Grab a fistful of any plant seed, and you're holding small packages chock-full of fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals, says Sharon Palmer, R.D., author of the new book The Plant-Powered Diet: The Lifelong Eating Plan for Achieving Optimal Health Beginning Today (The Experiment, 2012). “People don’t think about grabbing seeds as a snack or as a food source. People think of them as bird food more than anything else.” But ignore them at your own health risk. In addition to being nutrient-dense, she adds, seeds are full of phytosterols, compounds in plants that are as effective as prescription statins at lowering cholesterol.
You need to eat just 1 ounce, about 2 tablespoons’ worth, of the following seeds every day to reap their nutritional benefits, says Palmer. “And they’re such easy snacks!” she says.
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Pumpkin seeds are high in protein, iron, and zinc, and they’re one of the best sources of magnesium, a mineral that helps stabilize blood pressure, build bone strength, and even reduce stress. A French study found that men with the highest levels of magnesium in their blood have a 40 percent lower risk of early death than those with the lowest levels.
Pumpkin seeds are healthy for men for one other reason: They’re high in phytosterols, plant-based chemicals that help alleviate symptoms associated with having an enlarged prostate, such as urinary difficulties. Toast your own pumpkin seeds or eat them raw, or grind them into a meal that you can add to breads, pancakes, or other baked goods.
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Eat sunflower seeds, ward off sun damage. Just half a cup of sunflower seeds provides more than 100 percent of your daily requirement for alpha-tocopherol, the most active form of vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant that protects cells from free radicals and UV damage. They’re also a great source for the antidepressant phenylalanine, an amino acid the body turns into the brain chemical norepinephrine, which keeps you alert and focused. You can just eat them raw, but why be boring? Look for sunflower-seed butter at the grocery store, and use that to replace peanut butter on toast and sandwiches and in your baking.
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Chia seeds are an incredible fiber resource with nearly half (11 grams) of the amount you need every day in a single ounce. They also contain 18 percent of your daily calcium requirement—more than triple that of milk—which helps your bones, and they have some of the highest levels of plant-based omega-3 fatty acids of any seed. Chia seeds have no flavor, so you can add a tablespoon to any food you wish to without altering its flavor. You can even drink them. Add a tablespoon of chia seeds to 8 ounces of water or juice, and you’ll notice they turn a bit gelatinous. This helps your body digest them better. If you don’t like drinking the gel, use it in your baking, suggests Palmer. Soak 2 tablespoons of seeds in ¼ to ½ cup of water, let them sit for 10 to 15 minutes, and use the gel to replace 25 percent of the fat, oil, or eggs in baked goods.
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More than just a decoration on the sesame chicken you just ordered, sesame seeds are incredibly rich in calcium, magnesium, iron, and zinc, says Palmer. Since they’re so small, sesame seeds aren’t great for snacking, but hummus is—and one of the main ingredients in that tasty spread is tahini, a paste made from ground sesame seeds. Or buy a jar of tahini and spread it on flatbreads or pitas, as you would peanut butter.
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Hemp is one of very few plant proteins that supply you with all the essential amino acids, acids your body can’t produce on its own to build muscle and create protein. The fatty acids in hemp seeds also boost your immune system, and the crop itself is highly sustainable, growing as fast as 10 feet in 100 days and naturally requiring very few pesticides. Along with chia and flax seeds (another of Palmer’s favorite seeds), hemp seeds are an omega-3 powerhouse, rich in ALA, a fatty acid shown to ward off heart disease. “I recommend that people eat at least one serving of those seeds every day,” Palmer says. Hemp seeds have a slightly nutty flavor and taste good sprinkled into oatmeal, cereal, yogurt, or smoothies.
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Addicted to pomegranate seeds? Then give papayas a try. Popular in Hawaiian cuisine, the seeds are often ground up and used like pepper in salad dressings and other foods, Palmer says. The seeds are rich in oleic and palmitic acids, two fatty acids thought to ward off cancer, and in traditional Chinese medicine, a teaspoon of papaya seeds is often given to detoxify the liver.
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