Seeds get a whole lot of superficial love around here, but not much specificity. A quick review of our archives reveals that we have yet to really delve into what we include as one of the five basic Primal staples. Meat, vegetables, fruit, and nuts have all been discussed ad nauseum (with more to come, no doubt), but seeds? Barely a peep. Oh, sure, while I constantly rail against the non-edible seeds (well, technically they can be eaten, but never in the raw state) – cereal grains and legumes – and question whether we should be eating certain seeds at all, I think I’m overdue for a celebration of (or a critical look at) all the other edible seeds to which I allude so often.
Nuts are technically seeds, but most of us don’t think of them as one and the same. For our purposes, nuts are the larger, denser edible seeds; seeds are the smaller ones that require considerably more work to actually eat in their natural state (sunflower seeds, anyone?). With that in mind, I imagine that Grok probably ate more nuts than seeds, simply because he (we) was a creature of convenience and nuts represented a more obvious source of calories. I don’t make seeds a huge part of my diet, but I do eat them.
Let’s take a closer look at edible seeds…
Also known as pepitas (from the Spanish pepita de calabaza, or “little seed of squash”), the diminutive seeds from pumpkin and squash are big players in Mexican cuisine (moles, especially) and make excellent snacks. Their slightly sweet flavor profile goes well with a light dusting of sea salt, and – though they are completely edible in the raw state – roasting enhances the nuttiness. Depending on the amount of heat applied during roasting, however, the process can oxidize the fairly sensitive polyunsaturated fats that make up the bulk of the pepita’s fat profile. There’s no good way to know if the commercial brand of roasted pumpkin seeds have been heated properly, so you may want to buy raw (or harvest your seeds directly from the squash and pumpkins you buy) and roast yourself. Just keep the heat low and slow, and you should be fine (more on general roasting/seed processing later). Those high amounts of PUFA mean eating pumpkin or squash seeds in massive quantities on a daily basis is probably a poor choice. The PUFA in question is nearly all Omega 6, and a consistently hefty dose of pumpkin seeds could throw your Omega 6-Omega 3 ratio way off.
1/4 cup raw pumpkin/squash seeds:
Carbs: 6g (1.35g fiber)
Omega 6: 7.14g
Omega 3: 0.06g (not even worth mentioning!)
The wild sesame plant hails from Africa and India, with the first domesticated versions popping up in the Indus Valley around 2000 B.C. Sesame seeds are tiny things often sprinkled on finished dishes: Asian stir fries, salads, even bagels (gasp!). Hummus is usually made with sesame paste, also called tahini. Chattel slaves brought native sesame seeds over the Middle Passage and introduced them to the US. Sesame oil is a regular condiment in many Asian countries, oftentimes sitting right next to Sriracha and fish sauce on the table. As you can tell, sesame is pretty much everywhere now, and its distinctive flavor (especially in the oil) can really make or break a dish. Too much, and you run the risk of overpowering the rest of the food, while none at all makes achieving certain flavors impossible. Sesame seeds also contain sesamin, a lignan with (potentially) a number of incredible health benefits (if you listen to its enthusiasts – perhaps a more comprehensive post is in order for this one).
1/4 cup sesame seeds
Carbs: 8.5g (4g fiber)
Omega 6: 7.68g
Omega 3: 0.12g (why do I even bother?)
Sunflower seeds are incredibly popular. Baseball players chew them, truck stops stock them, and bird watchers use them to lure their subjects. Who doesn’t like sunflower seeds? They’re delicious, fun to eat (removing the shell with your tongue is an art), and full of vitamin E (one of our favorite antioxidants and a strong ally in the fight against free radicals). They’re loaded with minerals like magnesium and manganese (actually, most seeds have good amounts of minerals), but a word of caution: sunflower seeds have a fair amount of PUFAs. I support the consumption of seeds in general, but I also have to stress moderation because of the PUFA content. It’s usually not a big deal, especially because shelling the seeds usually slows down the eating, but when people start getting into sunflower seed butter the amount of PUFA being ingested can get very high very quickly. Consider yourself warned.
I’ve heard chia seeds mentioned in the forums, and I thought it would be worth it to take a quick gander. Before Chia Pets got popular, chia seeds were eaten throughout Mesoamerica for thousands of years. The Aztec and Mayan civilizations were big fans of the seed, even using chia seeds as tributes to the ruling classes. Chia is actually a bit like flax in a few ways. For one, chia is high in Omega 3 fatty acids – ALA in particular. But just like I do with flax, I think the potential benefits of ALA in the diet are vastly overblown. The “purpose” of ALA consumption is to convert it into DHA/EPA, but humans simply don’t have the hardware to make the conversion worthwhile. Most of it just gets wasted. That’s not to say chia isn’t a viable food option; if it tastes good and falls within the PB, I say go for it. Just don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re taking care of all your Omega 3 fatty acid requirements with a few tablespoons of chia seeds each day.
I’m not a huge fan of flax. For me, it’s a murky subject. It’s been linked to an increased risk of prostate cancer, but it’s also been linked to protection from prostate cancer. Confusing, right? I don’t consider it an essential part of anyone’s diet, but I’m leaning toward it being generally safe in moderation. If you’re a vegetarian or unable to get your hands on animal sources of Omega 3 fatty acids, a seed like flax might be a decent option, but for this grass-fed-meat-eating, fish-oil-swilling, antioxidant-rich-vegetable chomping audience, I don’t see why flax needs to be part of the dietary equation.
I expect to get a healthy contingent of hippie commenters, all extolling the considerable benefits and virtues of hemp, dude! Joking aside, hemp does seem like a pretty cool plant. Hemp clothing is said to be incredibly light, durable, and airy, and the plant can be used to make paper, building materials, fiber, and even ropes – but are the seeds good eats? They seem pretty similar nutritionally to chia and flax seed, except that the Omega 6/Omega 3 profile is switched around. I say have at them, but only with moderation (gee, I’m starting to sound redundant!).
Vegetation has an evolutionary stake in the survival of its seeds. If the purpose of all life is to reproduce (which is the foundation of evolutionary biology), the seeds of reproduction must be protected, at least until they can do their thing. This is why grains and legumes have lectins, toxins, and other built-in defense mechanisms – to dissuade animals from consuming them. It’s also why fruit tastes so damn good; the plants “know” that the seeds will be passed, unharmed and still completely viable, in the stool when an animal munches on the fruit. Edible seeds also have toxins, but in lower quantities, and they can hit sensitive people especially hard. To avoid this, you can either roast or soak your seeds.
Commercial roasting operations use high temperatures, possibly too high. In fact, the Weston Price Foundation recommends dehydrating seeds at ultra-low temperatures (no more than 160 degrees F). I’ve always recommended eating raw commercial nuts and seeds (to avoid possible oxidation from commercial roasting practices), but I’d even go a step further and soak your seeds before roasting/dehydrating them. That way, you’ll get rid of the phytates and other toxins while avoiding the possibility of heat oxidation. Besides, I think soaked, dried seeds and nuts actually taste a whole lot better than raw.
To sum up, seeds are last – and possibly least – on the list of Primal-approved foods. You don’t want to make them the bulk of your diet (there’s no way Grok ever did), but they can’t be beat for portability and convenience. Pumpkin taste the best, in my opinion, while sunflower and hemp seem to be a little too Omega 6-intense for me. I’ll still eat the odd sunflower seed, but not every day. Any of them are fine in moderation, though, so don’t worry too much. Just mix ‘em with some other approved Primal nuts, maybe a bit of bittersweet high-cacao dark chocolate, and some dried fruit for your next excursion.
Any edible seeds I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments section!
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.