sunflower seeds: benefits, nutrition, and recipes

Jill Bridges, SATI STAFF

Sunflower seeds are a popular snack and have been for hundreds of years. Other sunflower food derivatives such as sunflower oil and butter market themselves as healthy alternatives to common foodstuffs. Whichever way you choose to eat it, sunflower seeds are a healthy choice for protein and other nutrients in many people’s diets. They’re found nearly everywhere, it seems, and in a variety of flavors as well as shelled or unshelled. Initially a staple food of the Native Americans, sunflower seeds are now a booming aspect of the food industry.

Even if you don’t eat sunflower seeds that often, you should know about some of the great health properties that they have. Holistic healing and alternative medicine often involve dietary changes that assist the body with common ailments by supplementing lacking nutrients. It’s widely known in the medical community that Americans consume far too much fat and sodium and insufficient amounts of necessary vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Sunflower seeds offer a number of these and more, so let’s take a closer look at what makes them so good for you.

1. Nutritional content

Nuts and seeds tend to be a little more calorie dense than other plant foods. Sunflower seeds sit at about 170 calories per ounce, but those calories come with a decent amount of protein, healthy fats, dietary fiber and carbs. Although plant protein can’t contribute every single one of the 20 amino acids the human body needs, supplementing your protein intake with plant protein is an important aspect of balancing your diet[1,2,3].

The real stars of sunflower seeds are the vitamins and minerals they contain. Minerals like magnesium, selenium, copper, zinc, phosphorous and iron are found in significant concentrations in sunflower seeds. In fact, the amount of phosphorous and selenium are so high that eating far too large a portion of sunflower seeds can be toxic. The iron in sunflower seeds is what’s known as nonheme iron. Heme iron, which is the opposite, is found in animal sources and is much easier to absorb due to its higher bioavailability. Nonheme iron intake can be made more efficient by including animal protein and citrus fruits into your diet alongside it[4,5,6]. And vitamin E, also known as tocopherol, is found in sunflower seeds too and is an important vitamin for a wide range of bodily functions yet is lacking in most American diets. It’s also an important antioxidant. Folate, which is metabolized into folic acid, is found in sunflower seeds too and is an extremely important vitamin for pregnant women[7,8].

2. Sunflower seeds and weight

Despite being a plant based “health food,” sunflower seeds still contain a significant calorie and fat content per serving. Most of the calories are from fat, which does not exactly make a good case for weight loss. Try to avoid unnecessary flavoring and additives because these only inflate the calorie content even more. As with most nuts and seeds, moderation is the key to taking advantage of sunflower seed nutrition. Taking roasted dry sunflower seeds on a hiking trail is a more efficient use of their calories than snacking on salty barbecue flavored sunflower seeds at the office[9,10,11,12].

The insoluble dietary fiber found in sunflower seeds can keep you feeling fuller longer and promotes healthy digestion. Some of the weight you carry is actually waste material sitting in the body, so healthy digestion is important for clearing unnecessary blockages and metabolizing other nutrients more efficiently. Feeling fuller longer can help you avoid overeating and unnecessary snacking, so sunflower seeds may also help you lose weight by supporting healthier eating habits. Of course, even the fat content of sunflower seeds is mostly healthy unsaturated fats, which have a lot to do with heart health. So does soluble fiber, which along with insoluble fiber makes up what nutritionists refer to as “dietary fiber.” Let’s take a closer look at these heart health implications[13].

3. Diabetes and heart disease

Omega-3 fatty acids are commonly associated with fish but are found in other sources, one of which is sunflower seeds. These healthy fats are good for clearing out the cholesterol in your blood that creates arterial plaque buildup. Not all cholesterol is bad, though; the type of cholesterol that causes heart disease is known as LDL, or Low-Density Lipoprotein. High-Density Lipoprotein, or HDL, is the good type of cholesterol that supports heart health. Sunflower seeds contain no cholesterol, but the omega-3 and unsaturated fats will help balance blood lipids, which is important for heart health. Sunflower seeds contain some saturated fat, but this is not a problem as long as they are consumed in moderation[14,15,16].

