Are Sunflower Seeds Healthy? The Benefits of These Tasty Seeds
The tiny seeds have big benefits. Here's what you need to know about the health benefits of sunflower seeds.
What are sunflower seeds?
Everyone recognizes the bold, showy sunflower. But the plant’s tasty seed is also distinctive. Enjoyed by everyone from kids and baseball players to chefs and nutritionists, these tiny seeds offers some big health benefits.
Sunflower seeds come from the head of the sunflower plant. Each sunflower can have as many as 2,000 seeds. Some plants are grown for the seeds that people eat, while the majority of sunflowers are grown and harvested for sunflower oil.
The shell that encases the sunflower seed is called the hull. “Most people choose to crack and remove the hull, but it’s edible,” says Jennifer Silverman, CNS, a holistic nutritionist in Bethesda, Maryland.
That said, sunflower seed shells are tough and made of indigestible fiber. Eating the shells or hulls can cause constipation, and the sharp edges may damage the esophagus or other parts of the digestive tract. It’s best to avoid eating sunflower seed shells. The seeds, on the other hand, are good for you. They have a mild flavor, and can be enjoyed both raw and roasted.
“The seeds can be eaten as a delicious, crunchy snack or topping, or they can be used to make sunflower seed oil,” says Silverman.
A native North American plant, sunflowers were believed to have been domesticated as early as 1,000 B.C. A number of Native American tribes were believed to have ground the seeds into flour or mixed the meal with vegetables like squash or corn. The plant made its way to Europe by Spanish explorers and eventually became very popular in Russia.
These days, says Silverman, “it’s likely you’d see them being used for bird seed or even to feed livestock.”
For such a small seed, sunflower seeds—filled with vitamin E, magnesium, zinc, calcium, and iron—deliver a big nutritional punch. “Sunflower seeds are very caloric and nutrient dense, too,” says Silverman.
One ounce of shelled sunflower seeds contains the following nutrients:
- Calories 165
- Fat 14 g
- Carbohydrates 6.8 g
- Dietary fiber 3.2 g
- Sugar .77 g
- Sodium .85 g
- Calcium 19.8 mg
- Iron 1.1 mg
- Protein 5.5 g
Health benefits of sunflower seeds
Sunflower seeds “protect us against things like cancer and heart disease because they’re rich in the antioxidant polyphenol, and in vitamin E,” says Silverman.
In fact, one quarter-cup sunflower seeds contains 37 percent of the reference daily intake (RDI) for vitamin E, which may help protect your body against free radicals.
“Vitamin E is a fat-soluble antioxidant responsible for immune function,” says Silverman. “I often see vitamin E overlooked by vitamin C and vitamin D, so I love that this seed highlights its benefits.” Vitamin E can also help lower blood pressure, as well as cholesterol.
Sunflower seeds and weight loss
Because sunflower seeds are so tiny, it’s easy to eat too many of them.
“As with most nuts and seeds, people tend to overdo it,” says Silverman. “You only need a little bit, one ounce, to get the benefits, but it can be challenging to limit yourself.”
Silverman recommends using them as a garnish for added texture and nutrients, rather than snacking on them. “Sunflower seeds are good for you, but that doesn’t mean you should start chugging bags of sunflower seeds,” she says. “You only need a little and because they’re delicious, it can be difficult to eat the proper serving size.”
Sunflower seeds come in bags or containers and consuming them in excess can quickly add up in calories and fat. For example, one cup of shelled sunflower seeds contains 838 calories.
Best way to eat sunflower seeds
Sprinkle a salad or yogurt with roasted sunflower seeds or add to overnight oats. Better yet, give them a try in a seasonal harvest bowl or on some avocado toast (recipes, provided by Silverman, below).
- 1 medium delicata squash, roasted*
- 2 handfuls of fresh arugula
- 1 tbsp. goat cheese
- 1 tbsp. pomegranate seeds
- 2 tbsp. sunflower seeds
- 1 cup cooked wild rice (optional)
Combine all ingredients and serve.
* To roast squash, cut it lengthwise and remove the seeds. Then slice into 1/4-inch thick, half-moon shapes and place onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Drizzle with olive oil and sea salt, and bake at 400 degrees F for 12-15 minutes.
Simple Avocado Toast
- 1 slice of your favorite bread
- 1/2 avocado, mashed
- 1 egg, over easy
- 1 tbsp. sunflower seeds
- Sea salt, to taste
- Spread the bread with mashed avocado.
- Place egg on top.
- Sprinkle with sunflower seeds.
- Add salt, to taste.
- Jennifer Silverman, MS, CNS, holistic nutritionist based in Bethesda, Maryland
- International Journal of Immunopathology and Pharmacology: "Sunflower seed allergy"
- USDA: "Sunflower seeds, plain, unsalted"
- National Institutes Of Health: "Vitamin E"
- ISRN Nutrition: "Markers of cardiovascular risk in postmenopausal women with type 2 diabetes are improved by the daily consumption of almonds or sunflower kernels: a feeding study"
- BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine: "Synergistic effect of phytochemicals on cholesterol metabolism and lipid accumulation in HepG2 cells"
- Harvard School of Public Health: "The Nutrition Source, Antioxidants"
- National Sunflower Association: "History"
- Alternative Field Crops Manual: "Sunflower"
- University of Missouri Extension: "Sunflower: An American Native"
- National Sunflower Association: Is there any harm to eating sunflower seed shells or hulls?