Seeds are a specific type of plant product, different from beans (kidneys beans and black beans; take a look at our article “The Healthiest Beans“), pods (like peas), and grains (like rice and wheat; see our article “Healthiest Rice Varieties“). Seeds refer to a small embryonic plant that also consists of a seed coat for protection, and some energy (food) to get it growing (1). Because seeds are nutritional powerhouses intended to grow a plant, they contain a wealth of nutritional benefits for us when we eat them.
Seeds have been credited with aiding weight loss, fighting free oxygen radicals (which can cause cancer and other diseases), regulate blood sugar levels, and provide an abundance of nutrients and proteins. Proteins from seeds can replace meat-based proteins, and provide the building blocks (called amino acids) that we need to maintain our muscles and organs (2). From pumpkin seeds to chia seeds, each has its own set of benefits. But which are the best, nutritionally speaking?
1. Pumpkin seeds
Pumpkin seeds are often seasoned (salty or spicy), chewy, and delicious. They are also very good for your health, and are used as a treatment for irritable bladder, fever, nausea, gastritis and a host of other health problems (3). Most commonly consumed in Greece, pumpkin seeds have different effects based on whether they are raw or roasted (4), but no matter how you consume them, they should definitely be part of your diet. Pumpkin seeds have anti-inflammatory, anti-thrombotic (reducing blood clot formation), and anti-diabetic properties, and have a wide range of antioxidants in them as well (5).
Pumpkin seed antioxidants can “scavenge” or get rid of free oxygen radicals, which are a by-product of our metabolism (breaking down our food into usable components that become energy). These radicals go on to cause cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, arthritis, and other diseases (6). Removing these radicals from the body prevents the detrimental health problems they can cause (7).
2. Caraway seeds
Caraway has been used historically for treatment of a variety of conditions, from pneumonia to weight loss (8). However, the real treasure of this biennial plant is hidden in the fruit … Or rather, in the seeds. Caraway oil (made from processed seeds) has been used to treat symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and as an anti-colic for infants and young children. Caraway oil has proven itself to be an effective antioxidant and antimicrobial as well (9)!
Caraway has been used as an obesity treatment, and a recent study observing the effect of caraway on active and overweight women once again suggested possible natural therapeutic to aid weight loss (10). Recently, caraway essential oil (processed from seeds) has even been noted to have some potential liver injury healing properties (11). Beyond this, the healthy dose of antioxidants in caraway seeds also serves as potential disease fighters (12), as discussed in the previous section.
3. Chia seeds
Different studies have found the numerous health benefits of these small, black, bead-like seeds. They can improve your blood lipid profile, have antimicrobial properties, and can even stimulate your immune system, making it more able to fight off future infections (13). Of course, they are also loaded with those healthful antioxidants that we’ve covered for other seeds as well. They are also high in protein (14), which means healthier muscles and tissues, and leaving you feeling fuller for longer after a meal.
These little seeds are also high in omega-3s (you don’t have to eat fish to boost your levels of these healthy fatty acids), and vitamins including niacin, thiamine, and riboflavin (15), all of which contribute to a healthy body system. Among their benefits, these fatty acids can reduce cholesterol (16), which can reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Your risk of diabetes and high blood pressure are lowered by consumption of chia seeds as well, as shown in clinical studies. Finally, chia seeds are high in fiber and low in carbohydrates (17), making them a healthy fiber supplement that is tasty in yogurt, bars, or drinks!
4. Sunflower seeds
Sunflowers seeds have been used to treat a variety of ailments in the past, and whether consumed as seed oil or raw/baked seeds, they contain a number of vitamins and minerals including vitamin E and B1, magnesium, manganese, copper, selenium, folate, and tryptophan (18). All of these vitamins are essential for maintenance of body functions and health.
In addition to being high in monounsaturated fats, these seeds are also high in disease-fighting antioxidants (19) (primarily tocopherols, compounds with potential antioxidant properties that can prevent cardiovascular disease risk and cancer (20)). The catch with these seeds is that they are high in carbohydrates and calories (21), meaning the healthiest way to consume these seeds is in small doses.
