Chia seeds have worked hard to shed their reputation as one of America’s most notorious gag gifts. The simple fact that you are probably still thinking, “Chia Pet,” when you hear it mentioned is living proof.
Yes, the very item sold by the bagful in health food stores once adorned clay sculptures that we would douse in water and call cute names like Betty and Binky.
No more! Chia seeds are no longer the primary ingredient of furry gremlins. They are components of a healthy diet.
In the following article, we will be discussing their history as a food. We also will be looking at the specific ways they can benefit your health. Let’s get started!
Where Do Chia Seeds Come From?
Chia seeds most commonly come from Mexico and Guatemala. You also will find them in countries like Australia, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Argentina, and Ecuador.
They love warm, temperate climates, though some cultivation methods have grown to include areas like Kentucky and northern portions of the United States.
Some of its earliest roots can be traced to the Aztecs. While there has been some debate as to how important it was in Aztec society, historians who focus on economics theorize it might have been at least as important as maize.
In other words, it was a food from its earliest times. Leave it to the 1970’s to change all that.
Rise of the Chia Pets
It may seem silly in a health article to riff on the Chia Pet, but this is one case where the sidebar is important. Chia Pets consisted of clay-based sculptures that were formed in a variety of different shapes.
One of the primary “ingredients” of these cheaply made sculptures was the covering of chia seeds. When you poured water on them, a fur-like growth would sprout and make it look like your mini-sculpture had come to life in something not unlike “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” (see Creepshow image below).
We are only slightly kidding about that. If you want to know what the Chia Pet looked like “fully grown,” here you go.
America ate it up with a spoon — well, not literally. We would have probably been better off if we had. Instead we were too consumed with packaged foods and microwaved diets to realize the far-reaching health benefits that these friendly little seeds possessed.
Chia Pets were initially made in their native Mexico. Today, they are manufactured in China. And according to the last available sales figures (2007), they sell about 500,000 annually.
The marketing genius of Joe Pedott in bringing these creations to life caused chia seeds to break into Western culture for the first time, and people began to ask the question: what if we eat these things?
In the next section, we will be exploring that very idea. And, good news: eating chia seeds is far better than keeping them as pets.
The Nutritional Makeup of Chia Seeds
Before jumping into the benefits of chia seeds, let’s spend some time learning about the nutritional punches they are packing.
One hundred grams, or around 3.5 ounces, contains 486 calories. In exchange for the energy consumption, they deliver 34.4 grams of fiber, 30.7 grams of fat, and 16.7 grams of protein.
The same serving size contains varying degrees of vitamins A, B, C, and E, as well, and they are packed with the following minerals/quantities:
- Calcium (631 mg, or 63 percent of the daily allotment you need)
- Iron (7.7 mg, 59 percent)
- Magnesium (335 mg, 94 percent)
- Manganese (2.72 mg, 130 percent)
- Phosphorus (860 mg, 123 percent)
- Potassium (407 mg, 9 percent)
- Zinc (4.6 mg, 48 percent)
As far as individual servings go, you probably will not want to eat that much in a day, but 1.5 tablespoons, or around one-fifth of the serving amounts mentioned above will serve as a nice supplement.
But long story short, it is loaded with a lot of the things your body needs to get through the day (and in extremely high quantities). Now keep these in mind as we move into talking about the health benefits because it all factors in to how chia seeds make you feel. Let’s explore!
Their Health Benefits
When you start incorporating these into your daily diet, you will notice a number of health benefits. In this section, we will take each one, one at a time, and tie it back into the macronutrients whenever possible.
Let’s start by pointing out how chia seeds can do the following:
The biggest advantage chia seeds deliver to their consumers is a well-rounded nutrient profile in an extremely small amount of calories. Why is this important?
As you get older, the base amount of calories that you can have for body maintenance gets smaller and smaller. Just as an example, let’s look at the following.
A 5’10,” 205-pound man at the age of 25 has a basal metabolic rate (BMR) of 1,921 calories per day. That same-sized man 10 years later gets 1,871, a daily reduction of 50 calories (or 18,250 annually).
That may not seem like a big deal if you are the 25-year-old, but it is a heck of an impact on those of us north of that who love to eat!
Incorporate chia seeds into your meals, and you will receive more of what your body needs to sustain itself without a big calorie expenditure. If you’re trying to lose weight and aren’t very active, this little bit can make a big difference.
Fight Free Radicals
“Free radicals” refer to ions, molecules, and atoms that feature an unpaired valence electron. That doesn’t sound like a big deal until you hear about their capabilities to negatively affect health.
When free radicals exist in the body, they damage cells over an extended period of time, causing oxidative stress that leads to a number of harmful outcomes.
