Chia Seeds: Healthy or Hype?

By Katie Trant | Last Updated: November 23, 2014

Chia Seeds: Healthy or Hype?

Chia Seeds: Healthy or Hype?
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.

Exceptional absorption

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.

About Katie Trant

Katie is a university-trained nutritionist and professional writer based in Stockholm, Sweden. She is a vegetarian of more than two decades, and is passionate about real food. Her blog The Muffin Myth is all about approachable nutrition.

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Comments

A really interesting article Katie. It’s so easy to get caught up in the latest ‘superfood’ hype without stopping to question what it is and why it’s good for you. Thanks for sharing!
Jenny /

Love this article. I’ve wondered about these little guys since I bought them for the shoot of the smoothie recipes that was on OMV last January. This cleared up all of my questions, thank you! 🙂

It’s so good to see an article based on science instead of speculation and fad. I’ve tried chia seed products a couple of times and have tried adding chia seeds to smoothies, but every time I do I have problems with my GI track. Being a person that lives with autoimmune diseases that have affected the GI tract, I have to be very aware of what I eat, what works and what doesn’t work. I have quit eating chia seeds and thanks to your post, I better understand why I’m affected as I am. Thank you!

You definitely have to listen to your body! In your case it’s clearly telling you that chia isn’t right for you, and if you struggle with GI issues in some cases they can really aggravate a problem.

Great informative article; I’m a flight attendant and I love chia seeds in my water to keep extra hydrated on flights, and for the occasional hangover they work wonders!

As usual, great, informative, balanced post Katie. I eat chia seeds occasionally, I’m more of a flax seed kind of girl. I’ve always felt like I should be eating more chia seeds because of the Omega-3s, but now, I’m not going to worry about it. Thank you!

Thanks Linda! I like to mix up my seeds because they’ve all got something to offer. I rotate through chia, hemp, and flax depending on what I’m making and what I’m in the mood for!

Great article Katie! I’ve always had my reservations about eating A LOT of chia seeds, as they tend to bother my digestion. Usually a pinch or two in a smoothie is all I need. Interesting as well about the ALA conversion too! Thanks for the info! 🙂

It does seem that chia aggravates digestion issues for many people, so if they don’t work for you, don’t use them! You know your body best, and it’s wise to listen to it!

My masters thesis project is on ALA and DHA and there is actually mounting evidence that suggests as long as you have enough ALA in your diet you will produce EPA and DHA in the quantities your body needs. AKA additional EPA/DHA from supplements won’t benefit you. It’s interesting stuff.

Wow, that’s super interesting! And totally groundbreaking research – if this becomes well recognized maybe people won’t be so crazy about taking fish oil supplements and will turn increasingly to plant-based sources. Thanks for the info!

Hi Katie, thanks for the info! I know Omega 3’s can be heat sensitive. I was wondering if heat damages the fatty acids in chia seeds; if so, what would be a safe temperature to warm/cook chia seeds.

Hi Emma,

I’m sure heat does damage some of the fatty acids in chia seeds, but to be honest, I’m not sure what appropriate temperature range is. I generally eat chia raw in smoothies or chia puddings, but I do bake with them from time to time… probably some fatty acids are lost / damage but enough are retained to still gain some health benefits. The exact number, I don’t know!

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