Chia Seeds: Superfood or Normalfood?
Superfoods are all the rage and we are meant to get as many of them as possible into our daily diets. Chia seeds are in this bracket and their popularity is rising amongst the health conscious especially us runners. But are they all what is cracked up to be?
Chia seeds are tiny black seeds from the plant Salvia Hispanica, which is related to the mint. This plant grows natively in South America. Chia seeds were an important food for the Aztecs and Mayans back in the day. They prized them for their ability to provide sustainable energy… in fact, “chia” is the ancient Mayan word for “strength.”
I first came across the chia seed after reading ‘Born to Run’ by Christopher McDougall some 8 years ago. McDougall ventured to run with Tarahumara tribe, who hidden deep in Mexico, can run for hundreds of miles without stopping. They attribute much of their fuelling secret to that of yes, the chia seed.
Back in 2010, to find the chia seed in the mainstream supermarkets was a rarity but in recent times the chia seed demand has boomed. It is no wonder with all the benefits packed within the tiny seed. They are a health marketing dream, packed full of omega-3, iron, magnesium, protein, fibre and even help weight loss. This leading to the ‘Superfood’ status, the holy grail buzzword for being healthy.
Let’s find out if we can believe all the hype…
11 Health Benefits of Chia Seeds
- Huge Amount of Nutrients with Very Few Calories
A 28 gram (about 2 tbsp) serving of chia seeds contains:
- Fibre:11 grams.
- Protein:4 grams.
- Fat:9 grams (5 of which are Omega-3s).
- Calcium:18% of the RDA.
- Manganese:30% of the RDA.
- Magnesium:30% of the RDA.
- Phosphorus:27% of the RDA.
- They also contain a decent amount of Zinc, Vitamin B3 (Niacin), Potassium, Vitamin B1 (Thiamine) and Vitamin B2.
Chia seeds only contain about 101 calories per serving. This makes them, calorie for calorie, one of the world’s best sources of several important nutrients.
Even better is that chia seeds are a “whole grain” food. They are usually grown organically, are non-GMO and naturally free of gluten.
- Loaded with Antioxidants
A further boost for the tiny seed is their high amount of antioxidants. Antioxidants fight the production of free radicals, which can damage molecules in cells and contribute to ageing and diseases like cancer. Some claims are made about chia seeds having more antioxidants than blueberries, however there is little evidence for this claim.
- Almost All the Carbs in Them Are Fibre
From the nutrition profile of chia seeds, one serving has 12 grams of “carbohydrate.” However, 11 of those grams are fibre, which isn’t digested by the body.
Fibre shouldn’t really be considered a true carb as it doesn’t raise blood sugar, doesn’t require insulin to be disposed of. However, because of all the fibre, chia seeds can absorb a high amount of water expanding in your stomach and becoming gel like. Theoretically, this should increase fullness, slow absorption of your food and help you eat fewer calories. Fibre is also useful to feed the friendly bacteria in your intestine – crucial for good health.
By weight, chia seeds are one of the best sources of fibre in the world. Chia seeds are 40% fibre.
- High in Quality Protein
Chia seeds are about 14% protein, which is very high compared to most plants. They also have a good balance of essential amino acids, so our body can make good use of this protein. Protein has all sorts of benefits for health. It is also the most weight loss friendly nutrient in the diet. A high protein intake can reduce appetite and has been shown to reduce obsessive thoughts about food consumption by up to 60%.
Chia seeds are an excellent protein source, especially for people who eat little or no animal products.
- Help You Lose Weight
Many health experts believe that chia seeds can help with weight loss. However, numerous studies have come back inconclusive so while there is no hard evidence to support that it ‘will’ help you lose weight it is strongly suggested that they can ‘help’ lose weight.
The large amount of fibre absorbs large amounts of water and expands in the stomach. This should lead to the feeling of fullness and reduce calorie intake.
One study has shown that chia seeds can reduce appetite, but there was no significant effect on body weight. A further study which involved 90 overweight people, consuming 50 grams of chia seeds per day for 12 weeks showed no effect on body weight.
So, by adding chia seeds into your diet it is unlikely to affect your weight however they can certainly be an excellent natural contribution to your general health against supplements.
