When I say “chia,” you say . . . pets? Well, sorry to Millennials and Gen X-ers everywhere, but today’s lesson is not on the nostalgic toy that captivated our young hearts. Instead, we’re talking about chia seeds: the tiny, black or white seeds that have been delivering health benefits for centuries — in other words, long before they were being added to terracotta pots and sprouting “hair” to the delight of children (OK, and adults) everywhere.
In fact, chia seeds were originally cultivated by Mesopotamian cultures and considered a staple in the Aztec and Mayan diets, according to research published in “Molecules”. Not only were they used for food, but chia seeds — as well as the entire plant that produces them (aka Salva hispanica L.) — were used for cosmetics, religious rituals as well as in the preparation of medicines.
Fast forward to today and the granules, which are technically related to mint (fun fact!), have recently gained popularity “due to their nutritional value and health benefits,” says Crystal Scott, a registered dietitian nutritionist at Top Nutrition Coaching. Chia seeds hit peak popularity on the internet around 2014, according to Google Trends, and the hype wore off a bit. But now, TikTok is bringing them back, circulating ideas on how to eat chia seeds and awakening a new generation to the benefits (and risks) these powerful little seeds have to offer.
Let’s put it this way: There’s a reason chia seeds are often deemed a “superfood.” Still, how healthy can something so minuscule be, really? Keep reading to find out that answer and learn all about the benefits and nutrition of chia seeds.
Chia Seed Nutrition Facts
While they might be tiny (like really, really tiny), chia seeds are nutritiously mighty. Each granule is full of dietary fiber, protein and several minerals, including bone-strengthening phosphorus and calcium, among others (e.g. magnesium, zinc), according to The University of Arizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Chia seeds are also considered a rich source of polyunsaturated or “healthy” fats, specifically omega-3 fatty acids, as well as antioxidants.
And don’t be fooled: Whether you add white chia seeds to your morning smoothie or sprinkle black ones atop your lunchtime salad, you’re sure to score pretty much the same nutrients. There’s such a marginal difference between the nutrition of two types of seeds that “most consider them equal,” according to the aforementioned “Molecules” research.
Here’s a look at the nutrition facts for 1 ounce (~2 tablespoons) of chia seeds, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA):
- Calories: 138
- Protein: 4.7 g
- Fat: 8.7 g
- Carbohydrate: 12 g
- Fiber: 9.8 g
- Sodium: 4.5 mg
The Health Benefits of Chia Seeds
Prevent Chronic Conditions
Chia seeds are packed with disease-fighting antioxidants, specifically chlorogenic acid, caffeic acid, myricetin, quercetin and kaempferol — all of which may have “protective effects” on organs, such as your heart and liver, says Samantha Ferguson, MS, RD, LDN, a registered dietitian at Wellory and Pivot Nutrition Coaching. In other words, these bad boys can stave off chronic conditions, especially those that affect the aforementioned organs but also the entire body (think: cancer). How, exactly? By neutralizing free radicals or unstable molecules that, when in excess, can cause cellular damage, Ferguson explains. “Damage caused by free radicals has been linked to numerous chronic conditions, such as heart disease.”
Support Heart Health
In addition to the protection awarded by antioxidants in chia seeds, the omega-3 fatty acids can also keep your ticker in tip-top shape. Omega-3 fatty acids, such as those in chia seeds, have been found to lower levels of triglycerides (a type of fat found in your blood) and increase HDL cholesterol levels, thereby supporting heart health, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Also according to the American Heart Association, these healthy fats may also decrease “platelet aggregation,” preventing blockage of the coronary artery. What’s more, consuming alpha-linoleic acid (ALA), a type of omega-3 fatty acid that’s found in high amounts in chia seeds, has been linked to decreased risk of heart disease, Ferguson says.
Aid In Digestion
“Chia seeds contain both insoluble and soluble fiber, which work synergistically to improve gut health,” Ferguson says. ICYDK, insoluble fiber bulks up stool and promotes bowel regularity, which can be key if you suffer from constipation. Soluble fiber, on the other hand, absorbs water in the gut to form a gel-like substance that slows down digestion and, in turn, helps with diarrhea or loose stools. The high fiber content of chia seeds can also diversify the microbiome and feed healthy bacteria, Ferguson adds; these effects further ensure your digestive system runs smoothly.
