Sunflower Seeds Re-examined

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In experiments with gerbils fed solely on sunflower seeds the concluding data showed that they eventually caused obesity and also led to osteoporosis through calcium depletion. Many 'bibles' on rodents and Internet websites have continued spreading this message, and over the years this information has been translated into sunflower seeds being a very bad source of nutrition for gerbils and rodents in general. As a consequence, it has directly led to the practice of totally excluding the seed from most rodents diets and owners fearing their gerbils will suffer instant obesity and osteoporosis as a result of including them in the diet.

This practice is completely wrong as in the right amounts and combined with the correct foodstuffs it is actually a fairly good source of calcium. However if overfed, or used as a single food source, like in the experiment (which no-one in their right mind would try to practice!) the total high fat content and probably protein, binds the calcium making it useless. The keywords in most diets are variety and moderation, and if practiced properly, none of your gerbils will suffer, but will only benefit from the inclusion of sunflower seeds in the diet.


Sunflower seeds are regarded by many human nutritionists as being the most perfect in nutrients, and can supply most of the bodies needs. They are roughly 22% protein and contain 50% oil. For every 100g consumed they contain 30g of unsaturated fats and 30 mg of essential linoleic acid (which as we know reduce cholesterol deposits in the arteries and veins). They also contain 7 mg of iron, which can be compared to only 2.5mg from the same serving of beef! Also they contain Potassium (which helps flush and reduce sodium in the body. They also contain magnesium and phosphorous which help the body ABSORB calcium.

The calcium to phosphorous ratio makes the calcium readily available. Magnesium is contained too which is an essential mineral linked to over 300 metabolic biological reactions, including skeletal metabolism and a deficiency of this important mineral may actually contribute to osteoporosis. Their vitamin B content is also high, especially in thiamin and niacin, which help protect the health of brain, skin and digestive tract. The seed also contains vitamin E which helps maintain fertility.

A good supply of calcium is always needed, but should come from many sources as a lot of different things can affect the amount of calcium actually ingested. As I have mentioned in another article concerning nutrition, alfalfa is cited as being high in calcium but a lot of the calcium binds with the fibre, so actually a lot less is absorbed. Phytic acid found in whole wheat and some other whole grains will also bind calcium in the gut so reducing absorption. Calcium oxalate is found in many greens (and even chocolate!) this also binds calcium preventing its absorption.

Although its widely publicised by the meat and dairy industry that these products are good sources of calcium, this isn't exactly true. Cows and goats get their calcium from the grasses they consume, some of which ends up in the milk they produce for their offspring. Unfortunately, the protein in dairy foods causes calcium losses, more is lost than is taken in. the high acid residue of meat metabolism requires calcium to neutralise it (and this can be drawn from the bones) This is why countries like the United States whose intake of meat and/or dairy products is very high also tend to have the greatest incidence of osteoporosis.

Osteoporosis, a serious condition, has been thought to be caused by too little calcium in the diet. This is not true. The biggest contributor is a diet too high in protein, in particular animal protein. Animal foods create a situation in the body that leads to the significant loss of calcium from bones and teeth, regardless of how much calcium is taken in. Calcium from plant sources will usually be sufficiently high (and superior to calcium from meat/dairy source) if overall corresponding protein, phosphorous and fat consumption isn't too high.

Now gerbils have a tendency to be more lipemic (a high fat content in the blood) than other rodents. Studies have indicated that even on low fat diets, gerbils will develop lipemia. (Lipids include cholesterol and triglycerides) High serum cholesterol levels in gerbils have been associated with hepatic lipidosis and gallstones, but not atherosclerosis. High cholesterol diets in the gerbil leads to excess deposits in several body organs but not in arteries. However, older breeder animals fed natural-ingredient diets have shown spontaneous atherosclerosis.

Now bearing in mind the points mentioned above, if we take a closer look at some of the nutritional properties of sunflower seeds we can then see how they are extremely beneficial for the gerbil.

 A lot of the confusion with sunflower seeds is centred on the fact that they are high in fats, but the fats they do contain are virtually all mono and polyunsaturated fats. These are good fats and essential for correct body function. These are the fats that actually help protect the heart. Many clinical studies show that higher unsaturated fat diets are preferable to low- fat diets because they lower the total cholesterol count.

We also know that sunflower seeds are the best whole source food of vitamin E. This is an antioxidant that can protect against heart disease by getting rid of harmful molecules known as free radicals that can lead to atherosclerosis.

They are also a good source of selenium. Selenium works with vitamin E as an antioxidant and protects cells from damage that may lead to cancer, heart disease, and other health problems.

They are also rich in cholesterol-lowering phytosterols. These chemicals are also thought to inhibit cancer growth.

They are also an excellent source of fibre, the indigestible part of plant foods that promotes good health by helping to lower blood cholesterol and manage blood glucose levels, which helps prevent against diabetes.

Apart from all this, they are also a great source of complete plant protein, and have a high amount of the amino acid tryptophan which has been shown to have a calmative action on the brain (No wonder they are often the seed of choice when used to tame gerbils)

As with all things though, sunflower seeds included, moderation is the key to optimum health for our gerbils.

 Article By Eddie Cope


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