Nuts About Seeds? From Chia to Flax and Hemp, What Seeds to Sow
Sure, they've been lurking on the shelves of health food stores for decades, but suddenly, it seems, seeds have been pushed into the limelight as the latest (and littlest!) superfoods. “Seeds give you a lot of nutritional bang for your buck,” says Alissa Rumsey, RD, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "You don't need to use much in order to get a good dose of protein, fiber and other nutrients." Here, the seeds to sow in your diet — and the all the good things you’ll reap when you do.
These tiny powerhouses are packed with omega-3 fatty acids, as well as protein and fiber. In fact, a single tablespoon provides a whopping five grams of fiber. By simply mixing a couple of tablespoons into your morning yogurt, oatmeal or smoothie, you’ll be nearly halfway to your daily fiber goal by the end of breakfast. (Word of caution: If your diet is currently a little light on fiber, build up to that amount gradually to avoid feeling bloated and gassy.) "Chia is great because it doesn’t really add much taste at all, but can thicken the texture of foods it’s added to," says Martica Heaner, PhD, adjunct assistant professor of nutrition at Hunter College, NYC. "When it hits liquid, it swells up to create a gel-like consistency." That's what makes it a natural for concocting a healthy pudding — simply add some chia seeds to almond milk and let it set in the fridge for a couple of hours to thicken.
Like chia, flax seeds are rich in fiber and omega-3 fatty acids. "But flax seeds are hard and aren’t broken down by the enzymes in our gut," explains Heaner. "You need to grind them into flax meal in order to access the insides and the release the omega 3’s and other nutrients." You can also buy pre-ground flax meal, but since the omega 3’s oxidize when they’re exposed to air, it’s best to eat your flax as soon after grinding as possible. Flax has a nutty taste, making it a great addition to salads, oatmeal, pancakes and waffles.
"The unique thing about hemp seeds is that they contain all of the essential amino acids," says Rumsey. Essential amino acids (which are building blocks of protein) cannot be produced by the body and must be ingested. Meat, chicken and fish contain all the essential amino acids, but hemp is one of the rare plant foods that does—making it a great choice for vegetarians. They don't add a lot of flavor, but they're big enough to add a nice crunch when you toss them into a salad or sprinkle them on top of toast spread with hummus.
Once Halloween has past, put that pumpkin to good use. Scrape out the seeds, toss them in a little olive oil and sprinkle with spices (like cumin, paprika or black pepper), then roast in the oven for 15 to 20 minutes. The seeds contain several important micronutrients — such as iron, potassium, zinc, magnesium and phosphorus. And if you eat them whole, the shells give you a good boost of fiber too.
Pomegranates are bursting with antioxidants — you just have to be patient enough to extract all the seeds from the rind in order to get them. But they are worth the effort. Not only are they a vibrant red color, but they have a tart, juicy flavor that makes them a natural addition to a kale salad, sautéed butternut squash or a yogurt and granola parfait.
Sally Wadyka is a Boulder, Colorado-based journalist who writes about nutrition, health and wellness.