Chia is an edible seed that comes from the desert flowering plant in the mint family called Salvia hispanica. You may have seen chia sprouts growing on the novelty planters called ‘Chia Pets’, but historically, the seeds have been the most important part of the plant. In pre-Columbian times they were a main component of the Aztec and Mayan diets and were the basic survival ration of Aztec warriors. They are prized them for their ability to provide sustainable energy, in fact it’s believed that one tablespoon was believed to sustain an individual for 24 hours. The Aztecs also used Chia medicinally to stimulate saliva flow and to relieve joint pain and sore skin.
Chia seeds are a concentrated food containing healthy omega-3 fatty acids, carbohydrates, protein, fiber, antioxidants, and calcium. Chia seeds are an unprocessed, whole-grain food that can be absorbed by the body as seeds (unlike flaxseeds). The mild, nutty flavor of chia seeds makes them easy to add to foods and beverages. The seeds are tasteless, so they won’t affect the flavour profile of your food, which makes them easy to integrate into your meals. They can be sprinkled whole on top of salads, cereal, sauces, vegetables, yogurts, added to ice creams or or added milled to smoothies, and even eat them sprouted. They can also easily be integrated into baked goods and mixed with water to be made into a gel.
History Behind Chia Seeds
Long ago, before the Spanish conquest of Latin America, Chia seeds were a staple food, like corn and beans, in the diets of the Aztecs and Mayans. Most evidence shows that humans began using Chia seeds around 3500 BC. Ancient south-American civilisations like Aztecs and Mayans, prized the tiny chia seed and its remarkable nutritional profile more highly than gold. They would mix chia with water and consume as a beverage, grind into flour, add to medicines, press for oil and even use chia as a base for body paints. At this time in history, chia seeds were considered to be almost magical because of their ability to increase stamina, endurance and energy over long periods of time.
The name ‘chia’ literally translates to ‘strength’ in Mayan, with the seed long being famed a ‘running food’. The Tarahumara tribe of northwest Mexico are considered to be the greatest runners in the world, they can run for hundreds of miles at a time through the rugged terrain of their homeland after consuming a special beverage called Iskiate, which is a mix of chia seeds, fresh water and lemon.
However, after the Spanish conquest of Latin America, chia seeds and their benefits became somewhat eclipsed, as the Spanish introduced their own foods and prohibited the farming of chia. Still, it’s remained in regular use in its native countries, but was largely unknown in North America until researcher Wayne Coates began studying chia as an alternative crop for farmers in northern Argentina about 29 years ago. Coates started his work on chia in 1991, and since then has become an advocate of the tiny seed’s health benefits.
There are additional benefits from the Chia seed aside from the nutritive enhancements when used as an ingredient. It was also used by the Indians and missionaries as a poultice for gunshot wounds and other serious injuries. They would pack the wounds with Chia seeds to avoid infections and promote haling. If you place a seed or two in your eyes it will clean your eyes and will also help to clear up any infections.
Myths About Chia
1. Can You Lose Weight?
Many health experts believe that chia seeds can help with weight loss. The fiber absorbs large amounts of water and expands in the stomach, which should increase fullness and slow the absorption of food. There have been several studies on glucomannan, a fiber that works in a similar way, showing that it can lead to weight loss. Unfortunately, when the effects of chia seeds on weight loss have been studied, the results have been rather disappointing. Although one study showed that chia seeds can reduce appetite, there was no significant effect on body weight.
In a study on 90 overweight people, 50 grams of chia seeds per day for 12 weeks had no effect on body weight or health markers. In another 10 week study of 62 women, chia seeds had no effect on bodyweight but did increase the amount of Omega-3s in the blood. Although just adding chia seeds to your diet is unlikely to affect your weight. Read the studies here: (5) (6)
2. Can It Fight Belly Fat?
Chia’s stabilizing effect on blood sugar also fights insulin resistance which can be tied to an increase in belly fat. This type of resistance can also be harmful for your overall health.
