Is This the Most Nutritionally Packed Snack Ingredient Available?

Steve Kroening, ND
May 1, 2019

 

What supplies almost 40% of your daily fiber per serving, is a good source of essential fatty acids and antioxidants, and is one of the only plants to supply complete proteins? Here’s a hint: It’s a simple seed and a great ingredient in your favorite snack bars.

This little seed can even help reduce your blood pressure, prevent blood clots, and protect your heart. What’s more, it can help fight cancer, lower cholesterol, and put you in a great mood. And it can even make a decent stand-in for a pet? If you grew up or raised kids in the 1980s, that last item was a great clue. But this seed is one we all need to be eating daily.

This simple seed is the chia seed!

Chia pets were a fun fad for a while. And they’re still available if you’re feeling nostalgic. But you’re better off eating the seeds than growing them. Chia leaves are full of an essential oil that repels insects (and humans). The seeds, however, are full of nutrition.

Chia, also called Spanish sage, lime-leaf sage, Mexican chia, and black chia, is native to Mexico and Guatemala. Over a thousand years ago, people began to harvest chia seeds for their medicinal (and nutritional) properties.

Aztec warriors often ate them before battle or long runs to increase their endurance. Travelers would chew them along their journeys. Some cultures even believed you could survive on one tablespoon of seeds a day.

That wouldn’t be a very happy existence. But adding a tablespoon or two of chia seeds to your existing diet is a great idea. As I mentioned above, chia seeds are a great source of protein, fiber, essential fatty acids, and antioxidants. Let’s look at each of these in turn.

The Many Benefits of Chia Seeds

For starters, chia contains more protein per serving than many other seeds and grains. It possesses 19-23% protein. Compare that to wheat (14%), corn (14%), rice (8.5%), oats (8.5%), barley (9.2%), and amaranth (14.8%). And chia seeds supply all nine essential amino acids, making it a complete protein.

This is important for vegetarians and vegans to note. Omnivores can easily get complete proteins from animal products. But those who eat plant-based diets have to be more intentional about getting their amino acids. Very few plants supply all nine, but chia does.

Let’s talk about fiber. Unfortunately, many women fail to meet the recommended daily fiber intake of 25 grams. But just one ounce of chia seeds provides 9.8 g of fiber. That will get you almost halfway there!

As you know, getting enough fiber is key to gut health, which in turn affects many other parts of the body. Research has even linked sufficient fiber intake to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and some forms of cancer.

Of course, lots of plants supply fiber. But polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) are a bit harder to find. Chia contains a very beneficial PUFA called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). ALA is an omega-3 fatty acid. And as far as we know, chia seeds contain the highest proportion of ALA of all plants. Omega-3 fatty acids help fight inflammation and promote good cardiovascular health. Two ounces of chia will give you as much omega-3 as almost 1 3/4 pounds of salmon!

Finally, chia seeds boast quite a few antioxidants. They supply chlorogenic and caffeic acids, polyphenols that help fight oxidative stress. They also contain the flavonols myricetin, quercetin, and kaempferol.

Almost unbelievably, chia has three times more flavanols ounce-for-ounce than my favorite fruit — blueberries. These miraculous compounds will keep ground-up seeds fresh for up to three months in your refrigerator. Left whole, the seeds will keep up to five years on the shelf!

What about minerals? To me, this is one of the biggest benefits of chia seeds. You know how much I love minerals. And chia is absolutely packed with minerals. Ounce-for-ounce, it has 15 times more magnesium than broccoli, three times more iron than spinach, six times more calcium than milk, and two times more potassium than bananas. That same two ounces will provide you with 770 mg of calcium, 380 mg of magnesium, and 35 grams of fiber. The calcium/magnesium ratio is about perfect. The seeds are rich in boron, important for your bones and sex hormones.

Chia is also rich in vitamins including folate and the B vitamins thiamin, riboflavin, and niacin (vitamins B1, B2, and B3). And, most surprisingly, even though it’s not a fruit or vegetable, those two ounces will provide a stunning 560 mg of vitamin C. And that vitamin C is complete with its flavonoid co-factors, unlike most supplemental vitamin C.

Proving the Benefits

Of course, all these nutrients are great for your health. Several studies have put them to the test and found that the compounds in chia are extremely protective against cancer and heart disease.