Science has linked the work of free radicals to some of the biggest killers of human beings: cancer, Alzheimers and dementia, heart disease, diabetes, and Parkinson’s, to name a few.
Free radicals also lead to cataracts, poor vision, wrinkles, loss of skin elasticity, and changes in the hair (texture, color, loss, etc).
Chia seeds promote healthy cells and have been shown effective as a free radical-fighting agent. They won’t single-handedly prevent all the bad stuff from happening, but they do promote healthier body systems.
Lower Net Carb Intake
There are carbs, and there are net carbs. Contrary to what Dr. Atkins might have you believe, carbs in general are not bad, but they can stand in the way of many of your health goals.
That’s because, like anything good that produces harmful effects, you end up eating too many of them. Furthermore, the ones you do take in are sort of junkie.
A “health bar” high in sugar here; a second helping of spaghetti there. The noob appreciates the quick energy boost, but they don’t think about the poor nutrient makeups, the skyrocketing calories, and the addictive qualities that many carbs create (because they’re more sugar than fiber).
Chia seeds are high in carbs, but the vast majority of them are healthy fiber to support digestive health and make you feel fuller longer without needing to raid every refrigerator and cabinet between meals.
The amount of fiber that you eat in a day can be subtracted from the overall carb number to give you the number of “net carbs” you’ve consumed. On niche diets like Keto, they might tell you to limit your carb intake to 20-30 grams per day.
They mean net carbs. Everyone needs fiber, and they likely need it in much higher amounts than they’re currently taking it.
When you have a nutritional budget of 300 grams of carbs per day, and only 15 of those are fiber, you are taking in around 285 net carbs per day.
That’s not inherently bad — depends on your dietary habits — but it isn’t going to work for low-carb diets, so consider making chia seeds a part of yours if that’s the way you’re going.
Boost Not Just Protein, But Quality
Let’s say you use a tablespoon of chia seeds with each of your meals throughout the day, eating a standard three-per. That’s three tablespoons per day, which gives you around 10 grams of protein for a calorie expenditure of just 292 calories.
That may not be enough for a main course, but if you start adding these seeds to your main meals, it serves as a terrific supplement without taking too much away from your daily BMR.
Decrease Risk of Heart Disease
Chia seeds may help your heart health in a number of ways, most importantly in decreasing the risk of heart disease. How does it pull that off?
The answer goes back to its fiber makeup. Studies have long shown that fiber is almost as important to a healthy heart as it is aiding your digestion.
WebMD explains that fiber — found abundantly in chia seeds — can lower heart disease-causing cholesterol by reducing LDL (the bad one) and HDL.
It accomplishes this “by binding with cholesterol particles in your digestive system and moving them out of the body before they’re absorbed,” the site notes, adding that fiber lowers blood pressure as well.
Researchers, the site says, “put 233 volunteers on a high-fiber diet that includes lots of whole wheat and whole oats. They found that after 12 weeks, participants had a drop in blood pressure and pulse pressure.”
Both of these are great signs for your heart, but so are some of the ancillary benefits like weight loss, guarding against stroke and diabetes (more on that in the next section), and fighting back hunger.
Reverse Effects of Type 2 Diabetes
According to the American Diabetes Association, Type 2 diabetes is the most common form of the disease. Type 2 causes sugar levels to spike above normal (referred to as hyperglycemia).
When one gets the diagnosis, it means their body fails to use insulin as it was intended.
“At first, your pancreas makes extra insulin to make up for it. But,” the site notes, “over time it isn’t able to keep up and can’t make enough insulin to keep your blood glucose at normal levels.”
What does that mean in terms of effects?
- Skin damage: Skin conditions related to Type 2 diabetes are treatable. That’s the good news. The bad news is, the condition can open you up to a number of bacterial infections as well as fungal infections, itching, allergic reactions, and blisters, to name a few.
- Eye damage: The good news is, the average person suffering from Type 2 diabetes only experiences minor eye issues. The bad news: you’re more likely to go blind than people who never receive the diagnosis.
- Nerve damage: Or diabetic neuropathy, this condition typically affects the hands and feet. It manifests as tingling, numbness, or pain, as well as feelings of weakness. A more serious condition is autonomic neuropathy. This affects nerves that control all of your body systems and can be much more unpleasant. Other types include cranial neuropathy, compression mononeuropathy, and unilateral foot drop, with others noted here.
- Weight gain: To deal with low blood sugar levels, diabetics often have to consume more sugar than what would be considered “healthy” for the average diet. Sugars have an addictive quality that leads to more and more unhealthy intake. Coupled with the next bullet — energy loss — it’s difficult to compensate in a way that promotes weight loss.
- Energy loss: No exercise, no working out = what you eat stays with you.
Promote Stronger Bones
Building strong bones largely depends on calcium intake. As mentioned above, chia seeds have about 63 percent of your daily intake in 100 grams.
