Up until five years ago, my mind associated chia seeds with only one thing: chia pets. These are the decorative planters available in various personifications such as animals and celebrities. Once the chia seeds are planted, they magically sprout to form the “hair” and “fur” of the different figures.
I became puzzled one evening when I stumbled upon a bag of chia seeds sitting on a desk in my office, with no chia pet in sight. One of our nurses must have recognized my contemplative look, as she quickly assured me that chia seeds were more than just a means of enhancing figurative planters; they were a superfood! Was there more to these tiny morsels than just growing hair?
It is now well recognized that the nurse’s proclamation was legitimate. Chia seeds are a convenient, economical superfood which can easily be incorporated into anyone’s diet. They are a great source of protein, fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, and antioxidants, and have been shown to have therapeutic benefits as an anti-inflammatory, anti-blood clotting food that can help to control high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes.
2 tablespoons of chia seeds contain around 125 calories which are packed with 5 grams of protein containing all 8 essential amino acids, more than 10 grams of fiber, and 7 grams of fat, over 60% of which is comprised of the healthy omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). They are gluten free and are also a good source of iron, calcium (18%), phosphorous (27%), and magnesium (30%). (1)
It can be “rough” to get enough fiber
Dietary fiber is a form of poorly-digested carbohydrate found only in plant foods such as fruits and vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds, and whole grains. It has been associated with weight loss by contributing to a feeling of fullness after eating. Fiber can reduce bad cholesterol (LDL) by interfering with the absorption of dietary fat and cholesterol, and can improve control of diabetes by slowing the rate at which carbohydrates are absorbed into the bloodstream, thus preventing rapid spikes in blood sugar levels. High fiber diets have also been shown to reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular disease. (2)
Current guidelines recommend that women should consume between 20-25 grams and men between 30-35 grams of fiber daily. On average, Americans are only getting between 15-18 grams. Two tablespoons of chia seeds contain more than 10 grams of fiber. This is more than what can be found in one cup of raspberries (8 grams), ½ cup of black beans (8 grams), or 1 cup of barley (6 grams). (3)
What’s so essential?
Why are omega -3 fatty acids (omega-3s) considered essential? Because our body cannot synthesize them, and they are essential for our health. Omega-3s are found in some plant foods in the form of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). While many of the studies supporting the benefit of omega-3s in heart health involve EPA and DHA derived from fatty fish, there are also studies which support the benefit of ALA. A 2012 meta-analysis of 27 studies involving over 251,000 patients demonstrated an approximately 14% reduction in cardiovascular disease events in those that consumed the greatest amount of ALA. (4) Our bodies do inefficiently convert less than 5% of the ALA we ingest to the more easily utilized EPA and DHA.
Other cardiovascular benefits of omega-3s include potentially reducing triglycerides and raising good cholesterol, lowering blood pressure, reducing inflammation, and even reducing the stickiness of platelets in the blood. (5)
The current recommended daily intake of omega-3s is 1,600mg. Chia seeds are an excellent plant-based source as two tablespoons contain nearly 5,000mg, superior to ¼ cup of walnuts (2,500mg), two tablespoons of ground flaxseed (3,000mg), or two tablespoons of hempseeds (2,000mg). (6)
Chia seeds are also a powerful source of antioxidants which can help to prevent damage from free radicals in our bodies. Laboratory studies have demonstrated high antioxidant activity due to various plant phytonutrients called phenolic compounds and isoflavones, including myricetin, quercetin, and kaempferol. (7,8) It is these very antioxidants that prevent chia seeds from going rancid! They have an ORAC score (a unit measurement for antioxidant content developed at the NIH) of 9800, placing them at 91 out of 500 foods.
How Can I use Them?
These nutritional powerhouses are easy to incorporate into your diet. They can be sprinkled on granola or non-dairy yogurt, blended into smoothies, added to baked goods, or used as a thickener to replace eggs or create puddings and jams. Check out this recipe for chocolate chia pudding from OhSheGlows or this one for mixed berry chia seed jam.
- Gunnars, Kris. “11 Proven Health Benefits of Chia Seeds”. com. May 30, 2017. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/11-proven-health-benefits-of-chia-seeds#section1
- “Dietary Fiber”. gov https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/InteractiveNutritionFactsLabel/dietary-fiber.html
- Larson, Holly MS, RD. “Easy Ways to Boost Fiber in Your Daily Diet”. org.https://www.eatright.org/food/vitamins-and-supplements/types-of-vitamins-and-nutrients/easy-ways-to-boost-fiber-in-your-daily-diet. September 5, 2017.
- Pan A, Chen M, et. al. “Alpha-linolenc acid and risk of cardiovascular disease: a systematic review and meta-analysis”. Am J Clin Nutr. 2012 Dec;96(6):1262-73. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23076616)
- Hjalmarsdottir, Freydis, MS. “17 Science-Based Benefits of Omega-3 Fatty Acids”. healthline.com. (https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/17-health-benefits-of-omega-3#modal-close) June 18, 2017.
- Link, Rachael, MS, RD. “The 7 Best Plant Sources of Omega-3 Fatty Acids”. com. (https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/7-plant-sources-of-omega-3s). July 17, 2017.
- Marinelli, Rafaela da Silva et. al. “Chemical characterization and antioxidant potential of Chilean chia sees and oil (Salvia hispanica L.)”. LWT-Food Science and Technology. Vol 59, Issue 2, Part 2. December 2014. 1304-1310. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0023643814002072
- Martinez-Cruz O et. al. “Phytochemical profile and nutraceutical potential of chia seeds (Salvia hispanica L.) by ultra high performance liquid chromatography. J Chromatogr A. 2014 Jun 13;1346:43-8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24811150
- Ullah, Rahman et. al. “Nutritional and therapeutic perspectives of Chia (Salvia hispanica): a review”. J Food Sci Technol. April 2016. 53(4):1750-1758.