In one study, researchers took 20 subjects (average age 64) with type-2 diabetes. They randomly assigned the volunteers to eat either chia seeds (about 37 grams) or wheat bran daily for 12 weeks. They didn’t make any changes to their conventional diabetic therapies.

Compared to the wheat bran control group, the chia group had their systolic blood pressure go down by six points. Their C-reactive protein, a good marker for cardiovascular risk, dropped by some 40%. And a clotting factor dropped by 21%. But the best news was that hemoglobin A1C and fibrinogen also dropped significantly. The former means that the chia users had significantly better glucose control. The latter means that their blood was less thick, less likely to clot.

Another study focused on hypertension, which we know is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.

The researchers divided participants with hypertension into three groups. One group received 35 grams of chia flour per day along with medications that they had tried previously to treat their high blood pressure (CHIA-MD). Another group received only the chia flour (CHIA-NM). The third group received the medications along with 35 grams of roasted wheat bran that served as a placebo (PLA-MD). Each group followed the regimen for 12 weeks.

Both of the chia groups saw significant improvements in diastolic and systolic blood pressure. The CHIA-MD group also experienced significant improvements in total blood pressure.

This study suggests that chia may be an excellent aid in lowering blood pressure. Don’t go off medications without your doctor’s supervision. But if you’re concerned about your blood pressure, chia may help you get back to healthier levels before meds are necessary.

Helps Take the Weight Off

Another risk factor for cardiovascular disease is obesity. Obesity creates ongoing oxidative stress in the body, damaging cells down to the DNA. It also prevents antioxidant systems from functioning properly, making the cycle of oxidative stress worse.

Eating chia seeds isn’t a magic bullet for weight loss. But researchers have found that consuming chia seeds increases overweight participants’ plasma levels of ALA. ALA can help fight the inflammation associated with obesity.

A promising application of chia is in the area of blood sugar. In one study, researchers evaluated the effects of chia on the blood sugar of healthy adults after they ate different test meals. They compared these meals to the effects of bread without chia. The researchers found that adding whole or ground chia to bread had a significant effect on blood sugar levels after the participants ate.

One study even investigated the effects of chia on endurance athletes. Many athletes engage in “carb loading” before long periods of exertion. Doing so increases the glycogen stores available to the muscles. In 2011, researchers compared the effects of a commercial sports drink and the same drink supplemented with chia on six male marathoners.

Interestingly, the researchers did not find any significant changes in performance between the two groups. However, when the runners received the chia supplement, they ate less sugar in their regular diets. This study indicates that chia could help athletes make healthier choices overall.

You can even use chia seed oil topically. One study of patients with dry, itchy, inflamed skin from diabetes or end-stage renal disease evaluated the effects of a water and oil emulsion made of 4% chia seed oil. After eight weeks of application, the patients noted statistically significant improvements compared to a placebo. Their skin hydration, itching, and hard, itchy lumps on the skin all got noticeably better.

How to Eat Chia Seeds

Chia seeds may be small, but they pack a punch! They are easy to make into chia pudding or toss into a smoothie or overnight oats. Just be sure to keep them in the refrigerator or freezer. Their high antioxidant content means they’re vulnerable to light and oxygen.

You can find chia seeds online and in most health food stores. They’ve gained in popularity through the years and are far more available than they were a few years ago.

Sources:

Muñoz LA, Cobos A, Diaz O, Aguilera JM. Chia seed (Salvia hispanica): An ancient grain and a new functional food. Food Reviews International. 2013;29:394-308.

Ali NM, Yeap SK, Ho WY, Beh BK, Tan SW, Tan SG. The promising future of chia, Salvia hispanica L. Journal of Biomedicine and Biotechnology. 2012;171956.

Valdivia-López MA, Tecante A. Chia (Salvia hispanica): A review of native Mexican seed and its nutritional and functional properties. Advances in Food and Nutrition Research. 2015;75:54-71.

Illian TG, Casey JC, Bishop PA. Omega 3 chia seed loading as a means of carbohydrate loading. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2011;25(1):61-65.

Diabetes Care, 2007 November;30(11):2804-10; Epub, 2007 August 8; www.eatchia.com/nutrition.htm

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