Seaweed may be “the new kale,” but there’s nothing new about it. It’s been on the planet for as long as the oceans have, and was written about on ancient papyrus scrolls as a natural cure for tumors. Ancient Chinese medicine uses seaweed as a remedy for many illnesses. It’s no wonder that modern nutritionists are so interested in its nutritional and health benefits.
What Is Seaweed?
Seaweed is a plant that grows in the ocean. Scientists call it a macroalgae, and many people call it a sea vegetable. Though many vegetables are high in antioxidants, seaweed’s levels are amazing. Not only does it contain Vitamins C and E, but also a type of carotenoid called fucoxanthin that boosts its antioxidant actions to a different level. Scientists believe that this is compound exists because seaweed faces so many challenges in its environment. As water levels and temperatures change and it is exposed to salt and harmful UV rays, the plant had to evolve in a way that would allow its survival. The antioxidants that make it so healthy for us is what protected the plant’s own cells.
There are thousands of varieties of seaweed that grow in the world’s ocean. They can be broken down into different basic categories:
- Green algae (includes sea grapes and sea lettuce)
- Brown algae (includes kombu, arame, kelp and wakame)
- Red algae (includes dulse, laver and nori)
- Blue-green algae (includes spirulina and chlorella)
All seaweeds are extremely low in calories and excellent sources of phytonutrients, fiber, minerals and vitamins. Different types have different levels of protein, with red algae types of seaweed having up to 50 grams per 3.5 ounce serving. Seaweed’s nutritional density is so great that it is more than any vegetable grown on land. Those nutrients give it many health benefits.
1. Seaweed is One of the World’s Most Nutritious Foods
If you only know seaweed as the green stuff that washes up on shore, you need to learn more. There is a big difference in the nutrients found in each of different types, but generally speaking seaweed is very low in calories. A cup of wakame seaweed has only 20 calories. The most notable nutrients in seaweed include:
- Vitamin K – Vitamin K helps our bodies form blood clots when we are injured. Kelp contains about 25 percent of the RDV for this vitamin.
- Calcium – Calcium builds strong bones and teeth and boosts the nervous system’s ability to communicate essential message through the body. Kelp and wakame both contain about 6 percent of the RDV of calcium.
- Iron – Iron keeps your blood healthy and helps provide energy. Kelp or wakame contain about 1 milligram per cup, while 1 tablespoon dried spiriluna has double that amount at 2 milligrams. The RDV of iron is 8 milligrams for men and 18 for women.
- Iodine – Seaweed is one of the only foods in the world that contains this essential nutrient. Iodine is present in almost all varieties of seaweed. One gram of brown seaweed contains between 5 and 50 times the amount we need each day. keeps our thyroid gland healthy, while red and green types have less.
- Fiber – Fiber helps us to feel full and keeps our digestive system running regularly. 3.5 ounces of dulse seaweed has 5 grams of fiber, while kombu contains more than 6 grams of fiber.
All types of seaweed contain high levels of:
- Beta carotene
- Vitamins A and C
- Pantothenic acid
With more minerals than any other food from the plant world, seaweed deserves to be called a superfood.
2. Seaweed is Loaded with Fiber and Compounds that are Good for your Digestive System
Seaweed benefits your digestive system in many ways. Brown seaweed contains a compound called alginate that has been shown to protect the gut wall by strengthening the mucus in the digestive system. Alginate is so good at protecting the digestive tract that it has become an integral component in many heartburn medicines. The high fiber in all types of seaweed slows down digestion and helps you feel full longer. It can help your body get rid of bad cholesterol while at the same time giving your system time to absorb the many nutrients that it contains. Seaweed also contains powerful prebiotics that help increase the good bacteria in the digestive tract. In fact, some studies suggest that the Japanese, who eat large quantities of seaweed, may have healthier digestive tracts as a result of exposure to the enzymes it contains.
Bottom Line: Seaweed’s high fiber content slows down the rate at which food travels through our system, allowing greater absorption of nutrients and a healthier gut environment.
3. Seaweed Is a Heart Healthy Food
The fiber found in seaweed has been connected to lowering blood pressure. This lowers the risk of heart attack as well as stroke. It also helps to carry LDL cholesterol out of the system, cutting down on plaque and blockages in the arteries. One study showed that a material derived from seaweed can stop additional tissue damage after a heart attack and help to heal the damage that has already occurred. Another showed that just 1.5 grams of a seaweed called chlorella is particularly effective at getting rid of symptoms of hypertension.
