Over the past few years, health enthusiasts have embraced obscure food and drinks in their quest to find the ultimate nutrition boost.
Chia seeds are one of their most popular finds, though they’ve been around for thousands of years.
Chia seeds’ popularity began among vegetarians and vegans, and their star is rising in Paleo communities as well. The health claims sound incredible, but are they too good to be true? Let’s find out.
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What Are Chia Seeds?
Chia seeds come from Salvia hispanica, a flowering plant native to Mexico and Guatemala. Cultivated by indigenous cultures like the Aztecs, Mayans, and Toltecs for food and religious purposes, these seeds were said to offer warriors endurance and strength during battle. Their name actually comes from the Mayan “chiabaan,” which means “strengthening” (1).
A relative of the mint plant, they come in a mix of black, brown, and white, and are about the size of sesame seeds. Although the seeds have a neutral taste, they do have a nice crunchy texture that can add some variety to Paleo foods and drinks.
One of chia seeds’ most interesting properties is their incredible ability to absorb water. They can absorb 10 to 12 times their weight in water (2)! When you put the seeds in water or another liquid, they expand and transform into a kind of gel, which is why you’ll see people adding these seeds to their smoothies to thicken them.
You can always eat the seeds the old-fashioned way, too. Some manufacturers mill the seeds before packaging them, but others sell them whole. One of the traditional indigenous preparation methods was to ground the seeds into flour for tortillas, tamales, or beverages.
Today, you’ll find chia seeds in:
- Chia puddings
- Fruit/vegetable smoothies
- Homemade energy bars
- Overnight “oats”
- Various baked goods and other treats
A Solid Nutrition Profile
Many vegetarians praise chia for their high protein content, but as you’ll see in just a second, the protein pales in comparison to the other available nutrients.
Just one ounce of chia seeds contains:
- 9 grams of fat
- 4.5 grams of protein
- 10.6 grams of fiber (42% of the daily value!)
- 30% of the daily value of manganese
- 27% of the daily value of phosphorous
- 18% of the daily value of calcium
- 7% of the daily value of zinc (3)
4.5 grams of protein isn’t something that exactly knocks our socks off as Paleos, as eggs and other animal products contain higher amounts. But it’s a nice option for vegetarians, vegans, or other groups who focus on a plant-based diet.
One ounce accounts for only 137 calories. Those few calories manage to pack in quite a lot of nutrients.
Chia Seed Benefits
The nutrition profile for chia seeds is solid, but are they really superfoods?
You’ll hear claims that they can do everything from slowing aging to curing cancer. Unfortunately, the research to back up the more extraordinary claims is lacking.
Let’s dive into some of the key, scientifically-backed benefits to get a more realistic picture.
Chia Seeds Have a Great Omega-3 to Omega-6 Fatty Acids Ratio
The type of fat we consume matters. We must have a balance between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids for optimal health. When the ratio gets too skewed, we end up with chronic inflammation, insulin resistance, and obesity (4).
Most of us have more than enough omega-6 fatty acids, which explains why getting enough omega-3s tends to be emphasized. People who follow the typical modern Western diet, full of processed foods and vegetable oils, have ratios as high as 16:1 (5). That’s a far cry from the optimal one-to-one ratio.
Like seafood, chia seeds contain significantly more omega-3 fatty acids than omega-6s. Consuming them is a step in the right direction to restoring balance. One ounce of these seeds contains 4,915 milligrams of omega-3s, over three times as many as the 1,620 milligrams omega-6 content (6).
Chia Seeds Are a Good Source of Protein
Chia seeds’ protein content attracts a lot of vegetarians and vegans. And at 4.5 grams per ounce, it’s almost as much as an egg (7).
And while there are tons of other Paleo protein powerhouses available, chia seeds are a healthy way to vary your protein options. Plus, they’re easy to sprinkle onto your salads, smoothies, and stir fries.
