Updated Sept 2019
Chia seeds have made a comeback (the Incas used to use them regularly, but they feel out of fashion).
Native to Mexico and many parts of Central America, chia seeds were told were part of the ancient Aztecs and Mayans.
“Chia” is Mayan for “strength”(1).
Chia was consumed before battle for their reputed ability to give strength and to increase endurance.
What is it?
This nutritional powerhouse is nothing less than Chia (yes as in the Chia Pet), or Salvia hispanica L, an ancient plant species belonging to the mint family. The chia plant produces two different colored seeds: black and white. Salba is the result of selecting out and only using the white seeds. You’ll find both chia and salba products on the shelves and while purest will suggest that salba is superior (research hasn’t supported this), it’s really nothing more than a new twist on an old favorite. I say an old favorite because chia was revered by the Aztecs who used it has a staple in their diets. They referred to it as the “running food” because it provided a lot of food energy and is purported to increase stamina.
What does it do?
Chia delivers a powerful nutritional punch. Clocking in at 70 calories per 2 tablespoons (15g) it has 6g carbs (6g fiber with 1.1g of soluble and 4.9g of insoluble and 0g of sugar), 5g fat (0.5g saturated, 4.5g polyunsaturated including 3.6g omega-3, and 952mg omega-6 with ideal ration of 4:1), and 3.7g protein. Not bad at all, and it has a decent amount of potassium, magnesium, calcium, folate, niacin, copper, fiber and antioxidants. A 2 tablespoon serving of chia has a whopping 103mg of magnesium, 79mg of calcium, 123 mg of potassium, and more omega-3 fat than an equal amount of ground flax seed. Move over flax, there’s a new player in town.
As well, unlike flax, chia has a better balance of omega-3 to omega-6 fats making it a great source of essential fatty acids (those that the body cannot make and therefore must be obtained from the diet). Chia is also a great example of a functional food which are foods that provide health benefits beyond their basic nutritional function (i.e. calories, protein etc).
– See more at: http://naturalhealthezine.com/chia-seeds-and-salba/#sthash.b10tMF2H.dpuf
These ancient seeds have a decent amount of nutrition and are quite versatile when it comes to adding them to your diet which is why they’ve been in vogue for the past 13+ years.
I first wrote about them in my former nutrition column in the Toronto Star back in 2006. Both chia and salba seeds were being researched at St Michael’s Hospital which is where I first learned about this superstar seed.
What are chia seeds?
When you hear “chia” I bet your first thought is of the green “fur” or “hair” of Chia Pets, collectible clay figurines.
But did you know that chia seeds also can be a healthful addition to your diet? It’s true.
Chia seeds are the tiny black seeds of the chia plant (Salvia hispanica).
Chia seeds are small, flat, and ovular with a shiny and smooth texture. Their colour ranges from white to brown or black (2).
PRO TIP: chia seeds are nutritionally similar to the more expensive salba seed. You can confidently use chia and reap their nutritional goodness.
Chia seed nutrition
Chia can be considered a truly “functional food”; simply put, functional foods are foods that have a potentially positive effect on health beyond basic nutrition. Proponents of functional foods say they promote optimal health and help reduce the risk of disease.
Chia seeds are full of the plant-based omega-3 fat alpha-linolenic acid, minerals and have loads of fiber but they provide functional benefits too.
They increase satiety (the feeling of fullness during a meal which helps to signal that you’ve eaten enough),
They’re a suitable addition to any dietary plan: Mediterranean, vegan or vegetarian, lower carb, low-carb high-fat, keto, or if you’re looking to up your nutritional game in general.
Chia delivers a powerful nutritional punch. Per 2 tablespoons (22 g) (3):
- 106 calories
- 9 g carbs
- 7.4 g fiber
- mostly soluble
- 0 g of sugar
- 1.6 g net carbs
- 0 g sugar
- 6.6 g fat
- (0.7 g saturated, 0.5 monounsaturated, 5 g polyunsaturated including 3.8 g omega-3 & 1.25 g omega-6)
- 4 g protein.
Not bad at all, and it also has :
- 88 mg potassium
- 72 mg magnesium
- 136 mg calcium
- 1.6 mg iron
- 186 mg phosphorus
- 3.4 mg vitamin B3
Chia is also a great example of a functional food which are foods that provide health benefits beyond their basic nutritional function (i.e. calories, protein, etc).
Chia seeds are rich in the plant form of omega-3 fats called alpha linolenic acid (ALA).
It is an essential fat which means your body can’t produce it like it can produce all the saturated and monounsaturated fat it needs; you must get ALA from your diet.
Many will claim that chia is a better source of ALA than it’s more well-known sibling flax seeds (7, 8) but my response to that is, “Who cares?”. The amount of ALA needed to prevent deficiencies is easily achieved by common, everyday foods.
