Ch-ch-ch-chia! There have been all kinds of claims made regarding the health benefits of eating chia seeds. Everything from increased energy, better sleep, weight loss, reduced sugar cravings and increased satiety, to shinier hair and clearer skin. But are they really all they’re cracked up to be? Are chia seeds healthy or hype?
What are chia seeds?
Chia comes from a plant called Salvia hispanica, which is in the same family as mint. And yes, it is a cousin to the seeds used to grow the green hair on your Chia Pet in the '80s.
Chia was an important crop to the Aztecs. In fact the word “chia” is said to mean strength in ancient Mayan. Today chia is still cultivated to some extent by small Latin American farmers, but about half of the world’s chia actually comes from Australia. Chia seeds come in both black and white, which are no different from one another in terms of flavor or nutritional content.
Chia seeds are very rich in soluble fiber. They are an excellent source of essential minerals such as phosphorous, manganese, calcium, sodium and potassium, and contain a good amount of both protein and antioxidants.
A source of omega-3s, but...
Chia seeds are a concentrated source of the omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). In fact, gram for gram, chia seeds contain more omega-3s than salmon. They don’t, however, contain DHA or EPA, the heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oils or some algal oils. What this means is that the omega-3s in chia seeds are not as beneficial as you may think. ALA needs to be converted into the active forms, DHA and EPA, before it can be used by the body. Unfortunately, the human body is not very good at converting ALA, which means plant sources of Omega-3s, including chia, tend to be inferior to animal sources.
Due to the exceptional water-absorption properties of chia (it has the ability to absorb up to 10 times its weight in water), it can help prolong hydration and help the body retain electrolytes at times, such as during exertion. Whole, water-soaked chia seeds are easily digested, and their nutrients can be quickly absorbed by the body. Unlike flax seeds, chia doesn’t need to be ground in order to unlock its nutrient potential.
Once soaked, chia seeds bulk up, then work like a cleaning crew in our digestive systems. As they move through the intestinal tract, they help to dislodge and eliminate accumulated waste in the intestines. Many people find their stools also become more regular once they eat chia.
Because chia absorbs water easily, it is easy on sensitive stomachs compared to other seeds such as flax, which are harder to digest due to the tough insoluble fibers they contain.
It is important to note that the gel-like quality of chia seeds can aggravate conditions such as leaky gut, so if you’re suffering from gut issues or inflammation, you should speak to your health care provider about including chia in your diet.
Weight loss magic?
When it comes to the claims that chia seeds promote weight loss, decrease appetite and are generally a magical elixir, the jury is still out. A handful of studies with extremely small cohorts have suggested some benefits for diabetics or the overweight, but they’re not statistically significant. A couple of larger studies (with still only 62 and 90 participants, which is pretty tiny in research terms) also showed no significant effect on body weight when chia was added to the diet for 10 and 12 weeks, respectively.
A beneficial effect on heart disease and type 2 diabetes?
Considering chia seeds are rich in fiber, protein, and omega-3s, they’ve also been attributed to a lowered risk of heart disease and type-2 diabetes. This has been tested in several studies, but the results have been inconclusive. Rat studies have shown that consuming chia seeds helps increase HDL (good) cholesterol while reducing blood triglycerides, inflammation, insulin resistance, and abdominal fat. However, these results have not yet translated to human studies.
A study on the use of chia seeds by 20 type-2 diabetes patients showed improvements in several important markers of health, including blood pressure and inflammatory markers, when they consumed chia seeds for 12 weeks. There was also a small decrease in blood sugar, but it wasn’t statistically significant. Chia seeds are rich in fiber, so it does make sense that they could help stabilize blood sugar, but this hasn’t yet been verified by research studies.
So what’s the bottom line? Are chia seeds healthy or hype?
By eating chia seeds you get a lot of nutritional bang for your buck. They’re a concentrated source of fiber, high-quality protein, antioxidants and many important vitamins and minerals. They are certainly a great addition to a healthy diet.
While it is entirely possible that consuming chia seeds can contribute to improved health, it is unlikely they’ll work alone. Chia consumption must come together with other beneficial changes in the diet in order to see an improvement in health status.
It can be tempting to think that incorporating just one item into your daily diet could have extrordinary health benefits, but the reality is there’s no magic pill—chia included. At the end of the day, there’s just no substitute for eating a balanced diet and getting a good amount of exercise: good old fashioned hard work and moderation, yet again.
Chia seeds are without question very healthy, but they’re not a miracle.