What Are Chia Seeds?
Chia seeds are tiny, round seeds of the Salvia
hispanica plant. They’re typically black or white, with no significant
nutritional differences between the two colors. If you see brown seeds, they are not fully mature.
This plant, related to mint, is native to the deserts of
Mexico and Guatemala. Today, chia seeds are grown in
various parts of the United States, as well as Argentina, Australia, Peru, and
Bolivia, with around 80% of the world’s supply coming from South America. However, the U.S. is the
largest chia seed consumer, importing around 15,000 tons annually.
Even though chia seeds are still fairly new to the
mainstream health community, native people have used them for thousands of
years. In fact, they’ve been used for medicinal, religious, and culinary
purposes throughout history.
Chia seeds have traditionally been ground into flour,
pressed for oil, and mixed into drinks. The ancient Aztecs saw them as sacred
and used them in sacrificial ceremonies. The traditional Mayans believed chia
seeds had supernatural powers, and they were used to provide travelers with
energy for long journeys.
Today, members of the Mexican Tarahumara tribe — known for
being long distance runners — drink a mixture of chia seeds, lemon, and water called
“Iskiate.” They believe chia seeds provide them with the strength to run
hundreds of miles. (Their whole foods, plant-powered diet probably doesn’t hurt, either.)
Chia Seed Nutrition
The word “chia” is derived from
the Aztec word “Chian,” which means oily. While you can press chia seeds for
oil, “oily” isn’t what comes to mind when I think about eating them, although
admittedly I’m not Aztec.
The main fats in chia seeds are mostly omega-3s — especially
alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which accounts for three-quarters of the total —
and some omega-6s. ALA is an important omega-3 fat and a precursor for your
body to make DHA and EPA, two other very important omega-3 fats.
As small as they are, chia seeds pack a lot of nutrition. In
every 1 tablespoon of seeds, you’ll find 2.1 grams of ALA, 4
grams of fiber and
2 grams of protein. They’re also a rich source of vitamins and minerals,
especially calcium, phosphorus, and zinc.
You can eat them raw, or mix them into baked goods,
puddings, or other dishes, where they add a mild, crunchy, nutty flavor.
Today, you can buy chia seeds at a wide range of both
mainstream and health food grocery stores. You can find them dried and in the
bulk foods section.
9 Health Benefits of Chia Seeds
1) They support your digestive health.
Chia seeds are an excellent source of fiber, especially
insoluble fiber, which is an important nutrient for your digestive system.
Insoluble fiber acts like a broom for your digestive tract,
cleaning it out and keeping it healthy.
Eating enough fiber can reduce your risk for many digestive
diseases, such as colorectal cancer.
The fiber from chia seeds also serves as a needed nutrient
for the beneficial bacteria in your microbiome, which in turn reduces
inflammation throughout your body.
The recommended minimum amount of daily fiber intake is 25 grams for
women and 38 grams for men, and only a small percentage of
people actually meet that daily minimum. But adding a couple of tablespoons of
chia seeds to your routine will get you well on your way to meeting and — with
the help of some fruits and vegetables — even surpassing that daily minimum.
2) They’re good for your brain.
A 2018 study published in the Global Journal of Health
Science divided German college students into two groups: a control
group and a group that consumed 5 grams of chia seeds daily for 21 days.
Researchers found that those who ate chia seeds performed significantly better
on an academic test than the control group.
Coincidence? A total of 34,600 college students participated
in this study, so probably not. My bet would be on the omega-3 boost
their brains got. Why? Omega-3 fats, like the ALA in chia
seeds, are essential for brain function and improved cognition.
3) They help keep your bones strong.
Chia seeds are a good source of many minerals,
including calcium, phosphorus, and magnesium, that are needed for bone strength. The dairy industry likes to portray milk
products as necessary for strong bones. But plant-sourced calcium has
been proven to be effective in increasing bone density.
And animal studies have shown that
rats fed a diet made up of 10% chia seeds over 13 months had significantly
higher bone density than rats on a low calorie diet sans chia
4) They can reduce inflammation.
The ALA in chia seeds has an anti-inflammatory effect. Chronic inflammation can promote various
diseases in the body, such as autoimmune diseases, infectious diseases, heart
disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers. Research has shown ALA to be
particularly effective in reducing inflammation
among people with metabolic syndrome (high blood pressure, high cholesterol,
high blood sugar, excess abdominal fat) and related diseases.
5) They keep your blood sugar stable.
The high fiber content in chia seeds helps to keep your
blood sugar stable. Fiber slows digestion, preventing blood sugar from
spiking after a meal. Fiber also promotes satiety, or the feeling of fullness
after a meal. This has been demonstrated specifically with the addition of
chia seeds to people’s diet.
6) They’re good for your heart.
The ALA in chia seeds can also protect your heart. A 2012
meta-analysis looked at 27 studies, which included over 250,000 participants,
to see if there was a relationship between ALA intake and heart disease risk.
Researchers found that people who consumed a high amount of ALA
experienced up to a 10% lower risk of heart disease.
