It wasn’t long ago when chia seeds were most well known for being spread onto animal-shaped terra-cotta pottery and growing into green “ch-ch-ch-chia” pets, with the lush greenery filling in for fur. However, those tiny chia seeds are useful for far more than making novelty items; they’re incredibly beneficial for your health.
Chia seeds, which are members of the Salvia Hispanica family, along with mint, were a prized food to the ancient Aztecs and Mayans. “Chia” is the ancient Mayan word for strength, and the tiny seeds were valued for their energy-boosting properties.
Today they’re gaining popularity as a functional food item that supplies an impressive variety of nutrients in just a small dose, such as two tablespoons. Although they’re mostly grown in Mexico and Bolivia, in 2014 the first US company growing chia seeds was established.
Originally, the seeds were being targeted as equine feed, but their benefits to four-legged animals extend to humans as well.
A Rich Source of Healthy Fats and Nutrients
Chia seeds are a quick and easy-to-use source of protein, healthy fats, dietary fiber, minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants, all rolled into one neat package. Although they have similar health benefits to flax seeds, chia seeds may soon edge these out because they don’t have to be ground prior to consumption, and they don’t go rancid as quickly either.
In fact, chia seeds are said to last up to two years with no refrigeration, courtesy of the high levels of antioxidants they contain. Drew Rosen, nutrition and cooking teacher at New York City’s Whole Foods Market Tribeca, told ABC News:
“Chia seeds are going to absolutely replace flax seeds… They’re the absolute best source of omega three fats on the market, hands down, when you consider the ratio of omega three to omega six.”
Their high concentration of the plant-based omega-3 fat alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is one of their major claims to fame. Chia seeds contain up to 40 percent oil, with 60 percent comprised of omega-3.
ALA is considered essential because your body can’t make it, so you need it in your diet—or its long-chain animal-based derivatives (like the omega-3 found in seafood and krill oil).
While chia seeds have been found to increase levels of both ALA and another omega-3 fat EPA, they don’t increase the omega-3 fat DHA. While your body can convert ALA into DHA/EPA, it does so at a very low ratio, and only when sufficient enzymes (that many people are deficient in) are present.
This is why consuming animal-based omega-3s in addition to plant-based omega-3s is very important. That being said, the ALA omega-3s in chia seeds have been linked to a number of health benefits, including:
- Lowering triglycerides and supporting healthy cholesterol levels
- Anti-inflammatory activity
- Anti-diabetic action
- Lowering blood pressure and heart disease
- Liver-protective properties
- Protection against arthritis, autoimmune disease and cancer
In addition, chia seeds contain a number of additional phytochemicals, each with its own unique benefits. This includes myricetin, quercetin, and kaempferol, known for their antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-cancer properties, and caffeic acid.
Chia Seeds May Promote Weight Loss and Reduce Risk of Chronic Disease
In a study of 67 metabolic syndrome patients, those who drank a beverage containing chia seeds for two months experienced weight loss as well as a reduction of triglycerides and blood glucose levels.
It’s thought that the combination of fiber and protein in chia seeds, along with the gel-like texture it takes on when combined with liquid, contributes to feelings of fullness and satiety.
Among people with type 2 diabetes, supplementing with chia seeds for 12 weeks resulted in reduced systolic blood pressure and significant decreases in A1C, a measure of a person’s average levels of blood glucose.
Fibrinogen, a natural clotting agent that when lowered improves blood flow, was also decreased, as was an inflammatory marker called hs-CRP, which went down by 40 percent. What else is healthy about chia seeds?
Chia seeds contain about 10 grams of fiber in just two tablespoons. Mounting research suggests a high-fiber diet can help reduce your risk of premature death from any cause, likely because it helps to reduce your risk of a number of chronic diseases.
This includes type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and cancer. Most people need upwards of 32 grams of fiber a day, but most Americans get nowhere near this amount.
Just two tablespoons of chia seeds provide 18 percent of the daily recommended value for calcium, 35 percent for phosphorus, 24 percent of magnesium, and about 50 percent for manganese. These minerals are important for bone health and as reported by SF Gate:
“These nutrients help you prevent hypertension and maintain a healthy weight, and are important for energy metabolism and a part of DNA synthesis.”
8 Ways to Use Chia Seeds in Your Diet
One of chia seeds’ greatest qualities is how easy they are to use. They have a mild flavor that makes them adaptable to a variety of recipes, and they’re gluten-free, which is perfect for those with celiac disease, gluten intolerance, or who are simply trying to avoid gluten.
If you’re wondering how to incorporate them into your diet, TIME recently featured 8 delicious ways.
