Food Spotlight: Sunflower Seeds

Sunflower SeedsSunflower seeds are the reproductive product of the beautiful sunflower. The sunflower itself has been utilized by Native Americans as food and for its health benefits for thousands of years. The seeds weren’t the only part of the sunflower utilized; the flower, stem, and roots were frequently used as an herbal tea and also ground and used as a pigment for dye. It was first cultivated for it seeds between 3000-2000 BC in modern day northern and central Mexico, and slightly later along the east coast of North America. The seed was prized for its high concentration of oil by such cultures as the Aztecs, and continues to be prized for this reason today. Sunflower seeds grow with a shell that is gray-green or black. If the seeds are raw, they can also be sprouted for additional health benefits.

Since seeds hold the energy a plant requires to reproduce itself, sunflower seeds are an abundant source of nutrition. The seeds are especially rich in Vitamin E, the most abundant fat-soluble antioxidant required in the body. Just one ounce of sunflower seeds can contain 50% or more of the recommended daily intake of Vitamin E! Sunflower seeds are also quite high in an array of B-Vitamins, especially B1 (Thiamin) and B6, both important for generating energy in the body. Additionally, the seeds are rich in essential minerals, especially manganese, magnesium, copper, and selenium. One ounce of sunflower seeds contains 165 calories, of which 120 come from fat – the fat contained in sunflower seeds is mostly polyunsaturated – 6 grams of protein, 6 grams of carbohydrate, and 2 grams of fiber.

Sunflower Seed NutrientsSince sunflower seeds are one of the most cultivated seed crops in the world, they are available in most every food store. They are typically available hulled (with their shell removed), but can also be found with their shell intact, and also available either roasted or raw. Buying them in their raw form is recommended, as the roasting process involves high levels of heat that can damage the fragile polyunsaturated oils the seeds contain. Because of their fragile oils, store sunflower seeds in a cool, dark place for preservation – even consider storing them in a refrigerator! Like all seeds, sunflower seeds contain Sunflower Seeds!antinutrients and digestive inhibitors that can burden your digestion when eaten in large amounts. So, while it’s perfectly fine to eat a handful here and there, consider soaking them at least 4 hours in water when eating larger amounts. Soaking seeds begins the sprouting process a seed would undergo when beginning its transition to a full plant, thus eliminating many of the digestive inhibitors (making them easier to assimilate when eating) and unlocks many of the nutrients contained within.

One of the many creative uses of sunflower seeds it utilizing or substituting them for flours in baked goods. Simply grind the seeds (soaking them before-hand is recommended), and use them in an equal ratio to flour in whatever baked good you wish to add them! This will impart an extra nutritional kick, as well as a delicious nutty flavor.

Hot and Sour Miso Soup

This is the perfect recipe to try on chilly winter nights. There are several elements that make this recipe a healing nutritional powerhouse. The apple cider vinegar and miso contain beneficial bacteria, which feed your digestive flora and can heighten your immune system. In addition, the lemons and vegetables provide loads of Vitamin C, fiber, and other micronutrients. The lemons are also very alkaline.

In Chinese Medicine, they believe in a “balance” between all elements. During cold months, we can get an excess of “cold” chi, leading to imbalance and potentially illness. The chilies, miso, and temperature of this soup increase circulation and promote heat.

If that isn’t enough for you, this recipe is gluten free, dairy free, and vegan! (It can even be soy free if you replace the soy sauce with sea salt.) Can you ask for anything more? Not only that, you can use whatever vegetables you have “lying around.” As long as it’s not too sweet a vegetable, I often use whatever I have in the fridge.

Ingredients:

  • Juice of 4 lemons
  • ¼ cup raw apple cider vinegar
  • 3 tablespoons soy sauce (wheat free)
  • ½ teaspoon toasted sesame oil
  • ¼ cup miso (red or brown, raw)
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil
  • 4 fresh Thai chilies (dried chilies of another kind work fine as well)
  • Veggies! The soup can include: Daikon/radishes, dark greens (kale/chard/spinach), shitake (fresh or dried), bamboo shoots, celery, oyster mushrooms, celery, cabbage, turnips, etc.
  • Optional-If I want some more protein, I use silken or firm tofu.
  • 3 kaffir lime leaves (available at Thai markets, or online.)

Preparation:

Bring 6 ½ cups water to boil. (Adding some salt and covering tSoup!he pot will speed up the process.) Once the water is boiling, add the chilies and kaffir lime leaves (if you have them.) Have your vegetables chopped ahead of time. Add the most dense and starchy vegetables first, (turnips, carrots, daikon), and tofu. After about 5-7 minutes, add the less dense vegetables, (mushrooms, bamboo, celery, cabbage, etc.). After another 2 minutes, add the leafy greens, the lemon juice, apple cider vinegar, and soy sauce. After 1 minute, turn down to simmer.

