Seeds are packed with nutrients. In their most natural form, seeds are tiny embryonic plants inside of a shell. Besides a little sun, water and TLC, seeds contain all of the nutrients they need to grow. The outer layer is packed with minerals, vitamins, and plant-based chemical compounds known as phytochemicals, while the endosperm is filled with high-quality protein, complex carbohydrates and heart-healthy fats. This makes them a wonderful addition to our well-balanced diet! So the question is, which heart-healthy seeds should you choose?
Variety is key. All seeds provide protein and fiber, but each type of seed has something special it brings to the table. Consider incorporating some of these seeds into your diet:
- Chia seeds: Remember Chia Pets from the 1980s? Chia pets are made out of chia seed sprouts, and that is exactly what we are talking about here. It turns out that these friendly seeds are a great source of fiber. A one-ounce serving of chia seeds can pack in 11 grams of fiber, which adds bulk to stool, slows down glucose absorption and removes cholesterol from the body, all of which contribute to preventing cardiovascular disease. Chia seeds are particularly high in soluble fiber, the type of fiber that helps clean cholesterol out of the body.
- Flax seeds: Flax seeds are rich in lignans, phytochemicals that provide antioxidant power and may reduce the risk of heart disease. Chia seeds also have lignans, but flax seeds provide you with a bigger bang for your buck when it comes to lignans. Flax seeds are also a good source of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a plant-based form of omega-3 fatty acid. Our bodies use this form of omega-3 fatty acid a bit differently than the form we get from fish, but your heart will thank you for including both forms in your diet. In order to get the nutrition benefits of flax seeds, it is best to eat ground flax seed rather than whole flax seed. Since it is hard for our bodies to digest the entire seed, grinding the seed allows for more efficient absorption.
- Hemp seeds: These seeds share a relation with natural varieties of cannabis, but don’t worry, they do not contain a concentration of THC to impart any psychotropic effects and are perfectly legal. Thankfully this is so, because they are a remarkable source of plant-based omega-3 fatty acids and protein for their tiny little size. They provide 11 grams of protein in 3 tablespoons. Although it is not a complete protein on its own, in comparison to other plant proteins, it is one of the highest sources of essential amino acids. In regards to the healthy fats that it contains, studies have shown that hemp seed oil can lead to a lower ratio of total cholesterol to HDL cholesterol, serving as a beneficial food to include in a heart healthy diet.
- Sunflower seeds: Not only do sunflower seeds make for a tasty snack, they are also filled with nutrients that are good for your heart. These seeds serve as a good source of Vitamin E, which acts as an antioxidant in the body. Particularly important for the prevention of cardiovascular disease, Vitamin E prevents free radicals from oxidizing cholesterol, thereby reducing the risk for atherosclerosis.
- Pumpkin seeds: Magnesium is an important mineral used to maintain bone health, enable energy production, maintain the health of the nervous system, control inflammation and control blood sugar. It just so happens that pumpkin seeds are a wonderful source of magnesium and just ¼ cup provides 47 percent of its recommended daily value. Pumpkin seeds are also a good source of zinc, which plays a part in many cellular functions such as growth, development and DNA synthesis. Considering that the majority of zinc is contained within the shell, be sure to eat the entire seed for the greatest benefit.
- Sesame seeds: In addition to Vitamin E, these seeds contain high levels of fiber and phytosterols, all of which reduce blood cholesterol. Tahini is a paste that is made from ground sesame seeds and is commonly found in Greek, African, Turkish and Middle Eastern foods. One study shows that eating 2 tablespoons of tahini a day for six weeks resulted in a 10 percent decrease in triglyceride levels and an increase in HDL cholesterol (the good kind). Whether you eat the seeds or the paste, consider adding sesame seeds to your meals for a heart-healthy boost.
Beth Cotter earned her Master’s in Public Health from University of Michigan School of Public Health, and recently completed her rotation as a Dietetic Intern with the UM Cardiovascular Nutrition Team.
The University of Michigan Samuel and Jean Frankel Cardiovascular Center is a top-ranked heart and heart surgery program among Michigan hospitals. To learn more, visit our website at umcvc.org.