Written by: Leora Aframian MS RDN
The first mention
Chia was first brought onto the scene by the catchy television commercials in the 1980s and 90s, I’ll spare you the jingle, and from there they quickly grew into the trendy nutritional powerhouses they are today. The botanical name for these seeds is Salvia hispanica L., and are relatives of the mint family. The name “chia” was given by the Aztecs which means “oily”. These seeds are actually a flowering plant that can produce white or purple flowers. Historically, chia seeds were not only used as a culinarily staple but were also regarded for their medicinal properties, were used to treat many diseases, as well as in art, as an ingredient for lacquers and paint. (Zimmerman, 2017)
Chia seeds carry a rich nutritional profile which is one of the reasons for its’ modern popularity.
According to the USDA, one ounce of chia seeds, or almost two tablespoons, contains:
- 138 calories
- 11.9 g of carbohydrates
- 4.6 g of protein
- 5 g of omega-3 fatty acids
- 9.7 g of dietary fiber
Chia seeds are also rich in Calcium, Phosphorous, and Magnesium (2019). Free radical-fighting antioxidants are also a part of these small seeds’ nutritional profile. About 75% of the fat in chia seeds are from alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is the plant form of omega-3 fatty acids (Bjarnadottir, 2019).
Full of omega-3 fatty acids
Chia seeds are recognized for their high omega-3 fatty acid content which can have a beneficial effect on health and nutritional status. One tablespoon of chia contains 2.5 grams of omega-3 fatty acids. Diets rich in omega-3 fatty acids (or ALA in the plant form) are especially valuable for heart health.
A large study completed among 76,763 women found that among those with the highest intakes of Alpha-Linolenic Acid, had a 38-40% lower risk of sudden cardiac death. The results indicated that for every .1% increase in energy intake from Alpha-Linolenic Acid a 12% reduction in sudden cardiac death risk was associated (Albert et al., 2005).
Benefits of chia seeds
The majority of the fiber found in chia seeds are insoluble fibers (87%) with the remaining fiber soluble (13%) (Zimmerman, 2017). Insoluble fiber does not mix with water, instead, it stays as is while moving through the digestive tract. Conversely, soluble fiber forms a gel-like consistency when in the presence of water. Fiber carries many health benefits including cholesterol control and heart health. Fiber helps lower LDL cholesterol or “bad cholesterol” to keep levels at goal and reduce the risk of heart disease.
Fiber helps with blood glucose control by slowing the rate at which glucose is absorbed in the body. A small study was done in which Chia was baked into bread. The results indicated that those that were given the bread baked with chia seeds had a 2% lower glucose reading post-meal than the control group (Vaksan et al., 2010).
The Harvard T.H Chan School of Public Health describes the uptake and absorption of the chia seeds in the human body: dry chia seeds carry a hard shell when hydrated with water, these small seeds expand to form a gelatinous texture. This aids in digestion and absorption of the seeds. As such, Chia Seeds do not need to be ground for the body to receive the full benefits when added to liquids. When eating the seeds dry, ground chia might improve absorption. Additionally, Chia seeds conveniently carry a long shelf life, 4-5 years without refrigeration (2020).
Consuming of chia seeds
Chia seeds can be sprinkled onto almost any food as a garnish, including, salads and salad dressings, oatmeal, or smoothies. It can be added onto fruit, yogurt, or simply enhance your water with a tablespoon of chia for a quick and easy nutritional kick. These seeds hold well overnight for overnight oats or add to your favorite milk or nut milk for homemade chia pudding.
They can also be baked into bread or desserts. Use them as a substitute for an egg when baking by soaking 1 tablespoon of whole chia seed in 3 tablespoons of water and let sit for at least five minutes for a scrambled egg-like consistency (Harvard. T.H. Chan School of Public Health, 2020). Chia seeds are gluten-free for those with sensitivities. There are endless combinations of adding chia to your daily regimen, most require little effort or planning ahead.
Individuals with problems swallowing or dysphagia should practice caution when using chia seeds, especially dry, due to the seeds’ expansion properties. Dry chia may expand when exposed to liquids which can cause an obstruction in the esophagus for those with swallowing difficulty. Chia can absorb up to 27 times their weight in water. As such, it is recommended for those with reduced swallowing capacity to soak chia seeds thoroughly in substantial liquid before use, to avoid expansion in the esophagus and possible obstruction to be safe (Rawl, 2014).
1. Albert, Christine M., Kyungwon Oh, William Whang, Joann E. Manson, Claudia U. Chae, Meir J. Stampfer, Walter C. Willett, and Frank B. Hu. “Dietary α-Linolenic Acid Intake and Risk of Sudden Cardiac Death and Coronary Heart Disease.” Circulation 112.21 (2005): 3232-238. Print.
2. Bjarnadottir, Adda, MS RDN. “Chia Seeds 101: Nutrition Facts and Health Benefits.” Healthline. Healthline Media, 12 Mar. 2019.
3. “Chia Seeds.” The Nutrition Source. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, 2020.
“Seeds, chia seeds, dried.” Food Data Central. United Stated Department of Agriculture (USDA), 2019.
4. Rawl, Rebecca, MD, MPH. “Watch It Grow: Esophageal Impaction With Chia Seeds.” ACG Blog. American College of Gastroenterology, 14 Oct. 2014.
5. Vuksan, V., Jenkins, A., Dias, A. et al. Reduction in postprandial glucose excursion and prolongation of satiety: possible explanation of the long-term effects of whole grain Salba (Salvia Hispanica L.). Eur J Clin Nutr 64, 436–438 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1038/ejcn.2009.159
6. Zimmerman, Jacqueline Santora, MS, RDN. “Health Benefits of Chia — Learn About Its History, Nutrient Composition, and Current Research Regarding Its Health Benefits.” Today’s Dietitian Jan. 2017: 44. Print.