In a small bowl, pour warm water (not boiling, we don’t want to kill the good bacteria) in with the miso paste. Wisk the miso until it is creamy and mixed in. Once the soup is cooler than boiling, pour in the miso and mix. Then serve. Makes about 5 servings.

*Cooking time varies based on vegetables used. Vegetables that are denser and starchier have a longer cooking time. Stop when vegetables are slightly under-done, as they will continue to cook in the pot and bowl.

Soup!

Macronutrients! (A bird’s eye view)

Everything we eat can be broken down into two nutritional groups: Macronutrients and Micronutrients. Today’s feature is the macronutrients!

Macronutrients compose the majority the foods we take in for energy, classified as calories. Macronutrients are further broken down into three groups: proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. Each macronutrient provides a different amount of calories that can be utilized as energy: proteins and carbohydrates provide approximately 4 calories per gram, while fats provide approximately 9 per gram.

Proteins are large molecules formed of amino acids linked together by bonds called peptides. When a protein is digested, it is broken down into its amino acid parts. Humans require 20 amino acids to live. As long as we have an adequate intake of proteins in our diet, our cells are able to manufacture 11 amino acids from other amino acids – these amino acids are called non-essential amino acids. However, 9 of those amino acids must be obtained from diet alone, these are called essential amino acids. Like the other Macronutrients, proteins are essential to our health. Most people recognize proteins as being able to repair our tissues, but they’re utilized in almost every process in the body! Examples of foods most people associate with protein are: eggs, dairy, meat, legumes and beans.

Protein!

Protein!

Carbohydrates are molecules composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, and are frequently referred to as saccharides. There are four groups of carbohydrates: monosaccharides, disaccharides, oligosaccharides, and polysaccharides. Monosaccharides are the simplest of carbohydrates, they are simple sugars such as fructose, the common sugar found in most fruits. Disaccharides are groups of two monosaccharides, a more complex sugar, and include lactose, the sugar found in milk. Oligosaccharides are more complex sugars, and not typically fully digested by humans. An example is fructo-oligiosaccharides, which is found in a large variety of plants. When fructo-oligosaccharides enter our intestines, any undigested bits will be further digested by our gut-bacteria. Whenever the term ‘pre-biotic’ is used, it is because the fructo-oligosaccharides are feeding these bacteria. The last group, polysaccharides, are the largest molecules in the carbohydrate group. Two good examples of polysaccharides are starch, such as that found in grains and potatoes, and cellulose, the fiber found in plants.

Fructose!

Fructose!

Fats round out the Macronutrients, and are very large group of molecules. They are also classified as a group of lipids (an even larger group of molecules). There are three main groups of fats we’ll focus on: saturated fats, unsaturated fats, and trans fats. Saturated fats are fats with all available molecular bonds being filled by hydrogen, and thus ‘saturated’ by hydrogen. There are a large variety of saturated fats, but they are primarily found in our diet from animal fats, such as butter or lard, or from tropical fruit oils, such as coconut and palm. Unsaturated fats are broken down into two major groups: monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats. Monounsaturated fats have a similar molecular makeup as saturated, but have only one molecular bond unfilled by hydrogen. Monounsaturated fats are found primarily in animal fats and plants; they compose the primary fat of avocados. Polyunsaturated fats are fats with multiple molecular bonds being unfilled by hydrogen. This group also includes the all important Omega fats (such as Omega 3 and 6). Trans-fats are a group of fats that are either monounsaturated or polyunsaturated, and are unique in that they contain two sets of double carbon atoms bonded together. Trans-fats very rarely occur in nature, but can occur frequently in the processing of food, especially when high levels of heat are utilized. Processed trans-fats are regarded as a dangerous substance when it comes to health, and are heavily linked to coronary heart disease and unhealthy levels of cholesterol – processed trans-fats are best avoided entirely.

Fats!

Fats!

In our next articles we’ll be focusing in more detail the specifics of each macronutrient. We’ll also begin to cover the micronutrients, the group of nutrients that don’t contribute the calories for you to live, but are still essential for optimal health!

What’s a Calorie?

Most people aren’t concerned with the nature of calories unless they are trying to either lose or gain weight, the former being the more common in our culture. The common knowledge of calories usually doesn’t extend beyond the fact that if you use more calories than you ingest you’ll lose weight, and if you ingest more calories than you use you’ll gain weight. But what is a calorie, exactly?

A calorie is measurement of a unit of energy, similar to how a Joule is also a measurement of a unit of energy. More specifically, it is the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1 °C. In nutrition, it is used as the basis for measuring the energetic potential of food, as well as a measure for gauging the energetic requirements of an individual, which in turn is influenced by their Metabolism.

Calories in Food.

