Proteins and omega 3 fatty acids are highly sought after nutrients these days, and there are many ways to include them in your diet. Animal sources offer a complete array of the amino acids and more bioavailable Omega 3 fatty acids, but many people seek alternative options, whether for dietary or ethical choices, or simply just for variety. Seeds offer solid amounts of protein and omegas, and can be a boon for those interested in steering away from meat or needing a change.
Flaxseeds have been around for a while, but there are a few important things one should know when using them. They come from the flax plant, or linseed, which is used to make linen. The seeds are usually golden or brown and are high in dietary fibers. They are used most often in baking and can be especially useful in gluten free baking. You will likely see them in stores sold whole seed or ground, also referred to as flax meal. Being a seed, the oils are fairly fragile and do not withstand high heat. Flax oil is sold too, but I feel you get the most benefit from the ground seeds. You should never cook with or heat flax oil as the essential fatty acids are too fragile. The best option is to buy the whole seed and grind them into a meal yourself, as needed. Eating the seeds whole does little for you, and are mostly passed through your digestive system. One bag will last you a long time, so I recommend storing it in the freezer to preserve the oils and prevent rancidity.
The recommended daily amount is 1-2 Tablespoons per day. This one ounce serving (equal to about one tablespoon) carries with it 150 calories, almost 8 grams of fiber, 6.5 grams of ALA, roughly 6 grams of protein, and 12 grams of fat. What’s more, they contain the nine essential amino acids. (Remember, the essential aminos are the ones we need but our body cannot make on its own- meaning they have to come from the diet.) You can mix them in easily into smoothies, yogurt, oatmeal, soups, and sauces. Sprinkle them over salads and mix them in to homemade protein bites or energy balls. As I mentioned, they are wonderful for gluten free baking. While you can just replace a portion of the flour called for in your recipe with flax meal, know that adding in a small amount to alternative or gluten free recipes provides that all important binder. Flax replaces xantham gum in gluten free flour mixes, and still delivers health benefits in the process.
Now chia seeds are a more recent popularity. They offer a similar health profile to flaxseeds. One ounce contains around 140 calories, 12 grams of fiber, 5 grams of ALA, almost 5 grams of protein, and 9 grams of fat. Chia seeds contain almost all the amino acids, missing just a few. But they do have the nine essential aminos that our bodies get from food. They hold water very well thanks to their high fiber content, and create a type of gel when used with liquid. This makes them a good addition to smoothies, and now you see why there are so many chia seed pudding pins on pinterest too! Did you know you can even make your own hair gel with chia seeds? It’s true! Chia is used as an energy source for athletes or those who live a very active lifestyle. Their high fiber content helps sustain energy levels throughout the day, avoiding those dips in blood sugar that leave us needing to eat just to keep going. They also promote digestive regularity.
One recommendation prior to eating chia seeds would be to soak them briefly. This softens the external bran layer of the seed and allows the body to access the nutrients more efficiently. Hence, let me again reference the chia seed puddings! Once soaked, you can actually use all those vitamins, nutrients, and antioxidants that make it one heck of a health food. Their ability to hold water contributes to you being able to digest those nutrients while the seeds are passing through your system, but it also stays in your system a little longer, keeping you satiated and energized.
Hemp seeds are a slightly different nutritional powerhouse. These guys come from the hemp plant, but not the same variety as marijuana. The amount of THC in the seeds is too low to create any kind of effects that one would see from the recreational drug. Eaten as a seed, they are a fantastic source of protein. Like flaxseeds, they offer all the amino acids, including the nine essential amino acids. This makes them a complete protein.
A serving of Hemp seeds, about 1 ounce, has 120 calories, 4.5 grams of fat, less than a gram of fiber, 8 grams of protein, and around 3 grams of Omega 3 fatty acids. Notice I said omega 3s, but with flax and chia I said ALA. The available source of omega 3 that our body needs comes from DHA and EPA. DHA and EPA are derived from ALA, alpha linoleic acid. ALA is the precursor, but our bodies are not very efficient at converting ALA to DHA and EPA. Enzymes are required for this conversion, and things such as gender, age, health, and weight all play a role in how well our body can utilize the ALA. Hemp provides us with a bioavailable source of DHA and EPA, whereas the other two seeds require converting. Hmmm, this one is sounding better already.
It’s true though that it actually contains less fiber than flax and chia. However, we tend to get a lot of fiber in our diets if we eat plenty of veggies. And current research has reflected that high fiber is not always the best approach for everyone. (Remember how we are all unique and therefore require unique approaches to dietary protocols?) So hemp is a viable source of protein and omegas, but how is it used best?
Hemp obviously is delicious added to salads and as a topping on meals. Sprinkle over fresh steamed broccoli or mix it with roasted winter squash. Like the others, you can blend it in to oatmeal, granolas, smoothies, soups, and protein bars. Replace nuts in a recipe with hemp seeds- https://www.loveandlemons.com/nut-free-hemp-seed-kale-pesto/ And like nuts, try making your own hemp milk. It’s a great dairy free option.
Flax and hemp are fantastic replacements for breadcrumbs for those of us who are gluten free and or following a grain free diet. Pizza crusts, crackers, date bars, … Or simply use them a little bit at a time in your standard recipes just to boost their nutrition a little more. Clearly the possibilities are unlimited!
Personally, I use flax and hemp more frequently than chia. Flax goes in to all of my alternative flour and gluten free baking, and hemp just gets eaten as is! I love it sprinkled on top of cucumber slices with a little lemon and olive oil. I just haven’t developed an affinity for chia, though I do keep some in my freezer just in case. Our most applicable use in our house is for occasional puddings, and adding to granolas and protein bites. Speaking of, here is a recipe for a protein bite that packs a punch! They taste great, but will give you great energy, endurance, mental focus, immune boosting and anti-inflammatory benefits too! Even better, they are allergen friendly- dairy free, wheat free, sugar free, and nut free. Try them out, you will love them!
Superfood Energy Bites
1/2 cup tahini, incorporating some of the oil on top
1/4 cup flaxseeds
1/8 cup chia seeds
1/8 -1/4 cup hemp seeds
1/4 cup raw, local honey
1/4 t. turmeric
1/4 t. black pepper
1/2 t. cinnamon
1/2 t. ginger
1/4 t. nutmeg
1/4 t. cardamom
1/8 t. cayenne pepper
pinch sea salt
Optional Add ins: chopped dried fruit, shredded coconut, cacao nibs, spirulina (will turn your bites green!), dried ginger pieces, or other helpful herbs (red clover, slippery elm, or marshmallow)
Mix all ingredients together in a bowl. Allow the seeds to absorb some of the liquid from the tahini. Add more if the mix is still too wet to work with. When you see a consistency that allows you to roll, begin to use about 1 T. servings and roll into a ball. Store the energy bites in an airtight container in the fridge to preserve the freshness of the ingredients and ensure the best flavor!