All types of seaweed have high levels of Vitamin K, a nutrient known for its ability to prevent blood clots which can lead to cardiovascular events. They also all contain antioxidants and essential fatty acids that help to reverse the impact of oxidative stress.
Bottom Line: Seaweed is a natural remedy for high blood pressure and high cholesterol that may help to heal the damage caused by stress and heart disease.
4. Seaweed is a Powerful and Effective Way to Detox Your Blood
Seaweed is a natural diuretic, and a great way of getting rid of excess water weight that makes you feel bloated. Additionally, the alginate that it contains acts like a sponge for heavy metals in the blood. It attracts and removes cadmium and lead which may be found in the environment.
Bottom Line: Seaweeds bind to toxins in the blood and help to carry them out of your system.
5. Seaweed Can Help Regulate the Hormones that Lead to Breast Cancer
Multiple studies have shown that eating seaweed can lead to a reduced risk for breast cancer. Experts believe that part of the reason it has this effect is the high levels of fiber. Others believe it is the lignans in the seaweed that lower estrogen levels. One enzyme called fucoidan found in brown sea vegetables of all kinds have been proven especially powerful in fighting cancer.
Though most people point to nori as the most effective seaweed at protecting against breast cancer, studies have shown that it may be the iodine that is present in all types of seaweed that is having this effect. In fact, one study showed that seaweed may be more effective at killing human breast cancer cells than chemotherapy drugs. It may also have a minimizing impact on the symptoms of premenstrual syndrome.
Bottom Line: Seaweed contains anti-cancer compounds that can boost the immune system and help prevent cancer from forming, as well as kill cancer cells once they exist.
6. Seaweed Can Help Weight Loss by Absorbing Fat
Want to lose weight and get rid of belly fat? Studies have shown that eating seaweed stops the body from absorbing fat by 75%. It does this by cutting back on the impact of a specific type of lipid. Not only that, but brown seaweed has high levels of a pigment called fucoxanthin that drives the production of a protein that boosts the burning of belly fat. Seaweed is low in calories and carbohydrates while also very high in fiber. Fiber makes you feel full longer so that you are not tempted to snack between meals. And the high iron content of seaweed can counter the fatigue that people often feel when they cut back on calories.
Bottom Line: Adding seaweed to your diet can be an effective way to rev up your weight loss efforts.
7. Seaweed Keeps Your Thyroid Healthy
The thyroid is an organ that few people understand but which is vital to your health. It helps to regulate metabolism. Unfortunately, the thyroid is vulnerable to nutritional deficiencies, and especially to low levels of iodine, which is found in very few foods. Most people get their iodine from table salt, but as we cut back on sodium for our health, that puts us at greater risk for thyroid problems. Most foods that come from the sea have high levels of iodine, and seaweed has more than almost any of them.
Bottom Line: Eating seaweed can keep your thyroid healthy and your metabolism functioning as it should.
What You Need to Know About Cooking with Seaweed
Most people are familiar with seaweed as the outer wrapping of sushi, but it is a wonderful addition to soups and salads. Minced seaweed adds nutritional density to any broth, while you can make a delicious salad by combining kelp or wakame with fresh ginger, sesame seeds and a light touch of sesame oil. Dried seaweeds like spirulina are easily added to smoothies and give an enormous dose of protein in a very small package. You can also add a tablespoon full of spirulina into any kind of sandwich spread or sauce to give yourself an additional 4 grams of protein.
Because seaweed absorbs whatever is in the water that it grows in, it is very important to know where it comes from before buying it or eating it. If the water it grows in is polluted, then the seaweed will have high levels of toxins, including heavy metals and arsenic. Certain kinds of seaweed are more vulnerable to pollution than others, and it is recommended that people stay away from hijiki seaweed and choose red seaweed instead. To avoid risk, experts suggest eating seaweed no more than three times per week.
The most popular seaweeds are available in specialty food stores, and include:
- Kelp – Kelp is a brown algae. It has thick leaves and is often sold dried. It can be used as a substitute for noodles or as a sprinkle that can be used as a nutritious replacement for salt.
- Nori – Nori is the wrap that is used in making sushi rolls
- Dulse – Dulse is a red seaweed that can be purchased in whole sheets to be soaked and sliced or as flakes that can be sprinkled onto foods.
- Arame – Arame can be used in salads, grain dishes and stir fries. It is black and stringy.
- Wakame – Wakame can be used in soups and stews. It is sold either dehydrated or fresh and has a beautiful deep green color.
- Kombu – Many people use kombu to enhance flavor of stews and soups or when cooking beans to eliminate the chemicals that cause gas.