3. Muscle And Tissue Builder?
Chia seed, is a muscle and tissue builder and an energizer of endurance with extensive hydration properties because of its physio-chemical properties. It supports effective treatment in immediate problems of digestion. As a source of protein, Chia, after ingestion, is digested and absorbed very easily. This results in rapid transport to the tissue and utilization by the cells. This efficient assimilation makes Chia very effective when rapid development of tissue takes place, primarily during growth periods of children, adolescents, during pregnancy and lactation and for athletes who need muscle tissue for conditioning.
4. Improve Exercise Performance?
Legend has it that the Aztecs and Mayans used chia seeds to fuel performance back in the day. There is one recent study suggesting that this may be effective. In the study, 6 participants carb loaded with either gatorade, or a mix of half gatorade/half chia seeds. Then they ran for an hour on a treadmill, followed by a timed 10 kilometer long run. There was no difference between the two groups. In other words, replacing half of the gatorade with chia seeds did not reduce the performance of the athletes, indicating that chia seeds were of some use. According to this study, chia seeds can help athletes “carb load” for endurance events, while increasing their intake of nutrients and decreasing their intake of sugar. Read the study here.
5. Cure For Diabetes?
Chia is being studied as a potential natural treatment for type-2 diabetes because of its ability to slow down digestion. The gelatinous coating chia seeds develops when exposed to liquids can also prevent blood sugar spikes.
In a study, 20 diabetic patients received either 37 grams of chia seeds, or 37 grams of wheat bran, for 12 weeks. When they got the chia seeds, they saw improvements in several important health markers. Blood pressure went down by 3-6 mm/Hg and an inflammatory marker called hs-CRP went down by 40%. A risk factor called vWF also decreased by 21%. There was also a small drop in blood sugar, but it wasn’t statistically significant. Read the study here.
6. Can It Lower Cholesterol?
In two studies, a diet with chia seeds, soy protein, oats and nopal, has been shown to lower LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, increase HDL cholesterol and reduce inflammation. Because these studies also used other ingredients, nothing can be concluded about the chia seeds themselves. Rat studies have also shown that chia seeds can lower triglycerides, raise HDL cholesterol and reduce inflammation, insulin resistance and belly fat. However, a study that looked at just chia seeds did not note any improvements.
Read the studies here: (1) (2) (3) (4)
7. Improves Heart Health?
According to the Cleveland Clinic, chia seeds have been shown to improve blood pressure in diabetics, and may also increase healthy cholesterol while lowering total, LDL, and triglyceride cholesterol.
The Healthy Components of Chia
1. High In Dietary Fibre
Fiber is vital for all aspects of health, and is especially key for weight loss and digestion. It helps slow digestion and makes you feel fuller by soaking up fluid and expanding in your digestive tract.
Adding ground chia to your diet boosts your intake of dietary fiber, a type of carbohydrate. Unlike the other carbohydrates in your diet, such as sugar and starch, your body does not break down fiber as a source of energy, and instead passes fiber through your system unchanged. This means that the fiber in foods will help fill you up, but doesn’t add to the calorie content of your meal.
Fiber also benefits your health by slowing digestion, fiber-rich foods release sugar into your bloodstream slowly, so you avoid the blood sugar spikes that negatively affect your energy levels between meals.
The average American only gets 12 to 15 grams of dietary fibre, while the American Dietetic Association recommends 20 to 35 grams of fiber each day. Just a 28-gram or one-ounce serving of chia has 11 grams of dietary fibre, about a third of the recommended daily intake for adults, providing more dietary fiber than two apples.
2. High In Niacin
Niacin helps your body convert food to usable energy and keeps your skin and nerves healthy. The vitamin also helps support your metabolism, and also controls your blood pressure.
Chia seeds are rich in niacin, also called vitamin B-3. Niacin plays a role in your metabolism, helping your body use carbohydrates as energy. It also benefits your nervous system, skin, hair and vision.
An ounce of chia seeds has 2.5 milligrams of niacin, approximately 18 and 16 percent of the recommended intake for women and men, respectively.
3.Good Source Of Omega-3
Omega-3 fatty acids, is a type of healthy fat that your body can’t make on its own, so you need to get it from your diet. It helps keep your cardio-vascular system healthy as you age, reduce the risk of heart disease, and also aid in brain functioning. But there are two conflicting views on this subject.