Another study of 3,638 people found that those who consumed
around 18 grams of ALA per day had a 39% lower risk
of heart disease than those who consumed less ALA. Chia seeds can also benefit
your heart by helping to lower your
7) They may help lower your risk for certain cancers.
The ALA in chia seeds may also have cancer-preventing
properties. A 2013 in vitro study published in the Journal of Molecular
Biology demonstrated the ability of ALA to slow the growth of breast and cervical cancer cells.
It also promoted cell death of cancer cells while not affecting the healthy
cells. While more research is needed to apply this to humans, other studies
have shown a similar effect of ALA on liver cancer
8) They can help keep your skin healthy.
Chia seeds are full of antioxidants that are known to be
protective against the skin damage caused
by free radicals. A 2014 study published in the Journal of
Chromatography A found that chia seeds had much higher antioxidant capacity than previously thought.
In the study, chia seeds inhibited up to 70% of free radical activity.
9) They can fuel your endurance.
Remember the Mexican Tarahumara tribe runners I mentioned
earlier? They appear to be onto something with their use of chia seeds to fuel
their runs. A 2011 study published in the Journal of Strength and
Conditioning Research found that
chia seeds are an effective option for fueling endurance exercise, while
avoiding the sugar that’s found in Gatorade and other traditional sports
Potential Downsides to Chia Seeds
Chia seeds are a highly nutritious food, but there are some
things to keep in mind if you choose to eat them.
They might cause an upset stomach. Too
much fiber can cause bloating, gas, and abdominal pain,
especially if you aren’t used to eating much of it. If this happens to
you, the best answer may be to work your way up slowly.
They may interact with certain medications. Chia
seeds can significantly reduce blood
sugar, a generally healthful outcome that nonetheless could be dangerous
for those taking medications designed to do the same thing. Chia seeds can
also lower blood pressure, so if you’re taking blood
pressure medication, it may be wise to monitor your blood pressure while
adding chia to your diet.
While not common, there are a few people who have
a chia seed allergy. Some people have experienced anaphylaxis
and dermatitis after eating chia seeds. People who have any sensitivity to thyme, mustard, oregano, or sesame
seeds may want to be cautious with chia seeds.
Chia Seeds: Whole or Ground?
You may be aware that in order to increase absorption and
get the most nutritional value from flaxseeds, they should be ground before
you eat them. Is this also true for chia seeds? A 2012 study published in
the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine helps
answer that question.
The study involved 62 overweight women, with no known
diseases, between the ages of 49-75 years. They ate two tablespoons of whole
chia seeds per day for ten weeks, at which point they saw no change in their
blood omega-3 levels. However, when they ate the same amount of chia seeds —
but in ground form — their blood omega-3 levels increased significantly after
another ten weeks. Levels of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) increased by 58% and
levels of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) increased by 39%.
It turns out that many people don’t chew whole chia seeds
enough to break them down fully. As a result, they can go “in one end, and out
the other.” Grinding them is a good way to ensure that you’re getting their
full nutritional value.
My dad likes to use a coffee grinder to do this.
How To Enjoy Chia Seeds
Chia seeds, whether ground or not, are a versatile food to
have on hand. You can add them to salads, to hot oatmeal, and to many other
dishes. If you’re making pancakes or muffin, you can mix them into the batter.
You can also add ground chia seeds to smoothies and other blended foods. Or you
can sprinkle ground chia seeds on just about any savory dish (and some sweet
Did you know you can also use chia seeds to replace eggs in
baking? The basic recipe is 1 tablespoon of chia seeds to 2 ½ tablespoons of
water. Gently stir together the seeds with the water, and let the mixture sit
for about five minutes. Just as you would use eggs as a binding agent in
baking, chia seeds will form a gel that keeps your recipe together. (The gel
will last in your fridge for about two weeks.)
Here are some great ways to use chia seeds.
Overnight Chocolate Chia Seed Pudding by Minimalist
Baker – This is a creamy, chocolatey pudding that can be enjoyed any time of
day. You can choose to omit the maple syrup for a low-sugar version.
Chia Seed Jam by Gimme Some Oven – This is an incredibly easy homemade
jam that requires only a few ingredients. With the sweetness of the berries,
you don’t need to add additional sugar.
Strawberry Banana Chia Seed Smoothie by Jar of Lemons
– Four ingredients and loads of nutrition in this one! You could easily swap
out other fruits of choice with this recipe.
Chias to Your Health
Chia seeds may be tiny, but it’s clear that they’re
nutritional powerhouses with a lot to offer. Packed with fiber, protein,
healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals, chia seeds are a convenient way to add a
lot of benefits to your diet.
And in case you were wondering, Chia Pets do still exist.
(People would buy terracotta figurines to sprout chia seeds. The chia sprouts
grow within a couple of weeks to resemble an animal’s fur or hair.) Some people
may enjoy Chia Pets, but I think chia seeds are far more useful when you eat
them as the highly nutritious food that they are…