In decades past, the most popular uses for chia seeds were growing them on clay figurines.
Now it’s most popular for being a superfood.
So what are the benefits of eating chia seeds? Here are the twelve biggest advantages, as well as one completely gross and nasty side effect to watch out for.
1. Chia Seed Nutrition Facts
These little guys prove that big things do come in small packages!
60 calories per tablespoon may sound high, but these seeds expand several times their size after they’re soaked in water. So you end up getting a lot more food (volume-wise) for that amount of calories.
On an apples-to-apples basis, chia seeds have as much protein as pork sausage (1). Both have approximately 5 grams of protein for every 100 calories worth.
The label on the right is from Nutiva, which is probably the most widely sold brand in the US. But it doesn’t matter if you’re buying a name brand (e.g. Nutiva, Navitas Naturals, Spectrum Essentials) or one lesser known, such as a store or generic brand. Assuming you’re buying raw organic chia seeds, their nutritional profile will be the same regardless.
Though take note I said organic! Why is this important? Because if that USDA certified organic seal is on there, it means it hasn’t been irradiated.
You may be unaware how much food you eat is irradiated – the process of blasting your meats, fruits, and vegetables with the equivalent of up to 1 billion chest X-rays, before it reaches the supermarkets and restaurants.
Why? Supposedly for “safety purposes” and extending shelf-life, since it kills the vegetable/fruit, and hence, stops its natural ripening process.
Sure, irradiation destroys E. coli, but it can destroy vitamins A, the B-complex, C, E, and beta-carotene (2).
Essential fatty acids can also be damaged – and those omega 3’s in chia seeds – are arguably their biggest benefit, which brings us to number 2…
2. Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Contrary to popular belief, omega fatty acids aren’t always good for you!
Or at least, if you’re getting the wrong ratio of omega 3, 6, and 9.
With the typical western diet, you are overdosing on omega 6 (omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids).
Even olive oil and coconut oil, which are assumed to be healthy really aren’t (although their high smoke point makes them good for cooking).
Anthropological research suggests that back in the hunter-gatherer days, we consumed omega 6’s to omega 3’s in a roughly 1 to 1 ratio. Today’s western diets are more like a 15 to 1 ratio! This excess of 6’s promotes many diseases, including cardiovascular, cancer, autoimmune, and inflammation (3).
But good news! One of the most unique benefits of the chia seed is its ratio of omega 6 to 3… its 0.3 to 1 (in other words, there are over 3x more Omega 3’s than 6’s). Contrast that to almost all other seeds and nuts, which are high in 6’s and almost no 3’s. By weight, they contain more omega 3’s than salmon!
On an apples-to-apples though (no pun intended) keep in mind that the ORAC scale is based on 100 grams for the tested ingredient. An apple weighs somewhere between 150 to 200 grams. A tablespoon of chia seeds (1 serving) is only 12 grams… meaning the ORAC realized from 1 serving would only be 12% of 9,800 for the black variety, which is 1,176.
4. You Can Drink Them
Here’s a fun fact about chia seeds. You can use them as solid food, as a beverage, and something in-between like a pudding!
During the past decade, a number of beverages have come onto the market which use chia as their main ingredient. In terms of taste, some people dislike them – the occasional clumpiness on your tongue as throat as you down a bottle is unusual to say the least. But if you’re OK with that, drink up! It’s a unique way to enjoy the health benefits, especially when you’re on the go and don’t have time to eat real, unprocessed food.
The nutrition facts printed on the back of the bag only tell you so much. The FDA fails at many things, not the least of which is their food label format, as it only gives you basics about *some* vitamins and nutrients.
Something you won’t find on that label are the many phytonutrients contained in chia seeds.
Phytonutrients are chemicals produced by plants which are not essential (or mandatory) vitamins we need to survive, yet they can still be extremely beneficial to our health and many diseases (4).
- Chlorogenic Acid – Studies link this compound to slowing the release of glucose into the bloodstream after eating. This may help blood sugar spikes – especially for those with type 2 diabetes (5). Tip: To get even higher quantities of chlorogenic acid in your diet, try coffee, it’s in both caffeinated and decaf.
