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By now, you’re probably familiar with the ever-popular, incredibly versatile, super nutritious chia seed, which is finding its way into tons of healthy recipes on the internet. And, if you’re old enough, you might remember the catchy 1980s commercial for the Chia Pet, a terracotta-style figurine that sprouted the tiny seed (which you can still purchase in many varieties, by the way). It’s clear that Americans have become somewhat obsessed with these gluten- and nut-free seeds, and not only because they sprout cute plant hair on top of our favorite terracotta characters. The benefits of chia seeds for health abound.
“Chia seeds have become known as a superfood, touting the ability to lower blood sugar, cholesterol, improve gut health, and help in appetite suppression and weight loss,” says Jeanette Kimszal, registered dietitian nutritionist. “The promise of these benefits give the food a ‘power,’ leading to consumers wanting to get their hands on these little seeds of hope.”
So how did this tiny seed become such a staple in the worlds of nutrition and health, and how you can benefit from consuming chia seeds on a regular basis?
But first, what are chia seeds, exactly?
Also known as Salvia hispanica, chia seeds are tiny seeds that come from a flowering plant in the mint family. The plant grows best in tropical climates and is native to Mexico and Guatemala.
Aurora Satler, chef and author of The Ultimate New Mom’s Cookbook, says that they can be used in almost any kind of food, from a vegan egg replacement to an oil, and in energy bars, drinks, and even in chocolate bars and snacks. “With their many health benefits—high in fiber, high in omega-3, high in calcium, and very uncommon as an allergen—chia seeds have fast been touted as a go-to health food,” she says.
The History of the Chia Seed
While we’re only just learning about the impressive abilities of this tiny seed, the plant is actually an ancient crop; the Aztecs planted it as far back as 3500 B.C. as one of their main food sources. “The Aztecs used ground chia seeds in foods like tortillas and tamales, as an ingredient in beverages, in medicinal oils, and in religious ceremonies,” explains Kimszal. “The long shelf life made chia a good food to carry on long trips, giving people energy on the go.”
“Chia seeds are a good source of protein and an excellent source of fiber, two nutrients that work together to help keep you fuller for longer.”
Chia remained a staple in Mexican and South American culture for centuries before they were taking over home gardens and adorning terracotta heads in the 1980s. Around the 1990s, American and South American scientists, nutritionists, and agriculturalists started looking at the chia seed for its health benefits and began treating it as a nutritional food crop to add to people’s diets, explains Kimszal.
The Health Benefits of Chia Seeds
We asked experts to share some of the science-backed benefits of chia seeds that deserve our attention.
They’re chock-full of protein and fiber.
You may have heard that chia seeds are a hunger suppressant. While there have been no scientific studies to back up this claim, experts say that the theory can be explained.
“Chia seeds are a good source of protein (4 grams per 1 ounce serving) and an excellent source of fiber (11 grams per 1 ounce serving), two nutrients that work together to help keep you fuller for longer,” says Amy Gorin, registered dietitian nutritionist and owner of Amy Gorin Nutrition in the New York City area. “Another reason that chia seeds are filling is because they offer a lot of volume when they expand in liquid to form a gel.” This is what makes them a great ingredient in desserts and breakfasts.
They’re a hydration helper.
Approximately 43 percent of Americans drink less than four cups of water a day, which is four less than the recommended amount, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While consuming water the old-fashioned way is best to ensure you’re getting your eight or more cups a day, you can also consume water-rich foods, like chia seeds, which can absorb 10 times their weight in liquid.
“This means that when you eat the hydrated seeds in a pudding or gel, you’re also getting the water along with it,” says Frances Largeman-Roth, registered dietitian nutritionist and author of Eating in Color: Delicious, Healthy Recipes for You and Your Family. “This makes chia seeds a great way to stay hydrated, especially when you don’t want to drink a lot of liquids, like before a race or before going to bed.”
They’re packed with calcium.
