Expanding Your Sports Diet: Seeds and Grains

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The Athlete's Kitchen

Copyright: Nancy Clark MS RD CSSD December 2012

Times have changed from when we used to joke about runners who ate “nuts and berries.” Today’s runners 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 (such as 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 get exaggerated. The following information offers a perspective on some “trendy” foods that are getting mainstreamed.

Nuts and Seeds

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, and smoothie. 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, aslod 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. But dieters beware! 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. Vegans still need additional plant proteins, like beans and tofu, to get enough protein.

Seed .25 Cup (30 g) Calories Protein g Fiber g Calcium mg Iron mg mg
Chia 140 5 10 180 8
Flax, ground 150 5 8 70 1.5
Hemp Seeds
180 10 4 --
Sunflower 190 6
 3 20 1
Pumpkin 170 9 2 50 2
Sesame 200 6 4 350 5
Walnuts 190 4 2 30 1
    Daily Target: Daily Target: Daily Target: Daily Target:
    60-90 g 25-35 g 1,000 mg 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 have 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 are 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 have 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 8 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).


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 nutrinets 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 (see the chart below): 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 1 cup cooked Calories Protein g Fiber g Iron mg
Pasta, White 2 oz dry 200 7 2 2
Pasta, Whole Wheat 2 oz dry 200 8 6 2
Rice, White 1/3 c raw 225 4 1 2
Rice, Brown 1/3 c raw 225 5 2 1
Couscous 1/3 c raw 215 7 3 1
Quinoa 1/3 c 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) counsels both casual and competitive athletes at her office in Newton, MA (617-795-1875). Her Sports Nutrition Guidebook and food guides for new runners, marathoners, and soccer players offer additional information. They are available at www.nancyclarkrd.com. See also www.sportsnutritionworkshop.com.

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