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Sunflower seeds make a heart-healthy snack

If you are looking for a healthy snack to tide you over until mealtime, you could do no better than ingesting a tablespoon or two of sunflower seeds. Not only do the seeds make a tasty morsel, even a small serving contains significant amounts of vitamins, minerals, essential oils and antioxidants. It should be noted that while B vitamins, manganese, copper, selenium and phosphorus found in the seeds play important roles in metabolism, repair of damaged cells and maintenance of skeletal and nerve health, it is the high content of vitamin E that is particularly noteworthy because of the function it plays in heart health.

Sunflower seeds come in two main varieties—the main type is for extraction of cooking oil and the other is for whole seed purposes which includes those eaten out of hand (hulled and dehulled) and for use in confectionary mixes. For residents of Manitoba, vast fields of showy yellow sunflower plants are a common and beautiful sight (we can only imagine how intrigued artist Van Gogh would have been with the brilliant display). The province, in fact, is a major producer of sunflower seed oil which has a positive nutritional profile, low in saturated fat and high in polyunsaturated fat. This bodes well for the health of the cardiovascular system.

A must at the baseball diamond

It is, however, the seeds of the sunflower plant that are of interest to many Canadians. Lightly salted and roasted to create a firm crisp texture, the well-named Knackzoat (a Low German word literally translated as “crack seeds”) are a must at the baseball diamond and a great distraction during long road trips. As it turns out, sunflower seeds eaten in moderation offer a lot of health benefits, one of them being the promotion of cardiovascular health.

As a reference point, one-quarter cup of seeds contains just over 60 percent of the daily recommendation for vitamin E, the body’s primary fat-soluble antioxidant. This means the vitamin travels through the body, neutralizing free radicals that might otherwise damage structures that contain fat such as brain cells and cell membranes. This also points to the role of vitamin E as an anti-inflammatory, mitigating symptoms of asthma, rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis.

Of particular interest is the role vitamin E plays in the prevention of heart disease by helping prevent free radicals from oxidizing cholesterol. Only after cholesterol has been oxidized can it adhere to blood vessel walls to begin the process of arteriosclerosis or “hardening of the arteries” which can lead to heart attack or stroke. Studies have shown that people who have an adequate intake of vitamin E are at a lower risk of developing heart attack than those who have a marginal intake.

Assist with cardiovascular health

It should be mentioned that two more components in sunflower seeds assist with cardiovascular health—one is folate which metabolizes homocysteine (an indicator of heart problems) into methonine, an essential amino acid, and the second is the presence of phytosterols which are believed to reduce blood levels of cholesterol (as well as enhance immune response and decrease the risk of certain cancers).

It is very easy to work sunflower seeds into your diet in addition to eating them out of hand (perhaps that is not your thing). They can be added to granola or sprinkled on breakfast cereals as well as tossed into muffin and bread batters. Seeds make a nice garnish for green salads and add a lovely crunchy texture to hot grain dishes.

When shopping for sunflower seeds, choose those that are less processed—in other words, check labels and avoid those high in sodium and oil content. Although the seeds are good for you, they are high in calories so watch intake: two tablespoons at 165 calories makes an appropriate serving size.