Chia seeds provide 179 mg of calcium in a mere one-ounce serving, which is more than half the amount in an entire glass of milk! “Calcium is needed to help strengthen bones, improve our blood circulation, and keep our muscles contracting and heart beating,” explains Kimszal. “Just one-third cup of chia provides 18 percent of your daily calcium needs, which is important for people who are vegan or lactose-intolerant and might not be getting their fair share.”
They can help athletes decrease their sugar intake.
One study published in The Journal of Strength & Conditioning found that chia loading before endurance events over 90 minutes had the same performance outcomes as carbohydrate loading, which means chia seeds might offer a viable option for athletes to decrease their sugar intake while upping their omega-3s and seeing similar results.
“By consuming chia seeds, athletes are also getting the benefits of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), the plant form of omega-3,” explains Largeman-Roth. “ALA contains anti-inflammatory and cardioprotective benefits, which help not only athletes, but normally active individuals too.”
Are chia seeds a superfood?
There are no nutritional requirements set by the FDA for a food to be considered “super,” however, there’s no denying that chia seeds fit the common description. “When people think of superfoods, they think of foods that are a good source of many nutrients that are important and essential in our diets, which chia seeds are,” says Julie Andrews, registered dietitian and chef. “Chia seeds are packed with nutrients like omega-3s—and not many plant foods have omega-3 fatty acids—and fiber, which are both very important for maintaining a healthy heart, and fiber is important for digestive health, as well as protein, which builds and repairs tissues in our body.”
Additionally, as we mentioned, chia seeds contain calcium, which is important for maintaining strong bones. Because of this laundry list of nutrients that chia seeds contain, there’s no reason not to consider them a superfood.
Who are chia seeds good for?
One of the best things about chia seeds is that they’re really ideal for almost anyone, especially since they’re uncommon as an allergen. However, Roger E. Adams, PhD, Houston-based dietitian, nutritionist, and founder of Eat Right Fitness, points out that there are some side effects of chia that must be considered while pregnant. “While specific research into chia and pregnancy is scant, pregnant women should carefully monitor how much they have (probably well under two tablespoons per day) and keep a check on their blood pressure throughout their pregnancy,” he adds.
“If someone is eating a low-fiber diet, they will not be able to handle much chia in the beginning without experiencing gastrointestinal issues.”
Like anything else, munch on chia seeds in moderation, as too much chia can lead to drops in blood pressure that may be dangerous, especially during pregnancy. Chia seeds also might increase the risk of bleeding in pregnant women. “Both of these are primarily due to chia’s concentrated source of omega-3,” explains Adams. Additionally, as with any high-fiber food, he adds that the risk of nutrient malabsorption must be considered when consuming chia, as high amounts of fiber at one time may prevent certain nutrients, mainly iron and calcium, from being absorbed.
Adams recommends eating no more than 1.5 to 2 tablespoons a day, however, this suggestion may change depending on an individual’s size and existing diet. “If someone is eating a low-fiber diet, they will not be able to handle much chia in the beginning without experiencing gastrointestinal issues,” he says. He suggests that beginners start slow and spread out their intake throughout the day.
How to Incorporate Chia Seeds Into Your Diet
Since chia seeds are gluten-, nut-, and dairy-free, they’re incredibly easy to incorporate into almost any food philosophy. You can also consume them raw or cooked. “When consumed raw, the chia retains all of its omega-3, and you reap more benefits from it; however, the protein in raw chia is not as bioavailable so may be poorly digested and absorbed,” says Adams. He recommends using both raw and toasted cooking methods to reap the most nutritional benefits. However, if gastrointestinal issues are a concern, then toasting should be your primary option.
When purchasing chia seeds on your own, choosing organic versus conventional is not super important, as Andrews says that the seeds are pretty much the same. Still, many people choose organic versions just to be safe. You can buy them online or at the grocery store. “Oftentimes grocery stores have chia seeds in the bulk section, and those tend to be cheaper, plus you can choose how much you want to buy,” adds Andrews. But remember, a little goes a long way as far as nutrition is concerned.
Due to the impressive health benefits of chia seeds, many health-conscious recipes that contain these little nutrient powerhouses are available online. Some of Andrews’ favorites include overnight oats, chia seed pudding, and chia seed jam.