Small but mighty, chia seeds have a variety of benefits (and a few cautions!) and are considered by many to be one of the healthiest foods on the planet.
1. They Are A Great Source of Protein
The chia seed is a great plant source of protein, containing 4.7 grams of protein per ounce. They contain all eight essential amino acids, a rarity for a non-animal based food and are much higher in protein than many other plants. They still don’t compare to animal-based proteins, but especially considering the other beneficial properties of chia seeds, they are worth consuming regularly.
2. Packed with Other Nutrients
Don’t let their tiny size fool you… chia seeds are a big source of many nutrients!
Just two tablespoons (about an ounce) contains 10 times the Omega-3s of an equal serving of walnuts, more iron than a cup of spinach and a host of other nutrients in smaller amounts. They are also a great source of beneficial fats, fiber and about as many antioxidants per serving as blueberries.
In fact, chia seeds contain the highest level of Omega-3s of any known plant. It is important to note that they contain Alpha Linoleic Acid (ALA) form found in plant foods but not docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), the form found in fatty fish.
The body can convert some ALA to DHA, but it is relatively inefficient at this process, so ideally, we should consume both ALA and DHA from food sources.
3. Support Digestion
There are several unique properties of chia seeds that make them beneficial for digestion. They are an excellent source of fiber at 11 grams per ounce. In fact, of the 12 grams of “carbohydrates” found in chia seeds, 11 are from fiber, which is indigestible to the body and which does not raise blood sugar or affect insulin levels like other forms of carbohydrates.
Essentially, the net carbohydrate in the chia seed is only 1 gram per ounce, making them a naturally low-carb and high-fiber food, with one serving providing the recommended daily amount of fiber. This fiber works as a pre-biotic in the digestive system, so while it isn’t digested and used directly, it feeds the beneficial bacteria in the gut and may help improve gut health.
Chia seeds also have a unique ability to “gel” due to the soluble fiber content and the fact that the outer shell is hydrophilic and has the ability to absorb over 10x their weight in liquid. This makes them filling and satisfying. Researchers think that this gel action also occurs in the stomach, creating a barrier between carbohydrates and enzymes in the stomach which slows the conversion of carbohydrates into sugar. This may account for some of the reported endurance benefits of chia seeds.
I’ve listed a few of my favorite recipes below that show how our family uses chia seeds, especially for breakfast.
4. Natural Appetite Suppressant
Chia Seeds are often recommended for those who are trying to lose weight Their ability to expand and slow digestibility helps keep a person feeling fuller longer. (source)
Additionally, as a good source of both protein and antioxidants, they may nutritionally support the body in other ways that promote weight loss. Due to their hydrophilic properties, chia seeds also promote hydration, which is important for maintaining a healthy weight.
Though the research is mixed on chia’s ability to directly promote weight loss, experts seem to agree that they are a great addition to a healthy diet and for those of us with kids who are hungry all the time, they are an easy (and filling) addition to many common foods. I love to serve some form of chia seed pudding for breakfast since it helps keep my kids full until lunch.
5. Promote Energy and Endurance
The Mayans and Aztecs originally used chia seeds for their energy and endurance benefits. They were known as “Indian Running Food” and warriors and athletes often consumed a chia seed gel prior to their events to maintain energy and stamina.
It turns out that these same benefits are just as applicable in modern times! In fact one study, found that a chia gel was as effective as energy drinks for maintaining athletic performance. In the study, participants were split into two groups. One group was given an energy drink, and another an energy drink/chia seed gel. Participants completed various running and endurance activities and their results were compared. The study found no difference in performance between the two groups and concluded that chia seeds were as effective as energy drinks in promoting athletic performance.
Chia seeds can be easily added to many foods and drinks. They can be used whole or ground and can even serve as an egg substitute in recipes. Unlike some “superfoods” like spirulina, chia seeds don’t have a strong flavor and can be easily used in recipes and added to smoothies without affecting flavor.
I always keep a big bag of chia seeds on hand for use in recipes and to add to foods.
One Caution: Phytic Acid
Like all grains and seeds, chia seeds contain compounds called phytates that block the absorption of certain nutrients. These anti-nutrients are the reason that many ancient cultures soaked and fermented grains and seeds prior to eating them. This is also the reason that some people prefer to avoid them (and most other grains and seeds as well).
Chia seeds are naturally gluten free and are a good source of many nutrients, as I explained above. Though they do contain anti-nutrients, they do not contain as high of levels as many other nuts and seeds. There is also some evidence that soaking and rinsing the seeds may help reduce the levels of these compounds.
Since I typically use chia seeds as a thickener or added in moderation to recipes and not as the core part of a meal, I don’t worry too much about their phytate content. Some people experience gastrointestinal distress from consuming chia seeds in large amounts, so of course, don’t eat them if this happens to you.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Chia seeds are rich in polyunsaturated fats, especially omega-3 fatty acids. Chia seeds' lipid profile is composed of 60 percent omega-3s, making them one of the richest plant-based sources of these fatty acids -- specifically, of alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA. The omega-3s in chia seeds can help reduce inflammation, enhance cognitive performance and reduce high cholesterol.
Fiber is associated with reducing inflammation, lowering cholesterol and regulating bowel function. Chia seeds are an excellent source of fiber, with a whopping 10 grams in only 2 tablespoons. That is one-third of the daily recommended intake of fiber per day.
Chia seeds are rich in antioxidants that help protect the body from free radicals, aging and cancer. The high antioxidant profile also helps them have a long shelf life. They last almost two years without refrigeration.
Two tablespoons of chia seeds contain 18 percent of the DRI for calcium, 35 percent for phosphorus, 24 percent for magnesium and about 50 percent for manganese. These nutrients help you prevent hypertension and maintain a healthy weight, and are important for energy metabolism and a part of DNA synthesis.
Satiety is the feeling of being full and satisfied, which helps lower food cravings between meals. The combination of protein, fiber and the gelling action of chia seeds when mixed with liquids all contribute to their satiating effects.
Chia seeds contain no gluten or grains. Therefore, all of the nutritional benefits of chia seeds can be obtained on a gluten-free diet.
The outer layer of chia seeds swells when mixed with liquids to form a gel. This can used in place of eggs to lower cholesterol and increase the nutrient content of foods and baked goods. To make the egg replacement, mix 1 tablespoon of chia seeds with 3 tablespoons of water and let sit for 15 minutes.
Can Be Digested Whole
Unlike flaxseeds, which are also high in omega-3 fatty acids, fiber and minerals, chia seeds do not need to be ground in order to obtain their nutrient or egg- replacement benefits.
A study published in the "British Journal of Nutrition" showed that chia seeds as a dietary fat source can lower triglycerides and cholesterol levels while increasing HDL or "good" cholesterol. The study also found that when substituting chia seeds for other fat sources, such as corn oil, the ALA was able to prevent high triglyceride levels and reduce central obesity.
Blood Sugar Regulation
Chia seeds can play an important role in regulating insulin levels. They can reduce insulin resistance and decrease abnormally high levels of insulin in the blood.