- Caffeic Acid – Our biggest dietary source of this is coffee, but despite its name this is not caffeine. Rather, caffeic acid is actually found in all plants to varying degrees. There are studies suggesting it may be beneficial for cancer prevention (6), as a neuroprotective agent (7), asthma (8), male reproductive health (9), and many other conditions.
- Quercetin – This plant pigment (flavonoid) is well known for its anti-inflammatory properties. Studies suggest it may help with atherosclerosis, high cholesterol, hypertension, rheumatoid arthritis (RA), and possibly have anti-cancer properties (10). Quaracetin supplements are popular with athletes for the belief that it may enhance endurance and physical performance. In a recent 8-week study involving 60 participants, it was concluded that “supplementation with quercein-vitamin C was effective in reducing oxidative stress and reducing inflammatory biomarkers” (11).
- Myricetin – Another type of flavonoid, it has been described as a “potent anti-carcinogenic” (12).
- Kaempferol– A study involving kaempferol and quercetin demonstrated that it might have positive effects in the fight against bone loss post-menopause which many so women experience (13). A related benefit is that chia has a high concentration of calcium – just 1 tablespoon equals 8% of your RDA. Per gram, they have 6x more calcium than milk and 4x more phosphorous!
6. Egg Substitute
Ever wonder how vegan cakes and cookies – made without real eggs – attain that same fluffy texture?
Chances are, the recipe used what we call a flax egg or chia egg. The recipe is quite simple…
1 Tbsp chia seeds (whole)
2 1/2 Tbsp of luke warm or room temperature water
Using a small dish, combine the chia seeds with the water. Stir and allow to sit for at least 10 minutes, in order for the seeds to expand. Makes one chia egg, multiply by the number of eggs your recipe calls for. Usually 1 chia egg = 1 real egg, however based on our experience, we find it’s better to use more chia egg replacement.
7. Weight Loss [Maybe]?
Do chia seeds really help promote weight loss?
A couple manufacturers of chia products have unscrupulously made claims – or at least eluded to – their products having the ability to help you lose those unwanted pounds. It’s an ironic claim to make considering the fact that chia – as well as other seeds – are very calorie dense, so how can chia seeds have weight loss benefits?
There was a study published in 2009 that set out to answer this very question, if they can help you lose weight. It was completely legit; participants were randomized, there were placebo groups, and it was done under single-blinded procedures (14).
There were 76 overweight participants who completed the study, ranging in age from 20 to 70 years. For 12 weeks, twice daily, each person was instructed to consume 25 grams of chia or placebo (obviously, they didn’t know which they were getting). This was consumed before the first and last meal of the day. 12 weeks later their body mass was evaluated and guess what? There was no difference between those getting the seeds and those getting placebo!
With that said, there is plenty of evidence that eating more fiber can help you lose weight (15). Fiber helps us feel full, and when we feel full, generally we stop eating. So perhaps chia seed, not in and of itself but rather as part of a plan to increase fiber in your diet (from multiple sources) may be beneficial for dieting.
But you don’t want most of your fiber from chia because it’s a somewhat calorically dense food.
8. As Good As Gatorade
Okay admittedly, maybe drinking seeds won’t taste as good as a Gatorade. However, chia does offer performance benefits in sports and exercise that’s just as good as the sugar-laden beverage(16).
We all know about carb-loading before athletic events. It’s a well documented strategy of increasing the amount of fuel in your muscles in order to improve performance.
But of course, all those excess carbs – sugars – aren’t the healthiest thing for our bodies.
Instead of carb loading, this study tried chia loading!
The control group used 100% Gatorade. The other group used a drink that had 50% of calories coming from chia seeds and the other 50% from Gatorade.
The 6 very athletic subjects ran at 65% of their V(O2)max for 1 hour on a treadmill, and after being worn out from that, they had to run a timed 10k on a track. If you don’t know what all that means, just know it’s an intense workout!
After the 2 trials (with 2 week rests between them) there was no difference found in performance between the chia group and control group.
In fact, their average times for running the 10k differed by only 6 seconds! 37 min 49 sec for the chia group, 37 min 43 sec for Gatorade.
Same performance, but with a lot less sugar!
9. Amino Acid Profile
Speaking of athletic benefits, let’s talk more about about the type of protein in these super seeds.
