Kristie Leong M.D. is a family practitioner who believes in the power of nutrition and a healthy lifestyle to prevent and fight illness.
You may have heard the phrase 'an apple a day keeps the doctor away,' but did you know there are other foods that can help you stay healthy?
Sunflower seeds are one such food. These crunchy seeds are rich in unsaturated fatty acids, fiber, and protein and contain vitamin E, and B vitamins (like niacin, thiamine, and riboflavin), Plus, they contain essential minerals including potassium, magnesium, iron, and phosphorus.
But can sunflower seeds be addictive? And if so, what does that mean for your health?
Are Sunflower Seeds Addictive?
First, you must know what food addiction is. Food addiction is an uncontrollable urge to eat a particular food, followed by feelings of guilt and shame.
Food addicts have a hard time stopping their behavior even after they realize they will suffer physically and emotionally from continuing it and will persist in their behavior despite the consequences to themselves and others around them.
Enjoying a Particular Food Isn't Addiction
It’s not uncommon for people to have a favorite food that they tend to overeat or want all the time. For some, it’s sugary foods while for others it's foods high in salt, like crunchy packaged snacks.
If you can eat something in moderation and still enjoy it, then it is likely not an addiction. Most people who believe they are addicted to sunflower seeds enjoy munching on them and find them crave-worthy, but they don't have a true sunflower seed addition.
Salt Is to Blame
But why is it so hard to stop eating sunflower seeds? One reason may be the salt sprinkled on that package of sunflower seeds. Humans have evolved to crave salt and are hardwired to seek it out, as getting enough of it is necessary for survival.
Salt is vital to survival because it helps us regulate water and electrolytes in our body, and without it, you'd die. The average person needs about one teaspoon of salt per day (that's around 2,300 milligrams).
Why is salt so important? Salt, which is sodium chloride, serves as an electrolyte that helps keep our bodies balanced and functioning properly. If you don’t have enough sodium and chloride in your body, you could suffer from headaches, muscle cramps, dehydration, low blood pressure, and more. But there's more.
Salty Sunflower Seeds Activate the Brain's Reward Centers
Scientists also know that opioid systems, reward centers in the brain, regulate salt cravings. Studies in mice show that when mice are deprived of salt and then offered salt water, a portion of the brain that processes emotions (the amygdala) lights up.
But when they blocked receptors for opioids, the mice no longer responded to the salty water with enthusiasm. So, eating something salty seems to stimulate reward centers in the brain.
Based on these findings, salty foods, like sunflower seeds, make us feel rewarded and cause us to desire more. The same could be said of other salty snacks, like tree nuts, peanuts, and potato chips, some of the most popular snack foods that people have a hard time stopping eating. How many people can reach into a bag of potato chips and eat only one?
The question is whether unsalted sunflower seeds would be as crave-worthy. If salt is the reason people eat handful after handful, probably not, just as unsalted potato chips wouldn't have the same appeal.
Humans love salt but also consume too much of it. The biggest source isn't salt from the salt shaker but processed foods. Most packaged foods contain an abundance of added sodium for more flavor. That's one reason it's easy to overeat junk food, fast food, and other packaged fare.
Sunflower Seeds Are a Healthy Snack in Moderation
The good news is that sunflower seeds are quite nutritious. It's healthier to scoop up a handful of sunflower seeds than to crack open a bag of potato chips. If salt is the reason these foods are so "addictive," they're both foods that people have a hard time eating in small amounts. The difference is one is healthier than the other. So, salt has some addictive potential but if you crave salt, sunflower seeds are a healthier choice than those greasy chips.
But the key is to eat a variety of whole, unprocessed foods and avoid eating too many of one type of food, especially ones high in salt or sugar. Still, there are worse habits than munching on sunflower seeds if you do it in moderation.
- Cocores JA, Gold MS. The Salted Food Addiction Hypothesis may explain overeating and the obesity epidemic. Med Hypotheses. 2009 Dec;73(6):892-9. doi: 10.1016/j.mehy.2009.06.049. Epub 2009 Jul 29. PMID: 19643550.
- "Why is salty food so addictive? - cosmosmagazine.com." 15 Nov. 2016, https://cosmosmagazine.com/science/biology/love-salty-food-studies-show-why-its-so-addictive/.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.