Sunflower seeds contain other nutrients that support heart health. Soluble fiber lowers LDL and triglyceride levels, while vitamin E lowers blood pressure. Sunflower seeds also have a limited impact on blood glucose, making them a good snack for people with diabetes. Sunflower seeds have a positive impacts on heart health and weight if eaten with minimal processing and in healthy amounts, and people concerned about cardiovascular disease and diabetes stand to gain much from the healthy fats and soluble fiber found within them[17,18].

4. Cancer-fighting antioxidants

One of the best features of sunflower seeds is that they are packed full of aging and cancer fighting antioxidants. They are especially high in selenium, one of the rarer minerals that is not needed in large amounts but is crucial to metabolism, cell reproduction and bone health. Tocopherol, or vitamin E, is vital to forming healthy red blood cells and nerve function, among other things. Four types of tocopherol exist, but the two found in sunflower seeds are alpha and beta tocopherol. These are more commonly found in European diets, whereas American diets contain more gamma-tocopherol. Alpha tocopherol is the type best metabolized by humans[19,20,21,22].

Sunflower seeds also contain special plant compounds known as phytosterols. These belong to a family of plant compounds known as phytosteroids, which are very similar to cholesterol in structure and are theorized to have antioxidant effects and heart health benefits. Research is still being performed, so the scientific community remains unclear as to the extent of these claims[23].

5. Soothing the mind and body

Sunflower seeds have natural properties that mend both the mind and body. Magnesium is an important mineral that can contribute to depression and mood swings when not sufficiently consumed. Magnesium has long been understood to have a soothing effect on the nerves and create an overall healthier mindset when increased to beneficial levels. A breakfast or snack of sunflower seeds can provide a boost of energy to power through the rough morning start or last few tedious hours of the day[24].

Vitamin E is just as important, having a known effect on bone, muscle and joint health. People who suffer from rheumatic pain should increase their intake of vitamin E. It’s also good for the immune system, eyes, hair and skin. Vitamin E helps to keep you looking younger by repairing skin cells and improving the body’s overall ability to heal itself. Sunflower seeds contain plenty of vitamin E and magnesium to balance your physical and mental health[25,26,27].

6. Seed protein and muscle training

Plenty of athletes and bodybuilders swear by nuts and seeds as an efficient way to gain protein and other nutrients they need for their workouts. Sunflower seeds contain plenty of special nutrition that weightlifters and gym goers can benefit from. Protein and vitamin E are everyday nutrients that need to be consumed in larger amounts for people who work out a lot, because they are necessary for building muscle. Sunflower seeds also contain a special type of fat known as omega-6 fatty acids. Specifically, sunflower seeds contain linoleic acid, which is very active in repairing muscle tissue[28,29].

The effect that sunflower seeds have on blood flow and the heart are also important for athletes. Sunflower seeds lower the levels of blood lipids that clog arteries and contain vitamins that increase blood flow and lower blood pressure. Nutrients found in sunflower seeds also protect the heart from free radical damage that is produced naturally during exercise, making them a great post-workout snack[30,31].

7. Other benefits

Sunflower seeds have plenty of reported benefits that are still being investigated. An important one is that sunflowers seeds supposedly reduce the frequency of hot flashes in women experiencing menopause. Like much of its views on alternative medicine, clinical science seeks further proof that sunflower seeds affect women with menopause, but there is already evidence that vitamin E rich foods can have this effect. At the very least, women experiencing menopause provide plenty of anecdotal evidence that these seeds help, which lends credibility on its own[32,33].

Sunflower seeds also have a very positive effect on liver function, once again thanks to their vitamin E content. Your liver is one of the most vital organs because it constantly works to clean your body and fight environmental damage alongside storing energy for you. Liver disease is a harsh killer, and preventative measures like positive dietary choices can help you avoid the problem entirely. Toxins and fat can build up in the liver to cause liver disease, so eating food that helps the liver to remove waste is a good preventative measure[34].

8. Sunflower foods

Sunflowers, known scientifically as the Helianthus family, are native to North and South America. However, of the approximately 70 known species, only three of them are native to South America. Either way, the Native Americans used sunflower plants in many forms, the most commonly known being roasted seeds. Interestingly, sunflower seed oil is one of the healthier cooking oils, commonly used like olive oil in Europe. The seeds can also be made into a type of butter, like peanut butter. Sunflower seed butter is often marketed as a healthier alternative to peanut butter[35,36,37,38].