All food contains calories, but calories in food are more than the little demons that sew your pants tighter in the night. Everyone needs a certain number of calories to eat throughout the day to survive, and it’s important to know how many calories your food contains.

Food is broken down into three major groups, the Macronutrients. These three groups are: Protein, Carbohydrates, and Fats. Protein and Carbohydrates have a potential 4 calories per gram. Fats, on the other hand, have a potential 9 calories per gram. This is important to note, as the same measure of fat has more than double the amount of calories for the same measure of either protein or carbohydrates! This doesn’t mean you should stop eating fats altogether if you’re trying to lose weight, or even eat fats exclusively if you’re trying to gain weight! Fats are extremely important to your physiological functions (would they be so delicious, if not?), which we’ll cover in future articles. Simply, it’s important to note that if you indeed are trying to lose weight, fat is much more calorie-dense than other foods, and thus it is much easier to overeat.

Notice that I stated foods have a ‘potential’ calorie amount. Each macronutrient differs from the others in its chemical structures, and there are even differences within each macronutrient group. For example, proteins have a high Thermogenic Effect (See Thermogenic Effect of Food in Metabolism), meaning that amount of energy required for your body to breakdown protein is much higher than for any other macronutrient! Some studies estimate that almost 30% of the energy your body would be able to utilize from protein is actually required to digest the protein to begin with! Another example is Fiber (Cellulose). Fiber is a form of Carbohydrate that is mostly indigestible by humans, so while it may have a potential 4 calories per gram, it cannot be broken down by our digestive system and so yields 0 calories per gram.

Note: I’ll be covering the Macronutrients in more detail soon!

Metabolism! How does it affect me, really?

So often we hear people blame their metabolism for many things…their ability to eat anything and stay thin, or why they eat salad but can’t lose weight. But what is this “metabolism” thing, anyway?
There are actually several different “types” of metabolism. I’ll explain the basics, so that you can get a better understanding of the way your body deals with calories and energy.

Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR): Very closely related to “Basal Metabolic Rate,” (but we’ll stick with RMR, as its easier to remember and pronounce), our RMR makes up the largest percentage of our metabolism. (Between 65%-75%!!!!) Your RMR is the amount of calories your body burns at “rest.” (So your energy expenditure when you are sleeping, sitting, basically doing anything that isn’t physical). This part of your metabolism is pretty constant. And a lot of it is genetic; hence why some people can just “eat whatever they want” and stay thin. But before you get upset that your RMR isn’t “naturally” high, there are certain things that affect it, (and there are parts of your metabolism that you do have control over!)
Things that affect RMR:

    • Age (our Resting Metabolism goes down as we age.)
    • Percentage of Muscle Mass (Muscle burns more calories than fat).
    • Sex (Not how much you have, but men tend to burn more calories than women, usually because of their percentage of muscle).
    • Height and Size (The taller and larger you are, the more surface area you have. The more surface area you have, the more calories you burn.)

Thermic Effect of Food (TEF): Your body’s TEF is the amount of calories burned by digesting food, processing nutrients and food storage. That’s right, eating burns calories! It makes up 5-10% of your metabolism. But before you make yourself Thanksgiving dinner every day, there’s a balance between eating too much and optimizing your TEF. Nutrient dense food (i.e. food that contains a lot of fiber, vitamins, Omega fatty acids, etc. compared to how many calories it contains), insures your TEF is running high while you’re not storing too many excess calories. Potato chips and candy are not nutrient dense…they have very little nutrients compared to their calories. So if a lot of “good stuff” is packed into everything you eat, your body will use its energy more efficiently. (Most “whole” foods). I also recommend eating smaller meals, as you will have less “extra calories” that will go into storage after you eat. (And you’ll probably have more energy, since your body won’t have to use all its resources to keep digesting.)

Physical Activity energy expenditure (PAEE): Can you guess what this is?? Exercise! Physical Activity usually makes up 15%-35% of your metabolism. Why such a large range of calorie burning? Because there’s such a large range of activity you could be participating in. If you spend your day off watching TV, a lot less of your calorie burning will come from PAEE. If you go jogging, lift weights, and then go dancing, your PAEE will make up a much larger percentage, and usually burn more calories. Physical activity is anything that requires physical effort. Construction workers often get their activity on the job. Europeans often walk and bike for transportation, getting their physical activity that way. But this isn’t just about weight loss, having a high rate of physical activity usually gives you more energy, as your body burns more calories even after you stop. Plus you get lots of the happy hormones, as exercise releases serotonin in your brain! (Bonus).
Of course you can overdo it, since it is using your body’s energy stores. (When hiking the John Muir Trail, I needed a nap after a few mountain peaks.) But most people in America under-do it, so find a way to get active, your body will thank you for it.

Note: I will be writing many more articles on the benefits of exercise, ways to avoid injury, the best work-outs for you, etc.