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food for thought

Some research suggests that chia seeds can help lower blood levels of LDL cholesterol while raising HDL (good) cholesterol.Thinkstock/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Q: Are seeds a good alternative for people with a nut allergy? Do they have the same health benefits as nuts do?

Plenty of evidence suggests that a regular intake of tree nuts protects against heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes. Studies have also shown that adding nuts to a healthy diet helps prevent risk factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, insulin resistance and inflammation.

When it comes to seeds, though, research is more limited. Still, seeds are thought to deliver similar health benefits thanks to their nutrient profiles.

Like tree nuts (e.g., almonds, cashews, walnuts), seeds are rich in plant protein, heart-healthy fats, fibre, vitamins, minerals and bioactive plant compounds.

Whether you have a nut allergy or not, the following seeds are worthy additions to your diet. (Note: Even though seeds aren’t related to tree nuts, it is still possible for people to be allergic to seeds.)

6. Pumpkin seeds

Also known as pepita, pumpkin seeds offer protein, fibre, iron, zinc, potassium and plenty of magnesium (191 milligrams per one quarter cup). They’re also an outstanding source of manganese, a mineral that’s needed for a healthy immune system and strong bones.

Sprinkle pumpkin seeds, raw or toasted, over soups, salads and oatmeal, toss into granola and mix into guacamole. Crush pumpkin seeds for a flavourful crust for fish, and enjoy them toasted as a snack.

5. Sunflower seeds

One quarter cup of these little seeds provides 80 per cent of a day’s worth of vitamin E, an antioxidant that shields brain cells and immune cells from free radical damage. Sunflower seeds are also an excellent source of folate, magnesium and selenium.

Preliminary evidence suggests that a daily intake of sunflower seeds, as part of a healthy diet, may help improve LDL (bad) cholesterol, triglycerides and blood sugar levels in women with type 2 diabetes.

Add sunflower seeds to hummus, stir into risotto, include in trail mix, sprinkle over roasted vegetables and blend into salad dressings. Use sunflower seeds to make dukkah, a delicious Egyptian spice blend comprising toasted nuts, seeds and spices (you can also make a nut-free version).

4. Sesame seeds

These tiny seeds are an excellent source of calcium (175 milligrams per two tablespoons) and provide decent amounts of iron, magnesium and zinc.

Sesame seeds have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties and have been found to lower blood pressure in randomized controlled trials.

Make tahini with sesame seeds, or sprinkle toasted sesame seeds over stir-fries, salads and soups. In Canada, sesame is considered a major allergen and must be labelled on food packages.

3. Hulled hemp seeds

Two tablespoons of these little brown seeds offer six grams of protein, 140 milligrams of magnesium and a hefty amount of immune-supportive manganese. You’ll also get two grams of alpha linolenic acid (ALA), a plant-based omega-3 fatty acid. (Women require 1.1 grams of ALA daily; men need 1.6 grams.)

Toss hemp seeds into salads, sprinkle over avocado toast, stir into yogurt, add to overnight oats and blend into smoothies and protein shakes. Add hemp seeds to muffin, cookie and energy ball batters.

2. Chia seeds

Two tablespoons of chia seeds deliver seven grams of fibre, 127 milligrams of calcium and 3.6 grams of ALA, along with magnesium, iron, zinc and selenium.

Some research suggests that chia seeds can help lower blood levels of LDL cholesterol while raising HDL (good) cholesterol. Chia seeds are also being studied for their potential effects on lowering blood sugar.

Use chia seeds as you would hemp seeds. Or make chia “pudding” by adding the seeds to dairy or plant-based milk, vanilla and a little maple syrup. You’ll find lots of recipes online.

1. Flaxseeds

Like hemp and chia seeds, flaxseeds are an outstanding source of omega-3s, providing 3.2 grams of ALA per two tablespoons. Flaxseeds also contain lignans, phytochemicals thought to reduce the risk of breast and prostate cancers.

Studies conducted in people with hypertension have found that a daily intake of flaxseed (30 grams twice daily) helps lower blood pressure.

In order to gain the nutritional benefits of flaxseeds, they need to be ground before consuming. Use ground flax to make a vegan egg replacer (one tablespoon flax mixed with three tablespoons water).

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is director of food and nutrition at Medcan. Follow her on Twitter @LeslieBeckRD

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