This protein also comes in handy if you’re trying to stop snacking so often or lose weight. Protein has been proven to increase feelings of satiety as part of weight management protocols (8). It’s easier to fight off cravings or stray from your diet when you feel fuller between meals.
Chia Seeds Are High in Fiber
While processed breads and cereals with added fiber are common, there are healthier sources of fiber that are filled with nutrition: fruits, vegetables, and seeds and nuts.
Chia seeds have an extremely high fiber content, over 42 percent of the daily value in a single ounce. Consuming even a small amount daily can help you reap the benefits touched on just above. Because they expand in the juices of your gut, they can keep you feeling fuller longer, a common feature of high-fiber foods (12).
That combination – high-fiber and a moderate protein content – make these seeds ideal for feeling full enough to reduce calorie intake naturally and lose weight.
Chia Seeds Are Easy to Eat
Chia seeds are small, portable, and keep for a long time (13). That makes it a great choice if you’re on the go or bringing your meals to work. You don’t always have a cooked chicken breast handy to toss onto a salad, but it’s easy to sprinkle on some seeds and chow down.
We already touched on versatility as well. Their neutral taste means they go well with practically everything. Whatever Paleo dish you have in mind, someone has already come up with a way to add chia seeds to make it even more delicious.
Buying your your seeds online in bulk makes things even more convenient. Not only is the price per ounce much cheaper, but because they don’t weigh much, shipping will be pretty reasonable too.
Why You Shouldn’t Eat Chia Seeds Only for Their Omega-3s
You probably already know the importance of omega-3 fatty acids for optimal health. These are crucial for fighting inflammation, maintaining a healthy heart, avoiding depression, and a laundry list of other key functions (14). Unfortunately, many of us aren’t getting nearly enough of them.
The richest Paleo sources of omega-3 are mostly found in fish, like salmon, mackerel, and seafood. For someone who’s not a huge seafood fan like myself, the prospect of upping my omega-3 intake by adding chia seeds – instead of being limited to fish oil supplements – was definitely appealing.
This high omega-3 content is one of the main reasons that drive vegetarians’ enthusiasm for these seeds in the first place, as omega-3s are a bit harder to come by without seafood or egg yolks.
But before we go any further, we have to get a bit more specific about which types of omega-3 fatty acids we’re talking about. There are actually three main ones:
- Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Most commonly found in seeds and vegetables, ALA is considered an “essential” fatty acid because it can’t be made in the human body. When we eat ALA, it can be converted into DHA and EPA in small amounts.
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Usually found in seafood along with EPA.
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Usually found in seafood along with DHA.
Our bodies can’t create ALA on their own, though they are able to convert it into small amounts of DHA and EPA (15). Unfortunately, the conversion process is inefficient (16). A study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that giving 62 overweight women milled chia seeds for 10 weeks increased ALA and EPA levels in the blood, but not DHA (17).
It’s easy to marvel at chia seeds’ high overall omega-3 fatty acid content. Ounce for ounce, it crushes even renowned omega-3 sources like salmon (18)! But because the omega-3s in chia seeds must be converted, we end up with a much lower amount.
It would be extremely difficult (if not impossible) to swap chia for seafood or omega-3 supplements. Better to appreciate them for the variety they bring to your food and their other benefits.
The Bottom Line
While chia seeds’ benefits are definitely promising, more research needs to be done before it can truly be considered a superfood. They’re great as an occasional snack or to add flavor to your food and drinks. But they’re no replacement for seafood, egg yolks, and other Paleo omega-3 sources.
The good news: chia seeds are Paleo-friendly and easy to digest – for most of us. Some people with sensitive digestive systems or a leaky gut might have issues dealing with such a concentrated amount of fiber. If that’s the case, you can cut down your intake or scrap the seeds altogether until you get your digestive issues sorted. A few teaspoons go a long way!
Have you tried chia seeds? If so, what’s your favorite way to use them? Leave a comment below and let us know!
(Read This Next: Hemp Protein: Benefits and How to Choose the Best Powder)