Unless some are actively restricting their intake (anorexics), or not eating due to homelessness, substance use disorders, or eating a diet that contains a lot of highly-processed foods, that fact that chia seeds have more ALA compared to flax is moot.
Humans need EPA, DPA, and DHA for optimal health. You must include food sources of these fats such as fish, seafood, omega-3 fortified eggs or supplements (fish, squid, seal or algae-based).
Carbohydrate and fiber
Almost all of the carbs in chia seeds are fiber, ergo they have few to almost no net carbs.
Two tablespoons provide about 20-30% of the recommended daily intake of fiber (14).
Most of the fiber is soluble fiber, the kind of fiber that attracts water and turns it into a gel during digestion. In this sense, soluble fiber is a water magnet.
Two tablespoons have 4 g of high-quality protein. Not as much as a large egg (6 g), 1 oz of cheese (8 g), or 1/3 cup of edamame (6 g) but it all adds up. Including chia seeds in your daily fare will add to your protein bottom line.
The protein in chia does contain all 9 essential amino acids but it’s difficult to rely on them to meet your daily requirement and they’re not recommended as a sole source of protein for children, not that people would think or try that (19, 20).
- Chlorogenic acid. This phytonutrient (also found in green coffee) may lower blood pressure (22, 23).
- Caffeic acid. This compound is abundant in plant foods and may help fight inflammation in your body (24).
- Quercetin. This powerful antioxidant may reduce your risk of heart disease, osteoporosis, and certain forms of cancer (25, 26, 27).
- Kaempferol. This phytonutrient has been associated with a decreased risk of cancer and other chronic diseases (28, 29).
Chia seeds benefits
Over the past 10+ years, there’s been a lot of research done on these assuming seeds and with good reason; they’re nutritious and research supports the star power that the ancient Mayans and Aztecs gave them.
Improved omega-3 status
As mentioned, chia seeds are an excellent source of ALA. Consuming chia seeds will obviously raise your ALA omega-3 status but it will also, slightly, increase your EPA status as well (13, 30, 31, 32, 33).
But the conversion of ALA to EPA is poor in humans, so it’s best to get an additional source of EPA and DHA whether that’s animal-based (fish, seafood, eggs, etc) or plant-based (algae oil supplements).
Getting more EPA, DPA, and DHA, regardless of the source, will improve your all-important omega-3 to omega-6 ratio, ultimately for better health.
Blood sugar control
Blood sugar control is good for everyone. Doesn’t matter if you don’t have diabetes, or do, better blood sugar balance is important for optimal health.
Because chia seeds are loaded with soluble fiber, they help to slow the digestion of carbohydrates and therefore slow the rise in blood sugar. When blood sugar levels are balanced, insulin resistance is improved (34, 35, 36, 37).
When insulin metabolism is optimal, risk factors of insulin resistance syndrome such as high blood pressure, and increased inflammation and oxidation are prevented thereby reducing the risk for Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Lower blood pressure
High blood pressure is a hallmark of deranged insulin metabolism and high blood pressure increases the risk for cardiovascular diseases such as dementia, stroke and heart disease.
Their blood-pressure-lowering effects are likely not due to the potassium and magnesium content of the seeds; there’s just isn’t enough to make a dent.
It’s likely due to both their phytonutrients and the soluble fiber content. With better blood sugar balance, less insulin is released resulting in lower blood pressure (many don’t realize that insulin influences blood pressure) (38, 39).
Increased fiber intake
What is also remarkable about this ancient seed; is that it can absorb much more water than flax. In this case, water retention is a good thing.
By absorbing many times its weight in water, whole and ground chia seeds form a thick gel or bulking agent which results in slower digestion. And you guessed it, lower digestion results in a steadier rise in blood sugar and therefore insulin release.
This helps to keep you feeling full longer, helps to prevent swings in hunger and may help to reduce your total food intake by moderating appetite.
Most of us don’t get enough fiber which is too bad as higher fiber intake is associated with better overall health and gut health (40). Any tool that can be leveraged to achieve this goal is good and chia seeds fit the bill.
Ground versus whole chia seeds
For almost 14 years I told clients that unlike flax which needed to be ground in order to access the seeds’ nutrients, chia seeds did not. Whole flax seeds will be a source of fiber but because humans don’t have a gizzard, we need the flax seeds to be ground to absorb their nutrients.
When placed in a liquid, like soy beverage or when they’re moving their way through your digestive tract, whole chia seeds will absorb liquids and swell and form a gel. We used to think that because of that, our digestive tracts could get at the seeds’ nutrients. Unlike whole flax that will never gel when mixed with water.
Boy was I wrong.