- Positive: Chia seeds contain more omega-3 fatty acids than salmon per serving. There’s better conversion of omega 3s into the plasma or into the food than with flax seed. An ounce of ground chia contains 5.1 grams of omega-3 fatty acids, your entire recommended daily intake of the fats, according to the Linus Pauling Institute. Chia seeds’ lipid profile is composed of 60 percent omega-3s, making them one of the richest plant-based sources of these fatty acids, specifically, of ALA. The Institute of Medicine recommends that women get 1.1 grams and men get 1.6 grams of omega-3 fatty acids per day to maintain proper neurological development and growth. They’re one of few nuts and seeds with a higher concentration of anti-inflammatory omega-3s than pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids.
- Negative: While 1 tablespoon of chia seeds contains 4 grams of alpha linolenic acid (ALA), a precursor to omega-3s, this needs to be converted into the active forms of EPA and DHA, before it can be used by the body. Unfortunately, humans are inefficient at converting ALA into the active forms. Therefore, plant Omega-3s tend to be vastly inferior to animal sources like fish. Studies have shown that chia seeds (especially if they are milled) can increase blood levels of ALA and EPA, but not DHA (the most important Omega-3 fat).
More research is needed to determine exactly how much is converted to omega-3s in your body. Research published in the “Journal of Biomedicine and Biotechnology” in 2012 noted that chia seeds may help to prevent heart disease and diabetes, but more clinical trials are needed to support the safety and effectiveness of chia seed in humans.
4. Good Source of Tryptophan
Chia seed is an excellent source of tryptophan, an amino acid that promotes good mood, good sleep and a sense of calm. Because the human body cannot produce tryptophan on its own, we need to get this essential amino acid from food sources.
Tryptophan is an amino acid that is a precursor to several important hormones. This means the body uses tryptophan to produce these hormones, including the mood-regulating neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin plays a role in fighting anxiety, promoting good moods and producing the sleep hormone melatonin. Tryptophan also helps the body to produce important B-vitamin niacin.
A one-ounce serving of dried chia seeds contain 202 milligrams of tryptophan. The tryptophan content of chia seed is higher than that of many other seeds, including sesame seeds (109 milligrams), sunflower seeds (97 milligrams), pumpkin seeds (91 milligrams) and flaxseed (83 milligrams).
5. Rich In Antioxidants
Chia seeds are rich in antioxidants that help protect the body from free radicals, aging and cancer. The high antioxidant profile also helps them have a long shelf life. They last almost two years without refrigeration. Although antioxidant supplements are not very effective, getting antioxidants from foods can have positive effects on health. These protect the sensitive fats in the seeds from going rancid. Most importantly, antioxidants fight the production of free radicals, which can damage molecules in cells and contribute to ageing and diseases like cancer. Refer to the study here.
6. High In Calcium
Ground chia contains 179 milligrams of calcium which is 18 percent of your RDA. Calcium helps keep your bones and teeth strong and maintain nerve transmissions.
Adequate calcium intake may also increase weight and fat loss, according to a study published in the journal “Obesity Research” in 2004. In the trial, obese adults taking calcium and restricting calories lost more weight and dropped more fat from their midsections than adults who just restricted calories.
7. High In Manganese
Manganese isn’t a well-known nutrient, but it’s important for our health. It’s good for your bones and helps your body use other essential nutrients like biotin and thiamin. One serving of chia seeds, or 28 grams, has 30 per cent of your recommended intake of this mineral.
8. Good Source Of Phosphorus
Chia contains 244 milligrams of phosphorus, or 35 percent of your daily phosphorus requirements which helps you maintain healthy bones and teeth. Phosphorus is also used by the body to synthesize protein for cell and tissue growth and repair.
9. High In Protein
Chia seeds also make a great source of protein for vegetarians and don’t have any cholesterol. One 28-gram serving of these super seeds has 4.4 grams of protein, nearly 10 per cent of the daily value. By weight, they are about 14% protein, which is very high compared to most plants. Each 3-tablespoon helping of chia seeds has 7 grams of protein. Based on a 50-gram protein DV, you eat 14 percent of your day’s protein in each serving.