You already know they’re protein-dense, but equally important are the content of amino acids found in chia seeds. Here’s the profile of what’s in 1 dry ounce (28 grams):
|Essential Amino Acids||%RDI|
Source: USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 27
|More Amino Acids|
10. Staying Hydrated
Here’s the last reason chia is so popular with athletes, but really, its an advantage for everyone.
It’s almost as if there are nature’s version of a sponge. Carolinas HealthCare System released a patient case study (17) in 2014 noting that:
“When added to liquid, dry chia seeds immediately begin to form a hydrogel capsule, absorbing up to 27x their weight in water.”
Think about it… if you eat just 1 ounce of them, up to 27 ounces of water will tag along!
For this reason, many athletes are using them to pre-hydrate before enduring prolonged physical activity.
Your digestive process takes a very long time – 33 to 53 hours – from the time food goes in one end and out the other(18). Most water reabsorption is in the small intestine, but the large intestine (colon) which is the last stretch of the journey, continues to absorb quite a bit, too.
Unlike say, a simple glass of water or juice which is processed by your body relatively quickly, the water absorbed in chia seeds will take much longer to process, since your body has to fully break down the fibers before it can remove the water (and that doesn’t happen right away).
11. Type 2 Diabetes
We already mentioned how the phytonutrient Chlorogenic Acid may help reduce blood sugar spikes (5), but that’s not the only study suggesting good things for type 2 diabetics.
St. Michael’s Hospital of Toronto sponsored a randomized controlled trial to evaluate whether chia seeds might improve some cardiovascular risks which are associated with type 2 diabetes (19).
There were 20 participants who were each given 37 grams per day of chia or wheat bran (the participants didn’t know which they were getting). This went on for 12 weeks. During this time all participants maintained their other pharmaceutical therapies, too.
The results? Those who were given chia experienced reduced systolic blood pressure as well as improved test results for high-sensitivity C-reactive protein (hs-CRP), which is a classic marker of inflammation in the body and used to help gauge a person’s risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
It is theorized that the benefits may be due to the omega 3s. Obviously more research is needed since this was only one study involving 20 people.
12. You can put ’em in everything!
Sure, kale has oodles of advantages for health. But including kale in your breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert is not feasible (or at least palatable).
Perhaps the biggest benefit that these seeds offer is their versatility. They have an almost neutral taste. That makes it easy for you to toss some into just about anything. Oatmeal? Obviously. Spaghetti marinara? Absolutely!
Really, almost any dish you think of can easily incorporate chia. But for best results:
- If you have the time, pre-soak the seeds in water overnight. This starts the sprouting process, which makes them easier to digest and releases even more nutrients.
- For hot dishes, add the pre-soaked seeds in after you’re done cooking. Why? Because omega 3’s are destroyed by heat.
- Don’t overdo it, consume them in moderation. Which brings us to the last thing on our list…
And 1 Nasty – Even Dangerous – Side Effect!
So you know that quote mentioned above about how they can absorb 27x their weight in water? That was from a doctor’s case study (17) about a patient who had dry seeds in his throat expand and block his esophagus!
And that patient wasn’t some old grandpa, either. He was a relatively healthy 39 year-old who had swallowed a tablespoon of dry chia seeds followed by a glass of water. Twelve hours later, he was in the ER needing endoscopic extraction because he couldn’t swallow!
Yes, he was at higher risk for dysphagia (difficulty swallowing) as he had experienced intermittent episodes of it thanks to his asthma and seasonal allergies. Though having it caused by the 2,700% expansion in the size of seeds was totally unexpected.
But wait, there are even more bad side effects of chia seeds. Their sponge-like quality and fiber-rich content can cause a myriad of gastrointestinal issues:
- Bloating & Gas – Most fiber in the seeds is soluble. Your body’s process of breaking that down can cause gas.
- Abdominal Cramping – In addition to – or instead of – gas, you may experience cramping from the slower moving fiber.
- Constipation or Diarrhea – Everyone’s body is different. Some react this way if they’re not used to so much soluble fiber.
Because of these possible side effects, anyone with IBS or gastrointestinal motility issues should definitely consult a doctor before adding chia to their diet.