Chia seeds: should you add them to your diet?

By Perrin Braun Feb 13, 2013

 

When you think of chia seeds, you may think of chia pets, those clay figurines with sprouts of chia that resemble green fur. But did you know that chia seeds can be a healthy addition to your diet?

Chia seeds are from the desert plant Salvia Hispanica, which is a member of the mint family. They’re an unprocessed, whole-grain food that your body can digest as whole seeds. Chia seeds are an excellent source of fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, protein, and antioxidants. An InsideTracker blood analysis can tell you whether you need to increase your intake of any of these nutrients to optimize your well-being and performance. If you do, chia seeds might be a good choice for your diet. Chia seeds

What beneficial nutrients do chia seeds contain?

Chia seeds offer similar dietary health benefits as other familiar edible seeds, such as flax or sesame seeds. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), six teaspoons of chia seeds contains 5 milligrams of sodium, 18% of the recommended daily intake of calcium, 27% of your phosphorus needs, and 30% of the manganese. In addition to those important ingredients, chia seeds contain the following nutrients:

Omega-3 fatty acids - Chia seeds are an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids. This nutrient is important because it is an essential oil, meaning that the body can’t produce it on its own and therefore has to be obtained from food. Omega-3s play a vital role in immune function, cell growth, and heart health. Flaxseed, fish, and fish oil are the best-known sources of omega-3 fatty acids, but chia seeds also contain a significant amount of this nutrient.

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In fact, omega-3s make up about half of the total content of chia seeds, and two teaspoons of dried seeds meets your daily needs (1.6 grams) for the essential omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). However, the omega-3 fatty acids that are found in fish oil take the form of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Although ALA, DHA, and EPA have similar properties, the bulk of the research that connects omega-3s to health benefits centers around DHA and EPA, so fish oil is still considered a better source of this nutrient. Here’s the difference: EPA and DHA are long-chain forms of omega-3, while ALA is the short-chain form. In order to use ALAs, your body first needs to convert them to the long-chain form, but this conversion doesn’t happen very quickly.

Fiber - Chia seeds add fiber to your meals: just two tablespoons contain 11 grams of dietary fiber. The American Dietetic Association states that women should consume at least 25 g of total fiber each day, while men should consume at least 38 g a day. Because chia seeds are so high in fiber, they may actually help reduce hunger pangs. The fiber helps your body to slow the absorption of sugar into the blood, works to improve your digestion, and makes you feel fuller for longer.

Protein – Two tablespoons of chia seeds equal 4 grams of protein. Dietary protein is broken down into amino acids that assist with everything from digesting food to repairing body tissue in the body. Protein is also another great source of energy for your body to burn, providing 4 calories per gram. It’s an important post-workout nutrient, as protein is primarily responsible for repairing exercise-induced damage, and promoting training-induced adaptations in muscle fibers such as the synthesis of new proteins involved in energy production. Protein also facilitates the replenishment of depleted energy stores, preparing your body for its next bout of activity.

Antioxidants – Chia seeds contain a high level of antioxidants, nutrients  that can reduce the cellular damage that contributes to poor heart health. Antioxidants help your body’s cells repair the damage caused by free radicals, such as cigarette smoke, pollution, pesticides in food, and other toxins.

A little-known fact is that chia seeds are a type of whole grain. Whole grains contain all parts of the grain kernel: the germ, or outer covering, which is a good source of essential fatty acids and B-vitamins; the endosperm, which is high in starch; and the bran, which is very high in fiber. The complex carbohydrates that are found in chia seeds and other whole grain products digest slowly and don’t raise your blood sugar levels as quickly as simple carbohydrates, such as white flour. Complex carbs act as your body’s fuel, and make significant contributions to energy production, so chia seeds can play a vital role in maintaining your energy supply.

Overall, more research needs to be done to verify the various health claims for chia seeds because clinical studies on the efficacy of chia seeds are still limited. While most existing studies on human subjects showed that consumption of chia seeds results in some heart-healthy benefits, many of these studies don’t take into consideration factors such as lifestyle and genetic variations.

What are some ways to add chia seeds to my diet?

You can find chia seeds at many conventional grocery stores, health food stores, and vitamin shops. Chia seeds have a mild, nutty flavor that makes them easy to add to food or drinks. They can be eaten either raw or cooked. Many people sprinkle ground or whole chia seeds on cereal, rice, yogurt, or smoothies. The seeds absorb water very easily and develop a gelatinous texture when they get wet, so it’s easy to mix them into cooked dishes. The chia sprouts are also edible! You can add them to salads, sandwiches, or soups. Remember before you change your diet, sign up for an InsideTracker blood analysis plan to find out which biomarkers you need to improve and to get recommendations for nutrition, lifestyle, exercise and supplements that will help.

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