Chia seeds are a very popular food right now with a lot of ads making very strong claims. Is it really all that it is made out to be? Is it a food that you should add to your diet? I’ll do my best to address some commonly asked questions.
Chia seeds were a diet staple for the Aztecs and Mayans in Mexico where they originated. They are a member of the mint family and also go by their more technical plant name, Salvia hispanica. They have been used for nourishment as whole seeds, ground or as sprouts. (Yes, it’s the same thing in chia pets; however I would only eat the food grade kind that is in supermarkets…not from the plant.)
Some of the claims include a good source of protein, rich in heart healthy fats and calcium. A lot of the marketing ads also say that they are a "superfood" due to tremendously high antioxidant levels as well as having more omega-3s than salmon. They are also hot among athletes since chia seeds hold a large amount of water and could be useful for hydration. So are these claims really true, and is this a food you incorporate into your diet? Let’s dive in.
The Nutrition Facts (per tablespoon, ~ .5oz) - from the USDA nutrient database
Total Fat: 4g
Saturated Fat: <.5g
Unsaturated Fat: ~4g
Omega-3 (ALA): 250mg
Let’s break it down. These tiny seeds do contain unsaturated fats which are known to be heart healthy. The fiber is certainly commendable! But a good source of protein it is NOT. 2g isn’t much so I would not count on 1 Tbl. (the suggested daily serving) of this food to meet my protein needs. The type of omega-3 present in this food is ALA which is also the form that is found in other plant foods like walnuts and flaxseeds. Our bodies must convert this to the usable forms EPA and DHA, and the conversion is poor. However, it won’t hurt you to try to get a little more omega’s this way if you are a poor seafood eater. The calcium is pretty disappointing for the claims that are made. Compared to milk it has less than 1/3 the amount of calcium. BUT compared to spinach it has 3 times the amount in 1 Cup of raw spinach! And for the antioxidant level… no doubt this plant food has some nice antioxidant levels, but research has yet to deliver a measurable amount.
What about athletes? Is it worth eating some before or during endurance exercise to help with hydration? I did a 15 miler today and consumed one of my pudding mixes about 1.5 hours before running… I was still thirsty and needed to drink. I didn’t notice any difference in my hydration; however that’s not to say that it can’t help. Many websites and chia companies list “super hydration” as a benefit even claiming that “they can keep you hydrated for hours”. After a quick literature search, I can up empty handed with any research to prove this claim. But you can try it. See if it works for you. Please make sure to check your urine for a clear color and to weigh yourself before and after exercise for true sweat loss and refueling amounts.
Other potential benefits?
There is some preliminary research to suggest that chia seeds can help decrease inflammation as well as triglycerides. They may also improve glucose intolerance.
Should I eat it?
It’s really up to you. You have the nutrition facts. This is not a food that will magically help you lose weight (see this study). If you are lacking in some of the nutrients that the seeds provide then it may be something you want to try.
How do I eat them?
In salads, in granola, in smoothies, in drinks (like chia fresca in the book Born to Run), in puddings (see below) and baked goods. They can also be a replacement for eggs or fat in recipes (see here).
1/3 + 2 tbl. chia seeds, whole
1.5 C skim milk, almond milk or soy milk (I used lactose free milk but almond would be tasty too)
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
Add-ins: cocoa, pumpkin, coconut, almond or peanut butter, pecans or other nuts, honey
Combine seeds and milk in jar or container and shake to combine. Refrigerate overnight until gel forms. Add your choice of add-ins and serve either warm or cold.
Nutrition Facts (makes 6, 1/4 cup servings)
Calories 227, Fat 13g, Sat fat 1g, Sodium 34mg, Carbs 22g, Fiber 16g, Sugars 3g, Protein 9g
For more information or diet related questions, email Kristen O’Connor, RD, LD at firstname.lastname@example.org or find her on twitter @ramblingsofanrd. Kristen is a registered dietitian with a degree in medical dietetics from The Ohio State University.