Remember in the 80s and 90s when Chia Pets were all the rage?
So do I. I wanted one SO BADLY. I was so deprived.
Well, Chia is back in a big way, and not just on those creepy clay heads. Chia seeds are now touted in popular media as a “super food”, one that we all must be taking in order to lead long, healthy lives. I have two small problems with this.
1. There is no definition of a “super food”. Is it laced with magical fairy dust that will make all of your health problems go away? No? Ok, it’s not super.
2. Even if they are a “super food” (or whatever that means), does that mean that everyone should be taking them? Is there really a food that can help every person, with all of our myriad of health conditions? And what makes these so super, anyway?
And that brings me to today’s post. Let’s explore the chia seed a little bit, talk about the claims, the facts, and my own personal experience with them. Then we’ll decide if they really are so super, and if we all should, in fact, be supplementing our diets with them.
First things first: What is a chia seed?
The chia plant, or Salvia Hispanica, is a plant that is native to the warmer climates of Mexico and Guatemala. Rumor has it that Aztec Warriors used to eat them, and that 1 Tbs of Chia would sustain them for a 24 hour hunt. Questionable, yes, because Lord knows if I were an Aztec Warrior I would be snacking on nuts and berries constantly during my hunting trips (always travel with snacks).
Anyway, Chia is still very popular in Mexican culture, often being made into a beverage called “Chia Fresca”, which is basically a mix of chia, water, lime and sugar.
What are the nutritional benefits of consuming Chia?
Chia seeds are said to be a “Super Food” because they contain a multitude of nutrients that are important for our health and well being. They contain Omega-3 fatty acids (in the form of ALA, or alpha-linolenic acid ), and are a great source of protein, fat, and soluble fiber. They also contain generous amounts of antioxidants, calcium, phosporus, potassium, sodium, and manganese, all of which help various systems in our bodies running smoothly.
Ok, let’s pick this apart a little bit: Antioxidants: EXCELLENT. All of those minerals: GOOD. Fat, Protein, Fiber: GOOD. Omega-3s: GOOD-ish…
But wait, aren’t Omega-3s like the best thing ever created on this earth?
Omega-3 fatty acids are in fact very good for you. However, not all fatty-acids are created equal. The form of Omega-3 that have been shown to protect against cardiovascular disease, decrease inflammation, help with blood clotting, and other health benefits are DHA and EPA, both fatty acids that are found in marine, not plant based foods. In fact DHA is critical to both the structure and function of the human brain. There are plenty of plant based foods that will give you an Omega-3 punch (flax, chia, walnuts), but the truth is, ALA is just not up to par with DHA and EPA when it comes to health benefits. This is because the body is unable to efficiently convert ALA into DHA, and ALA has not been proven to have the same effects on the human body.
Granted, while research on DHA/EPA has been relatively extensive, the research isolating ALA from it’s counterparts is next to nothing. So all of this information needs to be taken with a grain of salt, especially since there is new research coming out every day in the nutrition/medical world.
So, does ALA have ANY health benefits?
The jury is out on whether ALA actually has any sort of cardioprotective role in the body, but ALA is in fact an essential fatty acid, meaning your body does not create it naturally, therefore it needs to be consumed by way of food or supplement.
So, in short, ALA is a good, essential fatty acid. Does it provide you with cardioprotective benefits and the other myriad of effects that are associated with Omega-3s? That’s up in the air.
That being said, let’s quickly talk about the other nutrients present in Chia seeds:
As I’ve said already, Chia seeds are a great source of protein, fat, and soluble fiber. All of these nutrients help to increase the satiety value, allowing you to remain satisfied longer after eating a meal or snack that contains chia seeds. An interesting aspect related to the high fiber content is the ability of these seeds to absorb up to 9 times their weight in water. Soaking chia in water will cause them to form a gel-like substance, and it is this gel substance that may increase the time of carbohydrate breakdown and lead to a more “full” feeling (this could potentially aid in weight loss, however research in this area is scarce). This gel is also the reason why chia can help with hydration by increasing the amount of water that is available to your body tissues, especially during a long run or training session (remember those Aztec warriors?)
Along with these macronutrients, chia seeds have many important micronutrients as well. All of the minerals that are listed above have various benefits to the structure and function of our bodies, including bone growth and health, cellular integrity, muscular actions, and tissue regeneration, among others. Chia seeds also pack quite the antioxidant punch, supplying your body with compounds that can neutralize damaging free radicals, protecting you from disease and enhancing overall health. An added bonus is that the high levels of antioxidants in chia seeds keeps them from going rancid for much longer than other seeds, such as flax.
So how do you take chia seeds?
This is really up to you. The common recommendation is to soak about 1 Tbs in 8-12 oz water for about 30 minutes, stir, and drink. Otherwise, since they do form a gel-like substance, many people add them into jams, sauces, or dressings. Additionally, an easy way to include them into your daily diet is to sprinkle a small amount into smoothies, yogurt, over cereal, or even over your salad. Chia seeds have excellent bioavailability, so they can be consumed either whole or ground, depending on your personal preference.
What do I think about chia seeds?
Personally, chia seeds are not the best option for me despite all of their nutritional excellence. I have tried the recommended dosage (1 Tbs per day), and experienced horrible, horrible stomach issues. I honestly felt as though the seeds formed their gel in my stomach and expanded to the size of a basketball, which stayed in my stomach all day. I tried this for a few days, being sure to down tons of water in order to offset the extremely high level of soluble fiber in these bad boys, but no matter how much water I drank, there was that basketball in my gut. After a few days, I downed the dose to about 1/2 tbs mixed in with water in the morning, and it didn’t help with the bloat at all. After a few days of that (and continuing to drink copious amounts of water), I decreased it even further to about 1 teaspoon, and still, THE BLOAT.
So I pretty much gave up on them, despite the hype. I guess I’m just Susie Sensitive over here. I still sprinkle them over yogurt or into smoothies occasionally, but only a very small amount, and never on consecutive days.
So that being said, if you do choose to take chia seeds, always make sure that you drink Plenty of water while doing so, and even then, remember that not every supplement is for everyone, and that some of us have sensitivities that make even the most healthy of foods virtually off limits.
Overall, I think Chia seeds are an excellent source of nutrition, and for some people can be a great addition to a healthy diet. Do I think that they are a magical seed with properties that will make you healthy no matter what else you do? No. Do I think they are filled with wonderful nutrients that can enhance a healthy diet and lifestyle? Yes. Do I think that they do everything that the big commercial chia companies claim? Nope. Not by a long shot.
Final thought: Chia seeds can be an excellent addition to a healthy lifestyle, and are an easy dietary addition that can provide your body with various health benefits and nutrients. However, they are not the end-all be-all of nutrition, and should not be considered something that will counteract other unhealthy habits. Chia seeds, along with other “super foods”, do not work miracles should only be included as one small part of an overall healthy lifestyle.
Do you supplement your diet with chia seeds? Have you experienced any negative side effects while using them? Do you, or do know know of anyone who has tried Chia as a weight loss supplement?