These days, the word “superfood” gets thrown around a lot. It’s not uncommon that we flick on the TV to find someone in scrubs talking about the latest dietary fad or must-eat food. From avocados and blueberries to wheatgrass and soybeans—sometimes it feels like there are simply too many to keep up with.
Luckily for you, there is a no-nonsense superfood (okay, last time we use that word—promise) that is tasty, inexpensive, and easy to incorporate in your diet. Can you guess which? (Spoiler: it’s right there in the title). Correct, chia seeds! These delicious seeds are a natural source of fiber, protein, and healthy essential fats that you can stir into just about any dish.
Feeling hungry yet? Trust us—you will be soon. If you want to find out more about chia seeds, check out what our experts have to say about these tasty little nutrient nuggets. By the time you’ve made it to the end, you will be grabbing your grocery bags and heading out to the supermarket for a fresh pouch.
What Are Chia Seeds?
Native to Central America, the chia seed is one of the most nutritious foods on the planet. The seed of the Salvia hispanica plant, chia seeds are part of the larger family of mint plants known as Lamiaceae, which have grown spontaneously in countries such as Mexico and Guatemala.
The History of the Chia Seed
Before Christopher Columbus ever set sail for the New World, the Aztec Empire was already cultivating chia seeds and reaping their health benefits. The Aztecs, which thrived in the territory now known as Mexico from 1300 to 1521, considered chia seeds to be a vital source of energy and relied on them as a staple crop.
You may know that maize and corn were essential to the maintenance of pre-Columbian cultures. However, there is some evidence that chia seeds were equally as important as those staple crops due to their rich nutrient density. Whereas maize was a great source of starchy carbohydrates, chia seeds provided balanced energy thanks to their fat and protein content.
Like the Aztecs, the Mayan civilization also used chia seeds as a supplement for strength and endurance. In fact, the word “chia” is derived from the Mayan word for strength. The seeds were commonly ground into flour and then mixed with water to make into a hearty, edible substance. Some Mayans considered the food to be sacred due to its energizing properties that increased stamina and performance during hunting trips.
The Mayan and Aztec civilizations practiced a holistic health system. Wise beyond their years, they knew that food was a form of medicine. With the knowledge that chia seeds would bolster their health and performance, they encouraged the sick and the weak to eat chia-based foods to help restore them to their former health.
Chia Seed Supplementation
Supplementing with chia seeds is not a practice unique to ancient civilizations. Today, there are cultures scattered around the world that revere the chia seed for its health benefits and healing properties. For example, the Tarahumara tribe of modern-day Mexico uses chia to develop world-class long-distance runners.
Endurance athletes, such as long-distance runners and marathoners, practice “carb loading” before a competition. During this phase of their preparation, they eat large quantities of starchy carbohydrates to fuel their body with readily available glycogen. The body uses glycogen as its primary energy source during athletic activity.
However, studies performed on the Tarahumara tribe found that those athletes who carb loaded on chia seeds either outperformed or remained competitive with conventional carb loaders. In the study, six male runners were tested over a 2-week span and, ultimately, the researchers recommended “chia loading” as a viable alternative to regular carb loading.
More recent studies have found that chia seeds are now used in cultures around the world for a variety of therapeutic applications. Plant-based cultures, such as the Tarahumara tribe, swear by the benefits of chia seeds for fueling their athletes and aiding their recovery without the use of meat or animal products.
More Chia Science
A major 2017 study that examined 24 healthy adults found that those who added chia seeds to their daily yogurt meal benefited from increased satiety and higher energy levels. For athletes and those who work on their feet, this implies that adding chia seeds to your diet can provide your body with an extra boost of energy. So, may we suggest trying out a spoonful in your next smoothie?Need more convincing about the wonders of chia on athletic performance? In an April 2018 research paper, scientists examined 12 independent studies and found that athletes and non-athletes alike benefitted from lower diastolic blood pressure and better blood glucose levels after taking a chia supplement.
Lastly, a 2012 paper extolled the virtues of chia as a “medicinal food” and “functional food” that has a history of therapeutic usage among athletes for improving serum lipid levels. However, the paper also calls for more research on chia seeds since little is known about the safety of chia oil extraction. The researchers also note that chia has rapidly caught on among the folk medicine community.
With so many athletic benefits to its name, it’s no wonder that chia is also loaded with nutrients. All chia seed health benefits are derived from their unique nutritional contents, which include an array of fibers, healthy fats, proteins, and essential minerals. For your convenience, we have listed all the important nutritional facts about chia seeds below.
With 485 calories per 100 grams, chia seeds are relatively energy-dense. (For our American readers, that translates to roughly 135 calories per ounce). Each seed is approximately 40% fibrous carbohydrate, 5% non-fibrous carbohydrate, 6% water, 20% protein, and 34% essential fats.
