Nutrition Tip of the Week

Author: Heather K. Mackie, MS, RD, LD

Week of March 4, 2013

More than a Chia Pet?

Almost everyone has heard about chia seeds, but are they all that they are cracked up to be?  Some are saying they are capable of assisting with blood sugar control, helping with weight loss, lowering blood pressure, increasing cardiovascular health, among many other claims.  What does the research say about these “new” super seeds?

What is Chia? Chia is the common name for Salvia hispanica.  It is sometimes sold under trade names, Salba ® or MilaTM.  Chia comes from a flowering plant native to Mexico and Central America.  It is now being grown in Australia as well.  It is a member of the mint family.  If you are a Mayan history buff, you may know that the word ‘chia’ means strength.

Yes, they are related to the ever-popular chia pets.  The hair/grass growing on the popular “pet” of the 1980’s was in fact sprouted chia seeds.  The chia seed began its popularity as a staple in the Aztec diet.  It also played a significant role in religious ceremonies in pre-Columbian societies many years ago.  Now, you see chia seeds popping up on shelves everywhere – online, health food stores, various grocery stores, and even the popular discount warehouse store, Costco.

You may see both black and white chia seeds.  Some argue that one seed is superior to the other, but their nutritional content is quite similar.  However, if you choose to purchase chia seeds, only purchase black or white seeds.  If they are brown, they are probably immature seeds.

Let’s compare chia seeds to the well-known super-seed, flax seeds:

Per Tablespoon Chia Seeds (10 g) Flax Seeds (7g)
Calories 49 37
Protein (g) 1.6 1.3
Total fat (g) 3.4 3.0
Alpha Linolenic Acid (type Omega 3) (g) 1.8 1.6
Fiber (g) 3.8 1.9
Calcium (mg) 63 18

* Source: USDA National Nutrient Database

Health Benefits of Chia Seeds. Chia seeds are clearly a nutritional powerhouse.  They are packed with protein, fiber, antioxidants, and heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acid alpha linolenic fatty acid (ALA).  They can easily be incorporated into a daily healthy eating plan for an extra boost of goodness.  Originally, chia seeds were used in the ancient Aztec and Mayan cultures medicinally and now there are may claims that chia seeds can help with many disease states.  A study published in 2010 from Canada suggested consuming chia seeds might help with blood sugar control.  A study from 2007 from the same group in Canada reported chia seeds were shown to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease for those individuals with type 2 diabetes.  However, a study from 2009 revealed no benefit related to weight loss in overweight individuals who consumed chia seeds in North Carolina.

Using Chia Seeds. Unlike flaxseeds, chia seeds do not have to be ground for their nutrients to be absorbed.  They also have a longer shelf life and therefore will not go rancid, which is a common complaint regarding flaxseeds.  They can easily be mixed with yogurt, cereal, juices, soups, salads, etc.  You can also mix the seeds with water (1 part seeds to 8-9 parts water) to quickly see how this soluble fiber can turn the water into a gel.  This flavorless gel can then be mixed with almost anything to boost the nutrient content of that dish.  It is often used as a thickener in recipes.  You can even purchase chia flour or grind the seeds yourself to substitute for part of the flour in a recipe for your favorite muffin, bread, or pastry recipe.  While they do not add any flavor to your favorite dish, they will add a little crunch.

It has been reported that more ALA in omega-3 reached the bloodstream and was converted to eicosapentaenoic acid (a long chain fatty acid/heart healthy fat) when the seeds are milled rather than consumed whole.

Chia seeds may also be found in gluten-free food products due to its ability to add fluffiness in foods like bread and waffles.  It is also used to replace eggs in vegan products.  It is a great alternative to those with nut allergies.

Some experts recommend using only a small amount of chia seeds per day; about one ounce.  Since chia is very high in fiber, it can cause stomach upset if consumed in too high dosage.  Anytime you add fiber to your healthy eating plan, it is best to start with smaller amounts and gradually increase to reduce the effect of stomach upset and/or gastrointestinal complaints.

Overall Conclusion. Chia seeds are a good source of vegetable-based protein and contain cholesterol-lowering soluble fiber.  Although studies reveal mixed reports about their specific benefits related to certain disease states, it might be beneficial to consume chia seeds in moderation.  All seeds (chia, flax, hemp, pumpkin, etc.) can be a beneficial addition to the healthy eating plan in moderation.  Remember, all of these nutritional benefits found in a chia seed, can also be found in many other foods, so talk to your healthcare provider/bariatric surgeon/ dietitian to determine if you would benefit from implementing chia seeds into your daily eating plan.

Whether or not chia seeds are the “it” food for 2013, time will tell, but we can all remember the great marketing campaign jingle: “Ch-Ch-Ch-Chia” from the 1980’s.

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One Response to “Nutrition Tip of the Week”

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