It’s not uncommon for people not to know that the rest of the sunflower plant is edible. The young sprouts are very high in vitamins and minerals and are an excellent vegetable. The leaves can be mixed with other salad greens, steamed or boiled. Sunflower buds are most edible when cut off early, as the grown petals contain a bitterness that many find unpalatable. Some culinary experts will use small amounts of sunflower petals with other flavors to make the most of its distinct bittersweetness[39,40].

9. Recipes

There are far more recipes for sunflower seeds or other sunflower foods than we can count, but here are three to give you a quick start. First, simply roasting shelled sunflower seeds and salting or spicing them to your own taste helps you control what flavors you like best while cutting unnecessary sodium and calories. To do this, simply preheat your oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit, place the seeds on a pan and bake them for 30 to 40 minutes. The seeds will turn a delightful golden brown color when they are done[41].

For hikers and active people on the go, this nutless granola recipe is a must-have. Mix a cup each of chopped raw pecans, chopped dried apples, raisins, and de-shelled sunflower seeds with half a cup of chopped raw almonds. For flavor, add cinnamon, clove and nutmeg. This heart healthy and diabetic friendly treat will give you plenty of energy while out and about[42].

For sit-down meals, this broccoli salad recipe is great additions that includes plenty of fiber and vitamins. This recipe starts with three cups of broccoli florets and two cups of grated broccoli stems. Mix these with half a cup each of sunflower seeds, golden raisins and chopped green onion. For dressing, add two tablespoons of red wine vinegar and a cup of mayonnaise. Mix well and keep refrigerated[43].

10. Risks and dangers

Sunflower seeds are so packed with nutrients that eating them in large amounts can actually be dangerous. Two of the minerals you need to watch out for are phosphorous and selenium. While both of these minerals are often overlooked, eating too much of either can be toxic. One ounce of sunflower seeds contains over 20 percent of your necessary intake of selenium and over 10 percent of your intake of phosphorous. Selenosis, the clinical name for too much selenium in the body, can cause brittle hair and nails, skin irritation, fatigue and it can be fatal in some situations. Too much phosphorous can lead to kidney damage and a process known as calcification, where calcium that builds up and begins to harden the organs. An ounce of sunflower seeds is easy to go through, and eating too many servings too often can lead to these conditions[44,45].

Outside of mineral toxicity, other dangers include allergies and increased fat and sodium intake. Many people add fat and sodium to the already hefty fat content of sunflower seeds to make them more palatable, which is why we recommend making your own or at least buying low sodium or raw sunflower seeds. Sunflower seeds are pretty healthy, but modern branding necessitates conscious consumer choices[46,47,48].

11. More nuts and seeds to try

For those of you who either don’t like sunflower seeds or wish to try other nuts and seeds, there are some good options that fill the nutritional role of sunflower seeds and then some. Regarding nuts, pistachios and almonds shine with their heart healthy vitamins and fiber. They’re also great sources of protein and antioxidants. Some people enjoy de-shelling sunflower seeds as a habit, and deshelling pistachios fills even this niche[49,50].

In terms of seeds, your best replacements are going to be flaxseed and linseed. Flaxseed contains comparable protein, fiber, and vitamins, while linseed will be especially helpful for your liver. Use linseed and almonds together with sunflower seeds to make the most of these liver benefits. Plenty of other nuts and seeds can make fine replacements, just be sure to avoid particularly high fat nuts. Keep these to healthy portions as well, since nuts and seeds as a source of food are higher in fat and calories and other plant foods[49,50].

The sati line

Sunflowers offers a number of benefits beyond their seeds. All parts are edible and contain fantastic phytochemicals, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that help your body recover from physical and mental stress. The nutritional content found in sunflower vegetables and seeds improves heart health, is safe for people with diabetes and prevents cancer. Sunflower seeds also keep you looking young with healthy hair, skin and nails. When combined with plenty of exercise and smart dietary choices, sunflower seeds can be a part of a balanced lifestyle.

While there is a risk of mineral toxicity in very large portions of sunflower seeds, they’re still mostly safe and an effective use of calories. Plenty of recipes exist to help you make the most of sunflower seeds. Most negative aspects of sunflower seeds come from overeating, so find recipes that help control your serving sizes. The various forms of sunflower foods available also increases the likelihood of finding something to your taste. If you’re trying to include more protein or rare minerals in your diet, sunflower seeds are a sure way to go.

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