10. Rich Source Of Amino Acids
Chia seeds are also a rich source of other essential amino acids, including leucine, lysine, tyrosine and arginine, combined, these amino acids contribute to chia seed’s considerable protein content, which is about 4.5 grams protein per ounce.
Protein has all sorts of benefits for health. It is also the most weight loss friendly nutrient in the diet, by far. A high protein intake reduces appetite and has been shown to reduce obsessive thoughts about food by 60% and the desire for night time snacking by 50%. Chia seeds are an excellent protein source, especially for people who eat little or no animal products. Read the study here.
11. Good Source Of Carbohydrate
There are also just 17 grams, or 5 percent of a 300-milligram DV, of carbohydrates in each helping.
12. High In Unsaturated Fat
A 3-tablespoon serving of chia seed has 12 grams of fat, only 1 gram of which is saturated. The remaining 11 grams are heart-healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Each serving of chia seeds has 18 percent of a day’s fat intake and 5 percent of a day’s saturated fat intake. You don’t consume any cholesterol in a helping of chia seeds.
13. Low In Sodium
It only contains 6 milligrams of sodium.
14. High Iron Content
Iron is essential to keep your blood oxygenated. One ounce of chia seeds has 2.19 milligrams of iron, providing men with 25 percent of their recommended intake for iron. Women, who need 18 milligrams of iron per day, get about an eighth of the iron they need.
15. Other Minerals and Vitamins
Chia also contains trace amounts of potassium, vitamin A, vitamin B-12, thiamine and folate.
One serving of dry chia seeds is 3 tablespoons, which weighs about 1.4 ounces. Each serving has just over 190 calories.
17. Hydrophilic Properties
One of the exceptional qualities of the Chia seed is its hydrophilic properties, having the ability to absorb more than 12 times its weigh in water. Its ability to hold on to water offers the ability to prolong hydration. Fluids and electrolytes provide the environment that supports the life of all the body’s cells. Their concentration and composition are regulated to remain as constant as possible. With Chia seeds, you retain moisture, regulate, more efficiently, the bodies’ absorption of nutrients and body fluids. Because there is a greater efficiency in the utilization of body fluids, the electrolyte balance is maintained.
18. Balanced Fibre and Carb
Looking at the nutrition profile of chia seeds, you see that an ounce has 12 grams of carbohydrates. However, 11 of those grams are fiber which isn’t digested by the body. Fiber doesn’t raise blood sugar, doesn’t require insulin to be disposed of and therefore shouldn’t count as a carb. The true carb content is only 1 gram per ounce, which is very low. This makes chia a low-carb friendly food. Because of all the fiber, chia seeds can absorb up to 10-12 times their weight in water, becoming gel-like and expanding in your stomach. Theoretically, this should increase fullness, slow absorption of your food and help you automatically eat fewer calories. Fiber also feeds the friendly bacteria in the intestine, which is important because keeping your gut bugs well fed is absolutely crucial for health. Chia seeds are 40% fiber, by weight. This makes them one of the best sources of fiber in the world. Read the study here.
In summary, a 1 ounce (28 grams/2tbsp) serving of chia seeds contains:
• Fiber: 11 grams.
• Protein: 4 grams.
• Fat: 9 grams (5 of which are Omega-3s).
• Calcium: 18% of the RDA.
• Manganese: 30% of the RDA.
• Magnesium: 30% of the RDA.
• Phosphorus: 27% of the RDA.
• They also contain a decent amount of Zinc, Vitamin B3 (Niacin), Potassium, Vitamin B1 (Thiamine) and Vitamin B2.
• Provides 137 calories and 1 gram of digestible carbohydrate. (If you subtract the fiber, which may not end up as usable calories for the body, chia seeds only contain 101 calories per ounce).
Chia seeds are whole grain food, and are usually grown organically, are non-GMO and naturally free of gluten. Chia seeds can be either black or white, but never brown. There is no nutritional difference between black and white chia, however brown chia is immature and should not be eaten. If you have food allergies (especially to sesame or mustard seeds) or are on high blood pressure medications or blood thinners, you should ask your health care provider before adding chia to your diet.