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The Importance of Nuts and Seeds in an Athlete's Diet

By Nancy Clark | July 02, 2013, 12 a.m. (ET)

Times have changed from when we used to joke about folks who ate “nuts and berries"—the makings of a bland diet. Today’s athletes routinely enjoy nuts and berries, and are now looking for ways to notch up their diets with more seeds—such as flax and chia—and whole grains like quinoa.

This trend can enhance the health of both our bodies and the planet. That is, by choosing more plant foods, we’ll end up eating less meat and animal protein. If each of us were to eat just one less pound of beef per week, greenhouse gas emissions would drop significantly. 

While seeds and grains are health-enhancing choices to include in your sports diet, their nutritional value can sometimes become exaggerated and mainstreamed.

Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds offer protein, healthy fats, fiber, vitamin E, magnesium and many other nutrients. The fact that a plant grows from a nut or seed indicates it is life sustaining.

Many nuts and seeds offer alpha linoleic acid, also known as ALA, a type of health-protective omega-3 polyunsaturated fat. While ALA from plants is not as potent as the type of omega-3s found in fish, any omega-3 fat is better than none.

Want to add a nice crunch, along with vitamins and minerals, to your sports diet? Sprinkle some slivered almonds, chopped walnuts, pistachios, sunflower and sesame seeds into your yogurt, cereal salad or smoothie. 

Despite all the benefits, dieters should be weary. When you nonchalantly toss a few spoonfuls of nuts and seeds into your smoothies and salads to pump up their nutritional value, you can also easily toss in 100 to 400 calories. While vegans may need this protein and calorie boost, weight-conscious athletes who consume dairy and animal proteins might want to think twice. 

Comparing Seeds and Nuts
This chart shows how 1/4 cup of nuts and seeds—two spoonfuls or a large handful—adds a lot of calories but minimal protein towards the daily target of about 60 to 90 grams of protein. To get enough protein, vegans still need additional plant proteins, like beans or tofu.
Seed 
(1/4 cup, 30 grams) 
Calories
 
Protein
(grams) 
Fiber
(grams) 
Calcium
(grams)
Iron
(grams)
Chia 140  10 180 8
Flax, ground  150  5 8 70 1.5
Hemp  180  10 4 -- 1
Sunflower  190  3 20 1
Pumpkin  170  2 50 2
Sesame  200  6 4 350 5
Walnuts  190  4 2 30 1
   
Daily Target:
60 to 90 grams 
Daily Target:
25 to 30 grams 
Daily Target:
1000 mg 
Daily Target:
8 mg men
18 mg women 

Flax Seeds: Commonly consumed for their ALA omega-3 fat benefits, need to be ground before being eaten. Otherwise, they pass through your intestines whole and undigested.

Chia Seeds: Also offer ALA omega-3 fats—but you don’t need to grind them. Just sprinkle chia on yogurt and enjoy the crunch. When soaked in water for 10 minutes, chia seeds create a gel that can be used as a thickener for smoothies and as an alternative to eggs and oils in some recipes.

The slimy consistency of soaked chia seeds can be tough to enjoy for some athletes. If you fall into the "No, thank you" camp, worry not. You have many other options for enjoyably consuming similar nutrients in other seeds and nuts.

Sunflower Seeds: A mild, pleasing taste when added to salads, trail mix or cold cereals. For people with peanut allergies, sunflower butter is a popular alternative to peanut butter.

Pumpkin Seeds: Also known as pepitas, are slower to eat when you buy them in the shell. This can save unwanted calories.

Hemp Seeds: Touted as containing all the essential amino acids. Hemp adds a protein-boost to vegan diets, but at a high price. Hemp seeds costs about $15 per pound, as compared to soy nuts, that also have all the amino acids, about $3.50/lb.

Sesame Seeds: A gentle flavor and make a nice addition to stir-fried tofu or chicken. Although sesame seeds are touted as being calcium-rich, their calcium is poorly absorbed.

Chopped Nuts: Such as walnuts or slivered almonds, add a protein boost—but not as much of a protein bonus as many athletes think. If you ate half a cup of walnuts (two man-sized handfuls), you’d get only eight grams of protein. For the same calories, you could add 1.5 cups of cottage cheese to your salad and get five times more protein (40 grams). 

Grains
Both whole and refined grain foods offer carbohydrates that easily fuel your muscles. Whole grains include whole wheat, brown rice, corn (including popcorn), oats, barley, millet, and quinoa. Unrefined grains offer trace minerals, such as magnesium and copper, that refined grains don’t offer because they are lost in processing.

However, most refined grains are enriched with B-vitamins and iron, two important nutrients for athletes. So, if you end up eating some white pasta or bread, there’s no need to fret! Dietary guidelines allow for half of the grains you consume to be refined. 

Quinoa is actually a seed, but we eat it as a grain, and it offers more protein than other grains. But take note: Quinoa is not a protein powerhouse, so eat it with tofu, beans or yogurt to reach the target of 20 to 30 grams protein per meal. Quinoa is also expensive: $6 per pound, as compared to brown rice at $1.50 per pound.

Grain/Starch  One Cup Cooked
Calories
(grams)
Protein
(grams)
Fiber
(grams)
Iron
(grams)
 Pasta, white 2 oz dry 200 7 2 2
 Pasta, whole wheat  2 oz dry  200 8 6 2
 Rice, white 1/3 cup raw  225  4 1 2
 Rice, brown 1/3 cup raw 225  5 2 1
 Couscous 1/3 cup raw 215 3 1
 Quinoa 1/3 cup raw 200 8 5 3


The Bottom Line
When you resolve to “eat healthier,” be sure to create a sustainable plan that will offer lifelong enjoyment. While you want to explore new foods, you don’t have to routinely choke down seeds and whole grains that do not really please your taste buds. 

By filling your meals with a variety of wholesome foods—including generous portions of colorful fruits and vegetables—you’ll be able to consume abundant nutrients that invest in both good health and top performance. Plus, you’ll also help save the planet by choosing more seeds and grains and fewer steaks and chops.

Nancy Clark, MS, RD, CSSD (Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics) helps both casual and competitive athletes learn how to eat a winning sports diet.  Her practice is in Newton, MA (617-795-1875). Her Sports Nutrition Guidebook and food guides for new runners and marathoners offer additional information. They are available at www.nancyclarkrd.com. See also sportsnutritionworkshop.com.

This article originally appeared on Active.com—your source for event information, training plans, expert advice, and everything you need to connect with the sport you love.