Yes, whole chia seeds ARE a great thickening agent, they will absorb water and improve bowel movements and slow down the absorption of carbohydrate and the subsequent blood sugar rise (= lower insulin used) so this helps with satiety, blood sugar control, and balance blood lipids (LDL & HDL cholesterol, triglycerides) better.
BUT new studies show that the nutrients in chia seeds are better absorbed when the chia seeds are ground (40). Using ALA as a proxy of nutrient absorption (some of which was converted to EPA), milled chia was better at increasing blood levels of both compared to whole chia seeds.
PRO TIP: Due to their high fat content, both types of seeds should ideally be stored in the refrigerator or freezer to prevent them from going rancid. Better to buy in smaller amounts and use promptly. DO NOT but them pre-ground from a bulk food store; the fats will be spoiled.
All this to say it’s a silly exercise to pit one against the other. As I mentioned, whole chia seeds add lots of bulking, thickening and fiber to your diet but so do milled chia. Milled will provide more micronutrients to boot.
How to use chia seeds
Whether you’re using whole or ground chia seeds, they’re very versatile and they can be added to a variety of foods:
Add to smoothies
When it comes to thickening smoothies and protein shakes, chia seeds are in a class of there own. Given their high soluble fiber content, they really thicken smoothies well.
By reducing the liquid and adding 2 or 3 tablespoons of chia, you can turn your smoothie into a smoothie bowl like this Chocolate, Blackberry & Banana Superfood Smoothie Bowl.
Add as a topping
Add to any cooked cereal like oatmeal, oat bran, cornmeal porridge, or quinoa porridge. You can even add to cold cereals too. Chia seeds go well on top of yogurt dishes or a cooked/pureed fruit like applesauce, fruit compote, or stewed rhubarb.
Ever heard of chia cereal? You can buy some pre-packaged chia-based cereals such as Holy Crap, but you can make your own too.
To make your own, use your favourite milk or milk alternative (soy, almond, rice, hemp beverage, etc). Soak the chia seeds overnight, about 2 to 3 tablespoons per 1 cup / 250 ml of liquid (adjust as desired). Top the next morning with cinnamon, chopped nuts, fresh or thawed frozen fruit.
Add as a nutrient booster
Chia seeds can be snuck into many things. They can be added to macaroni or potato salad. They can pair well with things like tabouli or wheat berry salad and boost the fiber content of sandwiches. You can add a small about to tuna, egg or salmon salad; the key is not to use too much, you want to sneak in some fiber, etc but not turn these into gels :).
They can also be added to green salads just before serving and added to dips such as hummus or bean dip. In baking, use them in homemade energy bars or baked into muffins.
Jam? Why yes. Think of it as a thicken fruit puree without all the added sugar. Because chia seeds can absorb some of their weight in water, the make a great substitute for pectin that’s used in traditional jams. Also, jam sets via a chemical reaction between the pectin, sugar, and acid (usually lemon juice) but by using chia, no need for 8 to 10 cups of sugar.
Exact ratios vary depending on your personal preferences; no need to try and be perfect. You can use pureed fresh or frozen fruit. You basically simmer 2 cups of fruit, once simmering, mash the fruit up, add 2 tablespoons of whole chia seeds and give them a good stir to combine. Remove from heat as the jam will start to thicken quickly. Put them in Mason jars and pop into the fridge.
If you want some sweetness without the sugar and calories, give my favourite sweetener a try. It’s a blend of stevia and erythritol by Splenda, it’s artificial sweetener-free (no sucralose) and is gut-friendly.
Probably the most popular way chia seeds were/are used after adding them to smoothies. Chia pudding recipes really went viral. Everyone and their uncle was blogging about it, doing Youtube and other videos about them.
You simply mix whole chia seeds with any liquid. I use a 2/3 cup of seeds to 2 cups of liquid ratio. You can use milk, plant beverages, coconut milk, coconut water, fruit juice, etc.
You can add flavourings like cacao powder, cinnamon, extracts like vanilla; use your imagination. You just blend it all together and spoon into individual portion sizes such as mini Mason jars or ramekins. Top them with cream, fresh or thawed frozen fruit, of if you’re like me and make a chocolate chia pudding (using a good 2 – 3 tablespoons of raw cacao powder), I top mine with some smooth natural peanut butter.
There’s a reason the Aztecs grew this stuff and relied on it heavily as a stable of their diet.
Chia is truly a winner when it comes to providing a lot of nutritional bang for your buck which is something that makes a nutritionist like me very happy.
In a world where our nutritional requirements haven’t change but the nutritional landscape has, finding ways to make ‘every bite count’ is important for anyone looking to improve the quality of their diet.
Adding chia seeds makes that a whole lot easier.
Pick some up today!