In my mid-20s I realized that I had never gotten expert instruction on how to eat healthfully. Of course, my family had taught me all they knew (and in retrospect, they raised me with many good eating habits, for which I'm eternally grateful). But I felt pretty ignorant overall. Why wasn't this subject covered in junior high or high school?
So I booked a few sessions with Cynthia Stadd, who taught me some of the science and psychology behind eating well for both body and mind. I learned a tremendous amount at an ideal time, just when I was becoming an adult. (Hint: A session with an experienced nutritionist would be a great gift for the 20-something in your life!) One of the foods she introduced me to was seaweed.
I remember Cynthia giving me one of her worksheets and highlighting the types of seaweed to buy and how to incorporate it into my diet. But I was skeptical. In fact, it was the only one of her suggestions that I resisted. I'd never eaten seaweed growing up and it was very unfamiliar to me. But I did it for a while — just because she told me to. Then I started enjoying both the flavor profile and the fairly immediate positive digestive effects of seaweed, which has several health benefits.
Seaweed is great for digestion. As mentioned, the first positive effect you'll likely experience from consuming seaweed is improved digestion. Some companies are even looking at adding it to other foods to make them higher in fiber. But it's not just the fiber that's good for you. Compounds in seaweed help good gut bacteria and slow down early digestion so you feel more full for a longer time, according to the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture. At the same time, seaweed in the stomach helps predigest some foods, leading to less gas creation in the gut.
It's packed with minerals. Different types of seaweed have varied benefits when it comes to specific nutrients. Wakame is high in calcium and magnesium. Nori is rich in protein, omega-3s and B12. Kombu is a great source of natural iodine, and arame is a great source of potassium and it also prevented weight gain in rats.
Seaweed absorbs toxins. No, this isn't one of these fruity "do a juice cleanse and you'll feel better" assertions. Lots of good science has been done looking at seaweed's capacity to absorb heavy metals such as cadmium and lead (present in our environment from power plants and also found in cigarette smoke) and radioactivity. Acting like a mop, seaweed soaks up the bad stuff and flushes it out of your body more effectively than almost anything else.
It can improve heart health. Studies on the relationship between seaweed consumption and lowered blood pressure and cholesterol have only been reliably proven in animal populations. Whether they can be extrapolated to humans is not yet known. Among people, however, we have the following information via The Guardian: "A 25-year study of the longest-lived population, the Okinawans, who have unfurry arteries, low cholesterol and low homocysteine (a heart-damaging chemical) levels, showed that sea vegetables were among the seven to 10 portions of fruit and vegetables they eat daily."
Now, because seaweed has these amazing benefits, you'll want to be sure that you are consuming a high-quality brand. I would avoid the cheap stuff. Even so, seaweed doesn't tend to be very expensive, so it definitely isn't one of those pricey superfoods that have you weighing whether you can afford toilet paper or a bag of the stuff. Check out this useful guide on Oprah.com of the different kinds of seaweed, what their specific health benefits are, and how to enjoy them.
How can you get more seaweed in your diet? You could get it with your sushi. I don't eat sushi often enough for that to be a regular source for me. However, when I go to a sushi place, I start with a dish of seaweed salad, like the one pictured in the main image for this article, which is arame. If you've never had it, you might be surprised. It's a little sweet and really delicious! Of course, you can buy good dried seaweed and throw it in soups or beans when you're cooking them up, and I do this sometimes, but not often. No, my most reliable source of seaweed is as a snack food. Here are my faves, ranked.
1. Sea Snacks Sea Sprinkles calls this treat "strangely addictive" and that's no joke. They are JUST as difficult to put down as potato chips, seriously! Made with nori seaweed, olive oil, agave, sesame oil, sesame seeds and sea salt (that's it!), they are one of my top treats. I've gotten to the point where I don't even like to "waste" them on soup or mixing with something else. They are that tasty!
2. Annie Chun's seaweed snacks with wasabi are really tasty and have a bit of kick, but I object to the extra plastic tray inside the package. (It's unnecessary and wasteful.) But I can't deny that Annie's snacks are super yum.
3. Trader Joe's Seaweed Snack is where I first became aware that a substitute for chips was a great way to consume seaweed, so big thanks to the folks behind the brand for that. TJ's version is pretty mild, so it's perfect for adding to a bowl of chili, soup or even mac 'n cheese for a bit of extra flavor and color. They work well on their own too.
I hope I've convinced you to at least give seaweed a shot. I keep thinking that kale is way less tasty and crazy-popular (and while it has great health benefits, it's not nearly the star that seaweed is). So if kale can rise to being a pop-culture veggie fave, so can seaweed.
Happy (seaweed) snacking!