We all know to lose weight, anyway, it is about more than just adding or subtracting single foods. The entire diet counts, as well as exercise and adequate sleep. Combined with a ‘real’ food-based diet and an active lifestyle, chia seeds can certainly help with weight loss.
- High in Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Like flax seeds, chia seeds are very high in Omega-3 fatty acids. In fact, chia seeds contain more Omega-3s than salmon, gram for gram. However, it’s important to note that the Omega-3s in them are mostly ALA (Alpha Linolenic Acid), which is not as beneficial as you may think. Before ALA can be used by the body, it needs to be converted to EPA and DHA (eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid).
Unfortunately, humans are inefficient at converting ALA into EPA and DHA. Therefore, plant Omega-3s tend to be vastly inferior to animal sources like fish. Studies have shown that chia seeds (especially if they are milled) can increase blood levels of ALA and EPA, but not DHA… which is a problem. Because they don’t supply any DHA(the most important Omega-3 fat).
So, we should bare a little caution when we say chia seeds are packed full of omega-3 – yes, they may be packed full of the stuff, but we find it hard to actually benefit from it!
- Lower the Risk of Heart Disease and Type 2 Diabetes
More inconclusive evidence from studies here. With chia seeds high in fibre, protein and Omega-3s, they should be able to improve metabolic health.
Two studies found, a diet with chia seeds, soy protein, oats and nopal, lowered LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, increased HDL (good) cholesterol and reduce inflammation. But because these studies also used other ingredients, nothing can be concluded about the chia seeds themselves. One study involving rats did show some improvements however a further study was again inconclusive, therefore it is hard to draw up any further conclusion.
It is possible that chia seeds can improve these risk factors, but it should not be considered the magic cure and should be used in part of a well-rounded healthy diet.
- High in Important Bone Nutrients
Chia seeds are high in several nutrients that are important for bone health, including calcium, phosphorus, magnesium and protein. Calcium content being particularly impressive with 18% of the RDA in a single serving. Gram for gram, this is higher than most dairy products. For this reason, chia seeds can be excellent source of calcium for people who don’t eat diary.
- Chia Seeds Can Cause Major Improvements in Type 2 Diabetics
In one study, 20 diabetic patients received either 37 grams of chia seeds, or 37 grams of wheatbran, for 12 weeks. Within the chia seed patients, they saw improvements across important health markers. Blood pressure went down, inflammation went down by 40% and there was also a small decline in bloody sugar levels however this was considered statistically insignificant. It can be claimed though that with their high levels of fibre they could reduce blood sugar spikes after meals.
- Chia Seeds Can Improve Exercise Performance as Much as a Sports Drink
Legend has it that the Aztecs and Mayans used chia seeds to fuel performance and the Tarahumara tribe still hold onto this today.
There is one recent study that may support this. 6 participants “carb loaded” with either a sports drink, or a mix of half sports drink/half chia seeds. They then ran for an hour on a treadmill soon followed by a 10k run. There was no difference between the two groups. This can suggest that replacing half of the sports drink with chia seeds did not reduce performance indicating that the seeds were of some use.
Also, according to this study, chia seeds can help athletes “carb load” for endurance events, while increasing their intake of nutrients and decreasing their intake of sugar. Larger studies are needed on this to support such a claim.
- Easy to Incorporate into Your Diet
This may not be a health benefit but still important. Chia seeds are incredibly easy to incorporate into your diet. They have no distinctive taste and are rather bland, so you can add them to anything. They don’t need grounding, they can be eaten raw, soaked in juice, add to cereal and yoghurt or baked. You can add them to rice dishes, vegetables even sprinkle over a salad. They can even be used as an egg substitute, thicken sauces and turned into gels. Adding chia seeds to your meals and snacks can highly boost its nutritional value.
There we have it. Chia seeds, are they a ‘superfood’ or just a ‘normalfood’? I prefer not to listen or call foods ‘super’, these foods tend to be natural food sources and ones that we should be eating anyway. Unprocessed and not messed about with. Despite chia seeds not being quite what they packed up to be, I will certainly still keep using them in my diet. Whether that be in a flapjack or sprinkled over yoghurt. I will still prefer to use natural food sources to fuel my day and running over artificial sugar crammed products. Let me know how you like to use them and share your chia recipes!