Mounting scientific evidence makes it clear—meat might not always be the healthiest choice. Protein is a necessary part of a healthy, balanced diet, but because of the scary side effects of eating too much meat (cancer, heart disease, death), many omnivores are seeking out alternatives.
And power seeds—chia, flax, and hemp—are where it’s at. All provide protein, fat, and fiber, macronutrients that can keep you full and satisfied, and they’re easy to throw into foods you probably already eat, like smoothies and salads (you can even bake ’em into cookies!)
Although all three deserve a recurring role in your meal plans, they’re not exactly interchangeable. Read on for nutrition facts and the best way to use each in your everyday routine.
Probably the most versatile of the trio, chia seeds look and taste similar to poppy seeds. They can be added to smoothies as a thickener or mixed with nut milks (like almond or coconut) to make a tapioca-like “pudding,” because of their unique ability to absorb ten times their weight in water. You can also make a vegan egg substitute for baking by combining 1 tablespoon of chia seeds with three tablespoons of water, and allowing to rest for 10-15 minutes.
Go ahead and throw chia seeds into any dish to instantly up the health factor—their mild taste won’t overpower the flavor of whatever you’re making. One tablespoon is a mere 130 calories and boasts 11 grams of fiber, 4 grams of protein, 9 grams of healthy fats, as well as a healthy dose of calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, vitamin B, and antioxidants.
Chia are an excellent source of vegan protein because they contain all nine essential amino acids—basically the building blocks of protein that typically come from animal sources. (Our bodies can’t make these specific amino acids on their own.)
These tiny seeds are also packed with omega-3 fatty acids—gram for gram, chia has more than salmon. Omega-3s act as anti-inflammatory compounds in the body, and have been linked to a reduced risk of heart disease, cancer, and arthritis.
The most flavorful on this list, nutty flaxseeds also have the highest fat content. It’s pretty easy to find them whole or ground (even flax oil is usually available at specialty health food stores)—but they’re a little trickier to use than chia.
Three tablespoons of flaxseeds have 6 grams of protein, 8 grams of fiber, and 12 grams of healthy fats and only 150 calories. The combination of fiber and protein keeps you feeling full for longer; and flaxseeds can even promote weight loss when eaten regularly.
Even better, the soluble fiber inside helps reduce cholesterol levels by trapping bad fats and bad cholesterol in the digestive system so that the body can’t absorb them. (Both then get eliminated along with the fiber.)
Flaxseeds are also the number one source of lignans, a type of polyphenol that research suggests might help prevent hormone-associated cancers, osteoporosis, and cardiovascular disease. There’s even evidence that a diet high in lignans can ease hormonal symptoms of menopause. Polyphenols support gut health, too, because they feed the growth of beneficial probiotic bacteria.
But not many people realize that the hard outer shell of whole flaxseeds prevents humans from absorbing the healthy fats and proteins inside. When eaten whole, they pretty much act as “roughage”—aka fiber—for the digestive tract. Not necessarily a bad thing, but to get the full nutritional benefits, eat ground flax instead. A high-fat food, flax products go rancid quickly, so it’s best to store them in the refrigerator or freezer.
Like chia, ground flaxseeds can thicken up doughs and batters and used to make a vegan egg substitute: mix 1 tablespoon of ground flax with 3 tablespoons of water and let it sit for a few minutes. Both whole and ground work best in dishes that benefit from their slightly sweet, nutty flavor, like whole wheat waffles or even porridge.
Contrary to popular belief, hemp seeds don’t have the same hallucinogenic side effects as marijuana—but they’re absolutely packed with nutrients. Found at the top of the hemp plant, these seeds are milder in flavor and smaller than pine nuts or walnuts, but possess a similar texture.
And surprise, surprise—they’re loaded with vegan protein, too. With nearly 10 grams per ounce, hemp seeds make an effective substitute for whey or soy powders. When blended into water, they make a super-creamy beverage that can replace dairy milks and creamers.
Hemp seeds keep you feeling full thanks to a high protein and healthy fat content. And as an added bonus, they’ll give your complexion a healthy glow—they’re high in vitamin E and zinc, two beauty-boosting compounds that hydrate and increase turnover of skin cells.
Effortlessly add a little more vegan protein into your life with these three super seeds—they’re the definition of small but mighty.
Photo credit: Alicia Cho