Performance Plate

The Athlete's Guide to Superfood Seeds

Many seeds are packed with protein, healthy fats, and vitamins—but some are more hyped than others. Photo: DMP1/iStock

The Athlete's Guide to Superfood Seeds

Cutting through the hype about chia, flax, hemp, pumpkin, and sesame seeds

Yeah, superfoods come in and out of favor like fashion trends. A few years ago, we were all about acai, as this Hopes&Fears article points out, and now we’re really into kale and quinoa. It makes sense, when you consider the word “superfood” is simply a marketing term with no scientific definition behind it. 

Trendy or not, however, certain foods will always be nutrient powerhouses. As such, those foods can help promote recovery after a tough workout, and scavenge cell-damaging free radicals. That’s where these five seeds come in.

Note: All nutritional content details are per one ounce and based on a 2,000 calorie diet.

Chia Seeds

Protein: 4.4 g (9% daily value)
Fiber: 10.6 g (42%)
Phosphorus: 265 mg (27%)
Manganese: 0.6 mg (30%)
Calcium: 177 mg (18%)
Fat: 8.6 g (13%)

Loaded with healthy fats, chia seeds have been all the rage since around 2009, when Chris McDougall’s bestseller Born to Run linked the Tarahumara Indians' super-human running ability to their benefits. Mayans and Aztecs used chia seeds, which come from a flowering plant in the mint family, as a staple energy source. In fact, the word “chia” itself derives from Mayan words for strength. 

Chia seeds haven’t been shown to improve athletic performance when eaten during a workout. But experts believe there’s still a place for them on the endurance athlete’s plate. "Chia seeds are a complete protein source, meaning that they contain all essential amino acids," says Kayleen St. John, director of nutrition education and programming at Natural Gourmet Institute. "Adding chia to a post workout smoothie or meal would provide complete protein needed for muscle repair and recovery." The seeds also contain a high concentration of omega-3 fatty acids, which can help reduce inflammation.

How to use them: Sprinkle in yogurt, blend in smoothies, or bake with muffins. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, chia can also be used for pudding and homemade energy gel.

Flaxseeds

Protein: 5.1 g (10% daily value)
Fiber: 7.6 g (31%)
Manganese: 0.7 mg (35%)
Copper: 0.3 mg (17%)
Fat: 11.8 g (18%)

Flaxseeds—which come from one of the oldest fiber crops in the world, flax—contain a large amount of lignans, a nutrient present in fruits and vegetables that is thought to fight a slew of diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, hormone-related cancer, and osteoporosis. 

Flaxseeds also contain a large amount of the antioxidant manganese which is known to help fight free-radicals, particles that can cause cell damage. Studies have shown that athletes who receive antioxidant supplements do show a reduction in oxidative stress, so scientists recommend consuming antioxidant-rich foods.

"Buy whole flax seeds and grind yourself before eating to ensure the seeds’ healthy fats stay fresh and don’t go rancid," St. John says. They also should be refrigerated to protect their valuable omega-3 oils from oxidation at room temperature.

How to use them: Blend in smoothies, bake in bread, or sprinkle on yogurt, cottage cheese, or applesauce. For a more experimental approach, try replacing one egg with 2 tablespoons of flaxseed and 2 tablespoons of water in any recipe.

Hemp Seeds

Protein: 10.3 g (21% daily value)
Fiber: 0.9 g (4%)
Zinc: 3.2 mg (21%)
Magnesium: 179 mg (45%)
Fat: 12.6 g (19%)

Yes, hemp is a variety of the cannabis plant, and no, it will not get you high. It will, however, pack in more protein per serving than any other super seed. 

Similar to flaxseed, hemp seeds have a nutty taste and most of the fat in these comes from omega-3 fatty acids. "Hemp seeds do not contain any phytates, which means that the minerals in hemp seeds are easier for the body to absorb," St. John says. High magnesium levels support energy production and bone health, and hemp seeds also contain a large amount of vitamin E, which scientists recommend for endurance athletes to prevent exercise-induced oxidative damage. 

How to use them: Sprinkle them over a nutty salad, add them into a yogurt parfait, or blend them into a smoothie.

Pumpkin Seeds

Protein: 5.2 g (10% daily value)
Fiber: 5 g (20%)
Zinc: 2.9 mg (19%)
Magnesium: 73.4 mg (18%)
Fat: 5 g (8%)

Of all the superfood seeds, pumpkin seeds are the best grab-and-go snack option. "Pumpkin seeds are a good source of magnesium, a mineral the majority of Americans do not consume enough of," St. John says.  "Magnesium plays a role in many biologic processes important to athletes, in particular including protein synthesis, muscle and nerve function, and blood pressure regulation."

Unfortunately, snack-ready means easily overeaten, so keep it in check: Only a handful of pumpkin seeds contains about 130 calories, and their five grams of fat per serving, unlike other superfood seeds, contains a relatively low amount of omega-3 fatty acids. 

How to use them: Roast a handful at home and add your spices of choice, or buy snack-ready bags at the store (but beware of too much added salt). They can also be baked into muffins or bread.

Sesame Seeds

Protein: 4.7 g (9% daily value)
Fiber: 3.9 g (16%)
Manganese: 0.7 mg (35%)
Zinc: 2.0 (13%)
Copper: 0.7 mg (35%)
Fat: 13.5 g (21%)

People often overlook this as a simple bagel flavor, but sesame seeds are very high in essential minerals: manganese for bone health, zinc for immune health, and copper for energy and collagen production (endurance athletes especially need collagen protection for their overworked joints). They're also a good source of iron. "Iron is needed to make hemoglobin which is responsible for delivering oxygen to muscle tissues," St. John says.  "Inadequate iron can lead to headaches, upset mood, and severe lethargy and fatigue." 

Hard working athletes are particularly susceptible to zinc deficiency, which can cause fatigue and decreased endurance. Unfortunately, like pumpkin seeds, the 13.5 grams of fat per serving of sesame seeds doesn’t contain too much omega-3 fatty acids, so keep your serving size in check.

How to use them: "Look for black sesame seeds for a nuttier flavor and a more potent source of antioxidants," St. John says. Baking into bagels and breads is how they’re typically used, but homemade salad dressing or sesame seed nut milk can easily incorporate the seed into any meal. They can also be combined with soy sauce and tossed with steamed veggies.

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