Improve Blood Sugar Levels
You can thank all that fiber for this chia seed benefit, as well. Here’s the deal: Fiber can slow down digestion and, in turn, the absorption of sugar, thereby preventing blood sugar spikes after a meal, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. While such blood sugar regulation can be beneficial for all chia seed eaters (e.g. fewer midday cravings), it can be especially key for individuals with type 2 diabetes or those at risk of developing the disease, Scott says.
The Potential Risks of Chia Seeds
All those pros aside, it’s important to note that chia seeds don’t come without a few cons.
Chia seeds can absorb a whole lot of water — 27 times their weight in water, according to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, to be exact. This super absorbency can cause the seeds to expand and potentially get lodged in the throat if they expand when they come into contact with your saliva. To reduce your risk of choking, avoid eating chia seeds solo. Always consume them with lots of water, or add them to foods that have “adequate moisture,” Scott says. That way, they’ll already be expanded before you go to swallow them. And if you suffer from any conditions that impact your ability to swallow (e.g. dysphagia) or other digestive issues, proceed with lots of caution and care.
Similarly, if you have any gut conditions or sensitivity, keep in mind that chia seeds can lead to digestive discomfort (think: bloating, gas), especially when eaten in large quantities. This is due to their high fiber content. “Start with small portions and gradually increase intake to allow the digestive system to adapt,” Scott recommends.
Another potential result of chia seeds’ high amount of fiber? Interactions with diabetes medications. “In most cases, eating moderate amounts of chia seeds can help people with diabetes keep their blood sugar levels in check,” Ferguson says. “However eating an excessive amount of chia seeds could cause blood sugar levels to decrease and may require adjustments in the dosage of your diabetes medication.” That’s why it’s important to talk to your doc before adding chia seeds to your diet — they can best advise you on how much of the ingredient you can consume (if any at all), among other best practices.
How to Eat Chia Seeds
To prevent any choking hazard, soaking chia seeds in water, milk, or another type of liquid before you eat them is a safe bet. Other evidence suggests that consuming ground chia seeds, rather than whole seeds, may make it easier to access the protein and omega-3s inside the seeds. However, you can still eat chia seeds whole, and get creative with incorporating them into your diet. After all, the granules, which are bland in taste, are not only versatile but also convenient.
Here are a few ways to eat chia seeds, according to the pros:
Chia Seed Pudding: Sure it might be an obvious choice, but chia seed pudding is a chia seed staple for good reason: It’s incredibly simple to make. All you really need to do is soak chia seeds in some dairy or plant-based milk overnight to create, in Scott’s words, “a pudding-like consistency,” then top with nuts or fruit for added flavor and nutrients when you’re ready to eat in the morning.
Overnight Oats: “Chia seeds act as a great binder and thickener,” Ferguson notes. And you don’t need to be a pudding fan to experience this for yourself. Simply add chia seeds to your go-to overnight oats recipe and violá, you’ve got yourself an upgraded breakfast creation.
Energy Bars or Bites: Mix chia seeds with nut butter, honey, and other ingredients (e.g. rolled oats, protein powder) to make energy bites or bars and, well, that’s it — no baking required.
Smoothies: You can add chia seeds to just about any smoothie for a nutritional boost and slightly thicker texture. For example, strengthen your defenses with this back-to-school smoothie by tossing chia seeds into a blender alongside banana, blueberries, rolled oats, almond butter, Greek yogurt, and your choice of milk.
Homemade Jam: Did you know you can DIY jam in a matter of minutes — and without all the sugar and additives often lurking in store-bought versions? Well, surprise, you can! Not only that but you can also get an even thicker, more nutritious spread by adding chia seeds into the mix. Try this chia seed jam recipe from Gimme Some Oven (recommended by Ferguson) to see for yourself.
So Are Chia Seeds Good For You?
For the most part, yes! Loaded with nutrients such as omega-3s, antioxidants, and fiber, to name a few, the granules offer a bevy of benefits in each serving. And reaping the seeds’ rewards can be fairly simple. “They’re affordable, can be found at almost any food store and can be easily added to foods without any extra ‘prep’ work,” Ferguson says. “Sprinkling on toast, [mixing] in yogurt or adding to a recipe does not require any extra work but provides a nutritional boost.”
“However, it’s essential to avoid consuming them dry, as they can absorb water and pose a choking hazard,” Scott cautions. “Additionally, individuals with digestive issues should introduce chia seeds gradually to avoid discomfort.”
Other than that? “Chia seeds are a healthy addition to most diets and can be a valuable component of a well-rounded approach to nutrition,” Scott says.
Image Source: Image source: Getty / Andrey Zhuravlev Aitormmfoto; Photo illustration: Ava Cruz