I think any article that aims to talk about Chia seeds has to start with a reference to the iconic little Chia pets of the 90’s to have any sort of credibility. Yup. These are those same seeds that made the little, mundane, clay pets grow into green bundles of splendor. If you don’t know what I am talking about I invite you to quickly youtube “chia pets” and see what I mean. With that out of the way lets start talking about this tiny superfood.
The Aztecs and Mayans first made this seed a staple of their ancient diet in around 3500 BC. Chia means “strength” in their ancient language and this is exactly why the used it; they felt it provided them with energy and stamina. Whether this is true or not is up for debate, but what cannot be underestimated is how nutrient rich these tiny seeds are. One tablespoon has just 60 calories and packs 5 grams of fiber (20% of daily value), 2 grams of protein, 2,850 mg of ALA omega-3 fatty acids (unlike the vaunted fish oil which contains mostly DHA), and a repertoire of trace minerals and antioxidants to make any competing “superfood” shake in their boots. Lets dig deeper.
I have written about fiber before and you can see a more comprehensive explanation of why its so good for us here. Fiber has unfortunately been one of the victims, if not the biggest, of the western world’s move towards processed foods. In fact the “processing” of most of our carbs including bread, rice, and pasta by definition includes the removal of fiber from the food in order to make it “more appetizing.” While some may find it more appetizing it also turns much less nutritious. Fiber plays a huge role in regulation of blood sugar, blood cholesterol, and digestion. It helps control your blood sugar and appetite, lowers your LDL cholesterol, and makes you more regular in the bathroom. Unfortunately the average american gets anywhere from 10-15 g of fiber in their diet daily which is about half of the recommended 25-30 grams. Lucky for us a tablespoon or two of chia daily puts us well on our way to reaching that number.
Another quality of the seed that merits further explanation is the omega-3 fatty acid content. Some of you may be in the know about how omega-3’s have made a splash in the supplement world over the last few years. Claims about its power of healing everything have been made, including alzheimer’s, joint disease, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. Well it turns out that those claims may all be true, but not of all omega-3’s. There are three different types: Alpha-Linolenic Acid (ALA), Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA), and Docosahexaenoic (DHA). The one that has gotten most of the attention, and has proven to have the most benefits so far, is DHA. This, along with EPA, are the ones found in fish oil and the ones used by doctors today to treat high levels of triglycerides. ALA is the one found in Chia seeds and some studies have shown that anywhere between 8-20% of ingested ALA is converted to DHA by the body. Although it has not been shown to have any effect on cardiovascular disease by itself its conversion to DHA by the body makes it more appealing. Furthermore all omega-3 types play a role in numerous cellular processes in the body; especially in the skin, hair, and nails. Since the body cannot produce omega-3’s on its own it is essential to have it in our diets in order to promote proper functioning of these processes. Some recent studies have even hinted that a lack of omega-3’s in our skin oils may be a harbinger for acne development.
The calcium and antioxidant content of chia seeds has also garnered much of the attention surrounding the tiny seed. By weight, 1 ounce of chia seeds contains 18% of the recommended daily intake of calcium – more than 3 times what an ounce of skim milk provides (well most non-dairy sources of calcium seem to provide more calcium than milk, but who’s counting). There really isn’t much to say about the antioxidant content in detail. Just like every other superfood out there (such as blueberries and Acai) these little seeds are packed with flavonoids which are powerful antioxidants that fight off free radicals and stress within our bodies and may be beneficial in preventing cancer development.
The final quality I want to talk about is the versatility it has in the kitchen. You can literally add a tablespoon to anything and you might not even notice its there. I add one to all my fruit smoothies. Some people simply drink a glass of water with the seeds in the morning. Others sprinkle it on their fish like just another spice. It can even be added to salads or salad dressings without really changing much other than the nutritional value of your meal. A feature that has been touted by the famous Dr. Oz is Chia’s ability to absorb water. According to the Cleveland Clinic Wellness website the little seed can absorb up to 10 times its weight in water; giving it a gooey, gel-like consistency which has been used as a snack to fight off hunger (by becoming gooey in your stomach and giving you a sensation of fullness). I can personally say that ever since I started adding it to my morning smoothies I have felt a difference in how much time passes before I get hungry again after breakfast. This same feature has tremendous uses in the kitchen; especially in making jams like the one found here. And, in case you were wondering, the risk of growing a large, fuzzy, green bolus of joy reminiscent of a chia pet inside your stomach is minimal.
1. Photo from www.thewellnesswarrior.com.au.
3. Joanne Slavin. Fiber and Prebiotics: Mechanisms and Health Benefits. Nutrients. 2013 April; 5(4): 1417–1435.