1. Chia Seed Pudding
When chia seeds are soaked in water overnight, they take on a tapioca-like texture. Add some cinnamon or other spices and a bit of stevia, if you like, for sweetness and you’ll have a pudding-like treat that can be eaten morning, no one or night.
For added crunch, add sliced raw almonds to the top. You can also try the Chia Pudding Parfait recipe, which was adapted from Vegan.com, below:
- 1/3 cup chia seeds
- 1 cup coconut milk
- 2 Tbsp. honey
- ½ tsp. vanilla extract
- ¼ tsp. Himalayan or sea salt
- Measure out chia seeds, coconut milk, extracts, and honey. Mix well and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or even overnight so the chia seeds absorb the moisture and become thick and gelatinous, like a pudding.
- Spoon into a glass or parfait cup.
- Add your favorite toppings and enjoy.
Chia seeds can be added to virtually any dish, from raw yogurt to applesauce to smoothies. Keep in mind that they will take on a gelatinous texture after they mix with a liquid, so if you prefer a crunch, sprinkle them on just before eating.
3. On-to-Go Snacks
While I suggest you use chia seeds in homemade items, there are ready-made pouches that contain chia seeds as a primary ingredient. Watch out for the sugar content of these, but if you’re in a pinch they can make a decent snack on-the-go, even for kids.
4. Chia Spread
You can blend chia seeds with berries and stevia to make your own homemade jam. You won’t need pectin because chia seeds gel-up just fine on their own.
5. Healthy “Breading”
If you’re looking for a healthy, gluten-free breading for fish, meat, or vegetables, chia seeds make an excellent addition. Try them blended with finely ground nuts and your choice of spices for a delicious breadcrumb replacement.
6. Body Scrub
Chia seeds work well as an exfoliant and buffing agent to add to your beauty care routine. Spa Index has a simple recipe for a homemade exfoliating scrub using just three ingredients:
- 1/4 cup coconut oil
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon chia seeds
- Mix the ingredients together and store in a clean jar.
- To use, dampen face and apply scrub in a circular motion to damp face.
- Allow the mixture to set for two minutes before using a wet washcloth to remove.
- Splash cold water on your face when you’ve finished.
- Store in fridge for 3-5 days.
7. Fuel Up After Exercise
Chia seeds are known for enhancing strength and vigor, so try adding them to your post-workout whey protein shake.
8. Chia Sprouts
Sprouts may offer some of the highest levels of nutrition available, including vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and enzymes that help protect against free radical damage. Many of the benefits of sprouts relate to the fact that, in their initial phase of growth, the plants contain more concentrated amounts of nutrients. Chia seeds are no exception, and you can easily grow chia sprouts at home to use raw in salads and sandwiches.
Chia Seeds: Does Black or White Matter?
Chia seeds come in two colors, black and white. Both colors contain similar amounts of nutrients like omega-3s, protein, and fiber, although the darker chia seeds may contain more antioxidants. Consuming a mix of the two colors is likely ideal. According to the Nutritional Science Research Institute, which has conducted studies to determine the effects of chia seeds in adults:
“First we analyzed the white chia. Then we analyzed the dark seed. Although the nutrition analysis was almost identical we discovered that the darker chia had an additional important antioxidant, quercetin. It is well known that darker foods have more antioxidants than lighter ones. This proved to be so in the ORAC analysis. The dark seed tested at 80 micromoles TE/g and the white seed test at 70 micromoles TE/g. Our analysis showed that omega-3 chia contained one of the highest levels of omega 3s found in any food.
It also turns out to have the highest amount of antioxidants we have ever measured, equal to or greater than dark berries like blueberries. Chia seed has an ORAC of 98 micromoles TE/g for the dark seed and 70 micromoles TE/g for the light seed. It is one of the most powerful whole food antioxidants we know… NSRI has conducted extensive analyses on this food product and found it to be a versatile, user-friendly, exceptional and unique low-calorie source of omega-3 fatty acids, dietary fiber, antioxidants, complete protein, iron, calcium, and magnesium.”
A Word of Caution About Chia Seeds…
If you have a history of dysphagia, or trouble swallowing, you should use some caution, especially when consuming dry chia seeds. There is at least one case study of a patient who swallowed a tablespoon of dry chia seeds, chased it with water and experienced intense dysphagia. The seeds can quickly form a gel-like ball that can partially block your esophagus, requiring medical treatment to remove. According to study authors:
“When added to liquid, dry chia seeds immediately begin to form a hydrogel capsule, absorbing up to 27 times their weight in water.”
So while chia seeds are a quick and easy-to-use superfood that can add valuable nutrition to your diet, do use caution when consuming them, particularly if you have esophageal restrictions or are giving them to children.