhibit atherosclerosis in people. My inclination is to avoid “phytosterol-enriched” products and inordinate amounts of phytosterol-rich foods like sunflower seeds. Normal amounts of seeds should be fine.
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.