For every 100-gram serving of chia seeds, there are 16.5 grams of protein, 42 grams of carbohydrates (80% of which are fibrous), 31 grams of fat (over half of which consist of Omega-3s), and no sugar or trans fats. This is remarkably nutrient-dense food that offers more protein and healthy fat than any other.
An adult woman requires about 25 grams of fiber in her diet every day, with men requiring an additional 13 grams. Therefore, a 50-gram serving of chia seeds packs almost all the dietary fiber recommended for the average woman’s diet. This makes chia seeds an excellent nutritional supplement for digestive health and promoting a healthy colon.
The Health Benefits of Chia Seeds
The many chia seed health benefits are the consequence of their rich nutritional profile. We’ve taken a daunting task upon ourselves—to discuss each of the various health benefits of chia seeds. The summaries below detail all the evidence-based health benefits of chia consumption, from encouraging digestive health to weight loss.
Nature’s Anti-Inflammation Powerhouse
When your body suffers an injury or an infection, inflammation is always soon to follow. Inflammation is one of the human body’s natural responses to harm and, although it is natural, it can be painful, obstructive, and outright annoying to deal with. If you have ever had a swollen red patch of skin that stuck around for ages, that was probably an inflammation flare-up.
Fortunately, there are many plant-based solutions for fighting inflammation when it overstays its welcome. Chia seeds are at the top of the list when it comes to natural anti-inflammation. According to a 2007 study, diabetics who took a chia seed supplement experienced a reduction in inflammation blood markers hs-CRP and vWF by 40% and 21%, respectively.
However, there is some mixed opinion in the scientific community about chia seed health benefits when it comes to treating inflammation. Although there are studies that suggest that there is no strong link between chia and anti-inflammation, other studies find the opposite to be true.
Study after study has found that chia seeds contain loads of antioxidants. Although “antioxidant” has become a buzzword in recent years, they offer lots of legitimate health benefits. For instance, antioxidants protect the nutrients and fats inside the seeds from spoiling.
The development of chronic neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and lateral sclerosis can be prevented or slowed down by antioxidants. This is because antioxidants lower the levels of free radicals in the body, which are known to damage cellular production and cause diseases.
The benefits of chia seeds for constipation is no secret. The massive amount of dietary fiber in one serving of chia seeds provides the body with plenty of digestion-friendly material. Although it is true that the body cannot digest dietary fiber, it is instead used to help solidify stools and is eventually passed out of the body through bowel movements.
Women who do not receive enough fiber in their diets end up with chronic and acute gastrointestinal issues such as constipation and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Since chia seeds are one of the most fibrous foods in the world, adding some chia to your diet might help encourage regular bowel movements and keep you feeling light and comfortable.
Your Ticket to a Happy Heart
Even the Aztec and Mayan civilizations understood that chia seeds were important for maintaining cardiovascular health. Thanks to their rich omega-3 fatty acid content, chia seeds help your body fend off the “bad” type of cholesterol (LDL). Instead, omega-3 fats increase the amount of “good” HDL cholesterol in the bloodstream.
There are few organs more important than the human heart. That is why it is so crucial that we take good care of it through exercise and dietary support. Chia seeds are an excellent source of heart-friendly nutrients that lower risk factors in the blood. For example, chia seeds are known to lower triglycerides, improve insulin levels, and fight inflammation of the heart.
Women all around the world suffer from osteoporosis and other bone-related ailments. Luckily, chia seeds have our backs. These seeds are loaded with key nutrients to support bone health and bone density, such as calcium, protein, and magnesium. In fact, a 50-gram serving of chia seed contains over 33% of the daily recommended intake of calcium.
For those who choose not to eat dairy products or drink milk, chia seeds are an excellent source of much-needed calcium. If you think that a calcium supplement is enough to make up for the loss, there are studies that find that dietary calcium intake is superior to supplementation. The researchers single-out chia seeds as a great source of dietary calcium.
Additional research has found that calcium and magnesium, both of which are found in chia seeds, are essential for warding off osteoporosis and maintaining strong bones in one’s old age. Therefore it is important that middle-aged women incorporate chia seeds or other calcium-rich foods into their diets.
A Weight Loss Phenom
Don’t be fooled by their relatively high caloric content, chia seeds and weight loss go hand in hand. Since chia seeds are packed with soluble fiber, they absorb water in your intestines and form a gel-like substance. Consequently, soluble fiber slows down the absorption of food and increases feelings of satiety, which leads to less snacking and binge eating.
The type of soluble fiber found in chia seeds is known as glucomannan, which researchers have proven to aid in weight loss and speeding up the metabolism. Likewise, a recent study found that chia seeds added to yogurt resulted in increased feelings of fullness throughout the day.
If you want to lose weight by exercising and cutting back on the snacking, chia seeds might be a great place to start. Not only do they help fuel and energize the body for athletic performance, but they increase satiety, so you will be less likely to splurge on chips and soda later in the day.
