Chia seeds have gained popularity as a superfood is the recent years. Loaded with nutrients, these easy to digest seeds prevent hypertension, reduce the signs of aging and lower cholesterol. Read more to know what are chia seeds, their health benefits, and side effects.

What are chia seeds?

Chia seeds are native to Mexico and come from the desert plant Salvia hispanica. These white, grey or black seeds have been a staple of Aztec and Mayan diet for centuries.

Many native American Tribes like Salinan, Costanoan, and Chumash used these seeds for food and medicinal purposes. Chia was regularly cultivated along with corn by Nahua people of ancient Mexico (1)

The word ‘chia’ means strength in the Mayan language. Aztec warriors ate these seeds to gain energy and endurance. These seeds contain carbohydrates, omega-3 fatty acids, protein, fiber, antioxidants, and calcium.

Nutrition facts

Chia seeds are nutritional powerhouses and are considered to be a superfood by dietary experts. One ounce (28 grams) of chia seeds contains (2):

  • Calories: 137
  • Dietary fiber: 11 grams
  • Protein: 4 grams
  • Fat: 9 grams
  • Calcium: 18 % of RDA
  • Manganese: 30 % of RDA
  • Magnesium: 30 % of RDA
  • Phosphorus: 27 % of RDA

These seeds also contain omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins A, B, E and D and iron, sulfur, iodine, niacin. They are also a rich source of many antioxidants like chlorogenic acid, caffeic acid, myricetin, quercetin, and kaempferol (3).

These seeds are unprocessed whole grain food that is gluten free, dairy free and vegan.

Health benefits of chia seeds

Chia seeds are rich in fiber, antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids, which makes them highly beneficial. Regular consumption of these seeds can have many health benefits.

1. Improve heart health

Increased fiber intake is known to lower cholesterol and blood pressure. These seeds are a rich source of dietary fiber, which makes them beneficial for heart health.

Chia seeds are also rich in omega-3 fatty acids which are useful for the heart as they lower blood pressure, bad cholesterol, and inflammation. According to some studies on rats, chia seeds can reduce triglycerides, improve HDL cholesterol and decrease inflammation (4).

2. Help treat diabetes

The combination of insoluble and soluble fiber in chia seeds slow down the rate at which the carbohydrates are digested and assimilated by the body. This helps in lowering the blood sugar levels in the body.

According to a study, when 20 diabetic patients consumed 37 grams of chia seeds over a 12-week period, they saw several improvements in their health. Their blood pressure went down, inflammation reduced and there was also a slight drop in blood sugar levels (5).

According to another study on rats published in the British Journal of Nutrition, when healthy rats were given a sucrose-rich diet with these seeds, there was no significant change in their blood levels. In fact, these seeds prevented the onset of dyslipidemia and insulin resistance (6)

In another test, rats were given a sucrose-rich diet over two months so that they developed dyslipidemia and insulin resistance. These rats were then fed chia seeds for the next two months, and they completely recovered from their condition.

3. Enhance sports performance

Aztec warriors were known to consume chia seeds to gain energy and improve their endurance. A 2011 study confirmed the energy boosting properties of chia seeds.

In this study, six highly trained male subjects drank either Gatorade or a mix of half Gatorade and half chia seeds. After this, they ran for one hour on the treadmill which was followed by a 10k time trial on the track.

The study found that there was no change in the performance of the two groups (7). This study shows that these seeds can be used for carb loading for endurance athletes. Not only are these seeds higher in nutrients, but they also help in lowering the intake of sugar.

4. Help make bones stronger

One ounce (2 tablespoons) of chia seeds contains 18 percent of the daily recommended dose of calcium (8), which is higher than many dairy products. This fact makes them the perfect calcium-rich food for those who cannot consume dairy.

Calcium is essential for healthy bones, and it helps maintain bone strength and mass.

Chia seeds also contain boron. Boron helps metabolize calcium, manganese, magnesium, and phosphorus, which are all essential minerals for bone health.

5. Improve dental health

Chia seeds contain several nutrients that are vital for dental health like calcium, zinc, phosphorus, and vitamin D. Calcium is essential for teeth.

