Compared to other nuts and seeds, sesame seeds have one of the highest oil contents by weight — which is why tahini is exceptionally silky smooth compared to other nut butters (like peanut or almond butter). Sesame seeds contain up to 55 percent oil and 20 percent protein, exactly why they’re well-known for providing both healthy fats and certain essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein).
While it might be a high-calorie food based on volume, a small amount of tahini goes a long way. It has a rich, nutty flavor that comes through strongly in recipes, plus tahini can benefit your heart, hormonal and skin health even when you use just a small amount. Most of sesame seeds’ fat is polyunsaturated fat, while a small amount is monounsaturated and saturated. Roughly 50 percent to 60 percent of the fat within tahini is made up of two beneficial compounds: sesamin and sesamolin.
Tahini also contains phenolic compounds, linoleic acid, oleic acid, gamma-tocopherol, and amino acids including lysine, tryptophan and methionine. Sesame seeds are around about 20 percent protein by weight, making them a higher protein food than most other seeds or nuts.
Sesamolin and sesamin prevalent in sesame seeds have been found to have antithrombotic properties, meaning sesame might help prevent cardiovascular diseases tied to disruptive effects and legions within the arteries, such as acute coronary syndrome and cardiovascular death. Phytosterols are a type of nutrient found in sesame seeds that have effects on hormonal levels, arterial health and cholesterol levels. The majority of the plantsterols in tahini are called beta-sitosterol. Sesame seeds rank highest in cholesterol-lowering phytosterols among 27 different nuts, seeds, legumes and grains tested (400 grams of phytosterols per every 200 grams of seeds)!
Although sesame seeds are high in fat and calories, this isn’t a bad thing when it comes to heart health. Research suggests that phytosterols can be used to treat arteriosclerosis, a disease characterized by fatty buildup within the arteries. Phytosterols are able to help regulate cholesterol in the body because they have a similar structure to cholesterol, which means they can help replace some of it and block its absorption within the intestinal tract. This decreases the amount of absorbable cholesterol within the bloodstream and is beneficial for people suffering from certain heart complications.
Another important attribute of sesame seeds their plant lignans content. Lignans have been shown to have anticancer effects and heart-promoting abilities. Studies have found that precursors from sesame seeds are converted by the bacterial flora in the colon to mammalian lignans equivalent to those obtained from flaxseeds, which have always been thought of as the best lignan source.
Phytoestrogens are a controversial topic, especially when it comes to their effects on hormones. Phytoestrogens both mimic estrogen and act as estrogen antagonists (meaning they behave in the opposite way of biological estrogen), which makes them a bit confusing to understand. They affect the body by attaching to estrogen receptors, which tricks your body into thinking you have more or less estrogen than you really do. It’s not so cut-and-dry as to say whether or not phytoestrogens are either good or bad, but studies show they do have their benefits.
Estrogen-building foods usually get a bad reputation — and for good reason, considering the standard American diet tends to be high in foods that promote estrogen dominance, which is problematic. But not all of phytoestrogens’ effects are bad. For certain people, especially in post-menopausal women over 50 or women who are otherwise low in estrogen, phytoestrogen foods can actually be beneficial because they naturally balance hormones, help maintain strong bones, and lower the risk for various diseases like cancer and osteoporosis.
Dietary estrogens seem to be most protective for women during menopause, a time in which a woman transitions from her last menstrual cycle, ends fertility and experiences adjustments in hormone levels, especially estrogen and progesterone. Purposefully increasing phytoestrogen intake isn’t a good idea for most people and might be harmful, but it can also help counteract the effects of hormonal imbalances that women begin to experience as they get older. Some studies have found that increased phytoestrogens help drastically reduce menopause symptoms, including hot flashes, bone loss, weakness, mood changes, low sex drive, etc.
There’s even some evidence that phytoestrogen foods are protective against cancers related to hormone production in some cases. Phytoestrogens have been studied in connection with breast and ovarian cancers, with many studies showing positive results.
Sesame seeds are a good source of amino acids, vitamin E, B vitamins, trace minerals and fatty acids that all help with skin cell rejuvenation and preventing early signs of aging. While you might not want to go slathering tahini directly on your skin, even eating tahini can help improve the integrity of your skin by boosting your fat and nutrient intake.
Sesame oil has been used to treat skin wounds, burns, sensitivities and dryness for thousands of years, which is why it’s sometimes called “the queen of oils.” (8) It’s a natural antibacterial and antifungal agent, meaning it kills bacteria that can clog pores. Healthy fats in general are key for skin health because fats are needed to lower inflammation and keep skin moist. Tahini also provides minerals like zinc, which are needed to repair damaged tissue and produce collagen that gives skin its youthful elasticity and firmness.
Studies have found that sesame seeds help boost absorption of protective fat-soluble compounds like tocopherol, the major nutrients within vitamin E that play a role in the prevention of human aging-related diseases, such as cancer and heart disease. When researchers tested the effects of sesame seed consumption in humans over a five-day period, they found that sesame (but not walnuts or soy oil) significantly elevated serum gamma-tocopherol levels by an average of 19.1 percent in subjects. The fact that sesame leads to elevated plasma gamma-tocopherol and enhanced vitamin E bioactivity means it might be effective for preventing inflammation, oxidative stress and therefore chronic disease development.