A more realistic daily budget — the one-fifth example — means you would have around 38 percent of your intake in three tablespoons per day. Beyond the calcium, chia seeds also contain osteoarthritis-fighting boron.
Elevate Exercise Quality
Let’s take the conglomeration of everything we’ve discussed so far. Chia seeds promote higher energy levels. They boost protein intake. They provide the building blocks of digestive health.
They help prevent many performance-affecting diseases and conditions. They contain the elements needed to strengthen bones.
All of these things together will help you at the gym — not just going there, but getting a better workout while doing so. Better exercise means better energy, creating a cycle of good health that becomes self-sustaining.
Offer Easy Prep
Using chia seeds is incredibly simple. It certainly doesn’t take the cook time of something like rice or quinoa, and it packs way more nutrients than the latter.
To get started, all you have to do is sprinkle them into your oatmeal or drink. They go down smoothly either way. Some people also prefer to grind them up into smoothies or shakes to enhance nutritional value.
With proper storage, most chia seeds will be good for 2-4 years, so it isn’t a grocery store purchase that forces you to play beat-the-clock, or in this case, expiration date. Just keep them in a dry place.
Some of our favorite foods for chia seeds include the following:
- Fruit salads
- Breading for chicken or other meats you would normally batter and fry
- Breakfast cereals
Chia seeds can be served whole, grounded up, or allowed to soak. In fact, soaking them is probably your best bet, as they are attracted to water, and consuming them dry could leave you feeling dehydrated without adequate replenishment.
Chia Seeds As Egg Substitutes
If you’ve been interested in leading the vegan lifestyle but are not quite ready to give up using eggs, then chia seeds may be an appealing alternative.
It can be strange to think of a tiny seed replacing a whole egg, but it makes a bit more sense when you understand the preparation methods.
Here’s what you will need to do.
Ground the chia seeds into a meal. Start with about 1.5 teaspoons. Dump it into three tablespoons of water.
Allow it to sit out for an extended period of time — overnight, for example — then come back to it, and you will recognize it has morphed into a gel-like substance that serves as a substitute for one raw egg, which can be used with many of the same functions.
Possible Side Effects
We’re not sure there has ever been a food that didn’t have possible side effects to consuming them, and chia seeds are no exception. In this section, we’ll be looking at some of the most prevalent as well as examining the validity behind each one.
Any food as high in fiber as chia seeds walk a fine line between incredibly healthy and supportive to discomforting. Some who have used them report problems ranging from constipation and hard stools to diarrhea.
The increased fiber intake of chia seeds may also lead to bloating and excessive gas.
People affected by conditions such as diverticulitis may want to proceed with caution as well. But in this case, it’s important to note that chia seeds are not going to cause diverticulitis. However, they can agitate it.
It’s not a peanut, but like the legume, chia seeds have been known to cause allergic reactions in some consumers. While unlikely, it may be to blame if you experience any of the following after eating it:
- Itching, particularly the mouth and tongue
- Difficulty breathing
You don’t hear anaphylaxis and chia seeds mentioned in the same sentence much, so that’s a relief; but if you do have problems with it, it’s okay to avoid. Just talk with your doctor about healthy alternatives.
Blood Thinning, Drops in Blood Pressure
This is something to be concerned about if you take blood thinner medications. Chia seeds are high in Omega-3 fatty acids, and that makes it a natural blood thinner, so consuming it while on prescriptions could become problematic, leading to issues like excessive bleeding.
Chia seeds also have the ability to lower diastolic blood pressure, so similarly, you will want to think twice about eating them if you take blood pressure medication. Either way, your doctor is the best source on whether they’re safe to try.
Prostate Cancer Risk
Research is present though inconclusive that chia seeds may have a small role in elevating the risk of prostate cancer in men. In the studies — conducted in the early 2000s — the blame wasn’t implied for chia seeds in particular but in one of its most prevalent fatty acids: alpha-linolenic.
That said, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition revisited the matter in 2009 and found that there may have been biases in the previous study and that if there was any link to chia seeds and the increased risk of developing prostate cancer, it was extremely small.
We know, we know. Everything causes cancer eventually, but do keep this in mind. More research will have to be done before we can know one way or the other, so again, follow the lead of your doctor.
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Chia seeds are considered a “superfood” with good reason. Containing many of the elements necessary to form strong bones and muscles, it has served as a main ingredient or nutritional enhancement additive for decades with no sign of slowing down.
But as with any food, be mindful of the possible side effects before incorporating them into your daily diet.
Also, be aware that different preparation methods will produce different results. So try them multiple ways before deciding on whether they are for you.
Now, what are some of the best ways to use chia seeds that you have found? We would love to hear your ideas and thoughts. Share them with us in the comments section below.