Flaxseed products including oil, raw seeds, and derivative products are available in most health food markets (22). Being extremely high in fiber, flaxseeds are great for your digestive system, and can boost you over your recommended 25–30 grams of fiber each day (just 100 grams of flaxseeds contains 27 grams of fiber, your entire daily requirement!). Of course, because they’re so high in fiber, these seeds should be eaten in moderation, and preferably with a large glass of water.
But, don’t let that turn you off from these seeds. Like many seeds in this article, they’re very high in antioxidants. Flax meal can even increase the shelf-life of certain products like breads, increase the viscosity (stretchiness) of pasta, which makes it more delicious, and increase stability of dairy products like ice cream (23).
Among the many health benefits of flaxseed, the flour has also been shown in animal studies to increase spine and bone mineral density (24). Flaxseeds have also been credited with reducing the risk of coronary artery disease and other cardiovascular diseases when consumed (25).
6. Pomegranate seeds
Touted as being high in vitamin C and potassium, as well as healthful antioxidants, these seeds are packed with healthy qualities. In fact, there’s a reason why the seeds are healthier than drinking purified juice, and it goes far beyond the fiber content of the seeds. To see the full nutrient content of pomegranates, check out our article “10 Healthy Fruit and 10 Not So Healthy.” The seeds are high in healthy fatty acids, vitamin E, and sterols (26), all of which are essential for a healthy body.
In both cell and animal research, pomegranate seed oil has shown anticancer, anti-inflammatory, and antidiabetic properties that are likely due to the many micronutrients contained in the seeds (27). In mice, pomegranate seed oil reduced their type 2 diabetes risk, and reduced the rate of weight gain when supplemented in their diet (28).
7. Sesame seeds
Sesame seeds are high in fatty acids and different oils that are part of a healthy diet. Some of the primary nutrients contained in sesame seeds include calcium, potassium, magnesium, phosphorous, polyphenols (antioxidants), and fiber (29).
Sesame seed oil is available as an over-the-counter nutritional supplement, and is used for a variety of conditions. Sesame oil can reduce oxidative stress (30), relieving damage to the gastric mucosal lining of your digestive system, partially due to its high antioxidant content. Sesame oil has also been associated with some protection against gastric ulcers (31), though the reason why is still being researched. Sesame seed oil has also been used to reduce the symptoms and pain associated with osteoarthritis, with promising results (32).
8. Hemp seeds
This is a relatively new addition to many “healthy seed” lists in nutritional guidelines. Hemp products are becoming widely known for their versatility and usefulness in many industries, and nutrition is no exception. Hemp seeds are smaller than many other varieties (33), but high in protein and amino acids, which are good for building and maintaining muscle.
The antioxidant content of these seeds is high (34), and they have been shown to be a good source of these powerful disease fighters. Hemp seeds also are a desirable crop because of their sustainability and nutrient content (some seeds have as much as 30% oil and 25% protein content, measured by weight) (35). Hemp seeds can be consumed as whole or hulled seeds, and are used in oils, flours, and protein powder (36). High in fatty acids and protein (37), they are a nutritious staple whose popularity is just beginning to rise.
Whether vegetarian or not, seeds provide a clean source of many nutrients that help our bodies run smoothly. The cautionary note with many seeds (particularly those seeds that are highest in fiber, like flaxseeds) is to ensure you initially eat them in small quantities with plenty of water. Once you’ve acclimatized to them, seeds have a high level of protein and fiber with low levels of saturated fats and oils (unlike many meat-based sources of protein). These are all the same rules as working you way up to beans (see our article “The Healthiest Beans“).
When it comes to non-pharmaceutical ways to improve your health, your diet is the best option! Seeds are a source of macro and micronutrients, and a powerhouse of energy in a small quantity. They’re easy to pack (don’t need refrigeration or special short-term storage), and versatile (making great toppings for yogurts, in loaves and breads, and even in drinks). Check out the bulk section of your grocery store to see the many varieties of seeds you can add to your diet today.