Zinc has also been known to fight the growth of bacteria and plaque, which can lead to decay in teeth and gum, leading to cavities, gum disease, and bad breath. Vitamin D and phosphorus are also needed to keep our teeth and gums healthy.

6. Help fight cervical and breast cancer

Chia seeds are a rich source of alpha lipoic acid (ALA) which helps to inhibit the growth of cancer cells in both cervical and breast cancer. According to the Journal of Molecular studies, ALA is helpful in getting rid of cancer cells, without affecting the healthy cells (9).

Nitric oxide, when produced excessively can lead to cancerous growth. Regular intake of these seeds also helps to regulate the production of Nitric Oxide in the body.

Chronic inflammation due to oxidative stress is also known to lead to cancer. Chia seeds contain antioxidants that prevent the formation of free radical that lead to oxidative stress.

7. Help build muscle

Chia seeds are amongst the best plant-based sources of protein. These seeds are helpful for those who are trying to gain muscle and lose fat.

These seeds can also absorb up to 10 times their weight in water. This helps the body stay hydrated and improve nutrient absorption. It also enables you to stay fuller for longer and hence prevents cravings.

Unfortunately, studies on the weight loss effects of these seeds have not been very encouraging. According to a 12-week study on 90 overweight people, chia seeds did not affect the body weight (10).

8. Improve digestive health

Adding chia seeds to your diet can improve your digestive health. The high fiber content of chia seeds helps to boost nutrient absorption, fight cholesterol and regulate bowel movement. They are also helpful in treating constipation (11).

When eaten, chia seeds turn into a gelatine-like substance inside the stomach. This substance works as a prebiotic in the gut.

9. Beneficial during pregnancy

Chia seeds are packed with nutrients and can be very helpful for an expectant mother. Pregnancy depletes the body of nutrients, so consuming chia seeds is an easy way to make up for the depleted nutrients.

The omega-3 fatty acids are helpful in the brain development of the baby. Chia seeds also contain almost five times the calcium as milk. Calcium is essential for the proper skeletal development of the baby.

These seeds also contain other essential minerals like iron, phosphorus, magnesium, manganese, copper, zinc and niacin.

How to add chia seeds to your diet?

Chia seeds have a mild, nutty flavor and can be added to any dish to improve its nutritional content. Here are five easy ways to add them to your daily diet.

  1. Sprinkle them over a salad or yogurt. The seeds will add some nutty flavor and a crunch to your salad or yogurt.
  2. Add some chia seeds to muffin, cake, pancakes or even bread batter before you bake them.
  3. You can also add these seeds to soups, broths, and sauces to thicken them and to add to their nutritional content.
  4. Mix a tablespoon of the seeds in your smoothie. It won’t alter the taste but will add protein content.
  5. One tablespoon of chia seeds (grind them in a mixer) mixed with three tablespoons of water can be used to as an egg replacement in baked products.

Side effects of chia seeds

Chia seeds do not have many side effects. But like any other food, taking too many of these seeds can cause some problems.

1. Digestive issues

Dietary fiber is good for health, but overeating can cause digestive problems like abdominal pain, diarrhea, bloating and gas (12). This is especially true when you do not take enough water.

2. Can lead to choking

When exposed to water, these seeds can absorb up to 10 times their weight in water. This makes chia seeds potentially unsafe as they can swell up and get lodged in the throat.

According to one case study, when a 39-year-old man swallowed a spoonful of dry chia seeds and drank water after that, they expanded in his esophagus and caused a blockage (13).

3. Can cause an allergic reaction

In some rare cases, these seeds can cause an allergic reaction. Chia seed allergy symptoms include vomiting, diarrhea, itchy lips, and tongue.

4. May cause interactions with medicines

If you are taking medication for blood pressure or diabetes, check with your doctor before you include chia seeds in your diet. These seeds are known to lower blood sugar and blood pressure.

Conclusion

Chia seeds are highly nutritious and have many health benefits. They help improve heart health, make bones and teeth stronger and enhance sports performance. However, we must take them in moderation as they can have some side effects.

Chia seeds are native to Mexico and come from the desert plant Salvia hispanica. These white, grey or black seeds have been a staple of Aztec and Mayan diet for centuries. These seeds contain carbohydrates, omega-3 fatty acids, protein, fiber, antioxidants, and calcium.