Chia: Nature’s Most Perfect Superfood?
Who doesn’t love the idea of a “superfood” – an edible, one-stop-shop brimming with beneficial compounds?
You’re probably familiar with many popular superfoods, like blueberries, salmon, and whole grains. But what if I told you there’s a super-superfood – one that contains all the important nutrients in these foods, and then some?
In fact, gram for gram, this substance offers more omega-3 fatty acids than salmon, more calcium than milk, more fiber than all-bran cereal, and more antioxidants than blueberries. Now that’s a nutritional powerhouse.
Even more impressive is that fact that all these nutrients and more are found in the tiny, unassuming chia seed.
Packed with Nutrients…
Native Americans have long relied on the seeds of the chia plant (Salvia hispanica) as a staple food and an energy source. The very word chia means “strength” – and no wonder. Chia seeds contain nature’s richest vegetarian supply of omega-3 fatty acids (in the form of alpha-linolenic acid), as well as powerful antioxidants, fiber, and other beneficial compounds.
Chia seeds also have the amazing ability to absorb as much as 12 times more water than their weight, creating a gel-like substance. Sounds a little weird, but when consumed, this gel can help people feel full longer and even prevent spikes in blood sugar that often occur after eating.
All these properties have made chia seeds increasingly popular with health-conscious folks. See, many people consider chia to be a super-food and sing its praises as a remedy for a variety of conditions, particularly cardiovascular disease. Others use the seeds as a weight-loss technique, a source of energy, or a way to encourage regularity and encourage elimination and detoxification.
But are chia seeds really all they’re cracked up to be?
The Heart of the Matter…
When you think about it, it makes a lot of sense that chia seeds might help prevent cardiovascular disease. After all, chia contains even more omega-3 fatty acids than salmon – and a growing body of research has identified the heart-protective effects of omega-3s. Likewise, chia seeds are rich in fiber and antioxidants, both of which appear to help lower the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Sounds promising, right?
Unfortunately, things aren’t that simple. There’s currently little direct proof that eating chia seeds will reduce your risk of heart and vascular problems. That said, some preliminary research does suggest a benefit.
The best evidence comes from a 2007 study that looked at 20 men and women who had been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, but kept the condition under control. They were assigned to eat either bread containing about 37 grams a day of a specific type of chia called Salba or bread containing wheat bran.
Twelve weeks later, those who ate Salba had significantly lower markers for cardiovascular disease, including systolic blood pressure, C-reactive protein (an indicator of inflammation), vonWillebrand factor (an indicator of blood clotting), and HbA1C (a long-term indicator of a person’s blood sugar level).1
The researchers’ takeaway? Chia seeds in the form of Salba significantly lessened these risk factors over the long run.
This Seed’s Got Potential…
Although gold-standard studies are lacking, there’s some research to indicate that chia might benefit other aspects of our health, too. In fact, some research does suggest that chia seeds may help prevent type 2 diabetes.
For example, a 2010 study of 11 people found that those who consumed chia seeds (in the form of Salba) had lower levels of blood sugar after eating.2 Over time, high levels of blood sugar can lead to insulin resistance and diabetes.
Plus, animal research suggests that chia seeds appear to help prevent insulin imabalances in rats fed sugar-rich diets, although these results haven’t yet been replicated in humans.3
When you consider the anecdotal evidence, chia looks even more promising. Some people find that chia helps to ease the pain and inflammation caused by arthritis, possibly because of its high content of omega-3s. These same fats may offer even more benefits, as they appear to help boost metabolism and promote lean muscle mass.
And when added to water or another liquid, chia seeds have been touted to encourage elimination and detoxification by cleansing and lubricating the gastrointestinal system. Athletes have even reported that chia seeds provide a constant source of energy, helping them perform at optimal levels for much longer periods of time.
But we have to take such claims with a grain of salt. Chia sounds impressive, but it’s important to remember that many of these benefits are only anecdotal and no rigorous studies yet support such claims.
Chew On This…
Chia seeds are a natural food, not a supplement, and they’re a safe addition to the diet – for most people. Keep in mind, however, that chia may trigger mild gastrointestinal problems, such as gas and bloating, probably due to their high fiber content.
More important, there are a number of interactions and contraindications for chia, and these seeds aren’t right for everyone. For example, people who are allergic to sesame and mustard seeds could develop an allergic reaction to chia.
Because chia seeds contain a high amount of alpha-linolenic acid, which has been found in some studies to increase the risk of advanced prostate cancer, men with prostate cancer or at high risk for it should pass up chia. And it’s a good idea to check with your healthcare provider before taking chia seeds if you also take heart the anticoagulant drug warfarin, as chia may also increase the risk of bleeding.
A Super Addition to the Diet…
If you’ve determined that chia seeds are safe for you and are curious about their purported benefits, go ahead and give them a try. Chia has a mild, nutty flavor and can be eaten whole or ground and added to yogurt, oatmeal and other cereals, smoothies, vegetables, rice, or used in baking. They’re even gluten free.
Not sure how much chia to eat? The manufacturer of Salba recommends 1 tablespoon (12 grams) a day, which reportedly contains over 2,500mg of omega-3 fatty acids, 4.5g of dietary fiber, and various minerals.
Of course, whether super-supplements or superfoods, nothing can replace a healthful diet that’s loaded with nutrient-dense, real, whole foods, focused primarily on pastured, organic or wild meat, poultry or fish, with a healthy serving of leafy green vegetables, a good amount of fruit and above all, low in trans fats, sugar, grains and refined carbohydrates.
And, as always, remember to keep an open mind to new ideas, but ALWAYS do your own homework…and combine that with common sense to figure out what’s best for YOU.
1Vuksan, V et al. Supplementation of conventional therapy with the novel grain Salba (Salvia hispanica L.) improves major and emerging cardiovascular risk factors in type 2 diabetes: results of a randomized controlled trial. Diabetes Care. 2007 Nov;30(11):2804-10.
2Vuksan, V et al. Reduction in postprandial glucose excursion and prolongation of satiety: possible explanation of the long-term effects of whole grain Salba (Salvia Hispanica L.). Eur J Clin Nutr. 2010 Apr;64(4):436-8.
3Chicco, AG et al. Dietary chia seed (Salvia hispanica L.) rich in alpha-linolenic acid improves adiposity and normalises hypertriacylglycerolaemia and insulin resistance in dyslipaemic rats. Br J Nutr. 2009 Jan;101(1):41-50.
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