Chia Seeds vs. Flax Seeds
For years, health and nutrition magazines everywhere have profiled the two heavyweight champions in the seedy “functional food” category: flax (Linum usitatissimum) and chia. Often, these two seeds are compared with each other as if it were a competition to see which packs a more nutritional punch.
From our perspective, both seeds deserve to be adored for their reasons. That is why we try to incorporate each into our diets as often as we can. However, if we had to pit one against the other in a chia seeds vs flax seeds showdown, we would choose chia over flax. We break down our rationale below.
Advantages of Chia Seeds
Although both flax and chia seeds are rich in nutrients that lower blood glucose spikes, a study has shown that chia seeds have a greater positive effect on controlling spikes than flax. The study also showed that chia seeds increase satiety and lower the desire to eat compared with flax seeds due to the higher fiber viscosity of chia.
Irrespective of their nutritional benefits, we often hear that chia seeds have a more neutral taste than flax seeds. Although this is subjective, there may be more opportunities to incorporate chia into one’s diet than flax if the taste of chia is preferable. To find out which you prefer, try adding a spoonful of flax and chia into plain yogurt or oatmeal and compare the tastes yourself.
Lastly, the soluble fiber content of chia seeds is higher than flax seeds. This means that it is easier to digest chia than it is flax, and digestive ailments such as constipation and diarrhea can be remedied more effectively by choosing chia over flax.
Disadvantages of Chia Seeds
Our research found that there are few instances in which flax seeds come out on top over chia. However, there are two main categories in which flax seeds slightly edge out chia: protein and omega-3 fatty acid content.
Regarding protein, a 1-ounce serving of flax offers 5 grams of protein compared to the 4 grams in chia seeds. Therefore, for bodybuilding purposes or for recovering from strenuous exercise, flax seed might be the better option.
Both chia seeds and flax seeds are hailed as heart-healthy foods. This is because they are packed with omega-3 fatty acids, which improve heart health and lower bad cholesterol levels. While one serving of chia seeds boasts an impressive 4.9 grams of omega-3s, flax seeds beat them out by offering 6.4 grams. Although both are high, flax reigns supreme in this regard.
Chia Seed Storage and Preparation
Chia seeds have a shelf life of 5 years if they are stored properly. Without proper storage, the seeds can spoil and potentially become unsafe to eat. Due to the risk of ingesting bad seeds, learning about storing chia seeds is critical.
Storing Chia Seeds
If you want to learn how to store chia seeds, you will first need to take an honest look in the mirror. Ask yourself if you will remember to eat chia seeds if they kept tucked away in the pantry. For many of us, once foods are isolated in a dark pantry, we stop eating them altogether. Instead, foods need to be readily available on the counter for us to not forget them.
There are two main options when it comes to storing chia seeds: putting them in the pantry, or in a dark section of your kitchen counter where they won’t be exposed to much direct sunlight. In both cases, they need to be sealed in an airtight glass or plastic container and kept cool.
Preserving Chia Seeds
We are often asked by our friends and readers: how long do chia seeds last? Ultimately, the answer will depend on your chia seed storage technique and the climate in which you live.
It is important to remember that chia seeds are hydrophilic, which means they absorb water and moisture in the air. However, if left in a watertight container in a cool, non-humid environment, chia seeds can last up to 5 years.
Preparing Chia Seeds
We love sprinkling a tablespoon of chia seeds in our oatmeal, fruit smoothies, and yogurt. However, if you are adventurous enough, you can add them to virtually any meal in either whole or ground form. Grinding chia seeds with a mortar and pestle is a great way to create a flour-like substance for baking, without losing any of the chia seed health benefits.
One of our favorite chia recipes is “chia eggs,” which are made from chia gel. These healthy, egg-like cakes are baked the same way as most other pastries, but with chia seed gel instead of oil. For more mouth-watering chia cake creations, check out these awesome recipes for vegan lemon and blueberry cake.
If pastries aren’t your thing, you can try incorporating chia seed gel as an oil and egg replacement for many other recipes. For a fun step-by-step guide to creating chia gel, check out this short YouTube tutorial for making creamy, delicious chia gel.
There’s no debating it; chia seeds are one of the world’s most nutritious foods. For centuries, chia seeds have been eaten and celebrated by cultures around the world as a folk medicine, athletic performance enhancer, and staple crop.
If you are curious about reaping the benefits of chia seeds for weight loss, muscular strength, bone density, and heart health, give a spoonful of chia seeds a shot today—you won’t regret it.
We would like to thank you for taking a moment out of your day to learn more about improving your health and wellbeing through plant-based nutrition. If you enjoyed this article, please consider sharing it with your friends and family. After all, we can all benefit from learning more about one of nature’s greatest gifts to health and longevity.