Nutritional Benefits of Chia Seeds

Updated on March 2, 2018
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Varsha is an enthusiastic writer who believes in healthy living. She loves to research topics related to health and wellness.

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One of the latest crazes to hit the food scene, chia seeds might be new to you, but they’ve been cultivated and consumed for centuries—and rightfully so, as the chia seed is one petite powerhouse!

What Are Chia Seeds?

Chia seeds (pronounced CHEE-ah) are harvested from the Salvia hispanica plant, which is a member of the mint family. This staple crop has been grown for centuries in North, Central, and South America. A single chia seed is tiny, much smaller in size than the average sesame, flax, or hemp seed. Chia seeds have a mild, slightly nutty flavor, and come in shades of speckled black and white.

White chia seeds are rarer than the black variety and as a result are more expensive. Although the type of soil in which chia seeds are grown can affect the seeds’ nutritional content, most experts agree that there really isn’t a significant nutritional difference between the white and black chia seeds.

Chia seeds are considered to be a whole food, as their bran, germ, and endosperm are still intact when they are packaged for sale. They are also mucilaginous, which means that when chia seeds get wet, they swell and secrete a sticky, gel-like substance. In turn, eating these seeds imparts a sense of fullness, which can help those who consume them to eat less and lose weight. Amazingly, chia seeds are capable of absorbing more than nine times their volume in liquid. The FDA classifies chia seeds as a food, not a supplement; therefore, they can be consumed without restrictions. Some experts even recommend feeding them to cats, dogs, and other animals

Chia seeds
Chia seeds | Source

Early Cultivation and Uses

There is documented evidence that chia seeds were cultivated as early as 3500 BC. The tiny chia seeds were highly prized by many early civilizations of the Americas, including the ancient Aztecs and Mayans of what is now Mexico, who used them in many different ways. In fact, the word chia is derived from the Nahuatl (Aztec) word for “strength.” The name of the Mexican state of Chiapas is derived from the word chiapan, meaning “river of chia”; it was named as such because it lies within the ancient Mayan territorial borders. Some historians believe that Aztec warriors and athletes could easily endure high levels of physical activity, long battles, and extensive journeys, maintaining their strength and stamina simply by consuming some water and a handful of chia seeds every few hours. That’s truly incredible!

For sustenance, these ancient tribes would mix chia seeds with water to make a beverage. They also ate the seeds alone or mixed them with their other main crops of amaranth, beans, corn, and squash. The ground seeds were used to make a mush or porridge.

The tribes added chia seeds to their medicines and used them to seal wounds and prevent infections. They also pressed the tiny seeds between rocks to extract their oil for use in making body paints. The Aztecs and Mayans held chia in such esteem that their high priests even made offerings of the seeds to the gods during their religious rituals.

So why did chia seeds slip into obscurity and remain virtually

unknown to most of the world? European explorers and rulers might have contributed to chia’s fall from grace as a food source. In particular, as part of the Spanish conquest of the Americas, the invading Spaniards prohibited the so-called primitive and pagan religious rituals of the indigenous people, which often included the use of chia seeds. In an effort to weaken these tribes, the Spanish conquerors also banned the growing of many of their main crops, chia among them, and even went so far as to burn their agricultural fields. The Europeans feared that chia seeds and their properties of enhancing endurance and performance would make it impossible to control the native people and their precious territories.

Fortunately for us, the chia seed endured and continued to grow wild across much of the southwestern United States, Mexico, and Central America, and the indigenous people of these areas continued to consume chia seeds as part of their daily diet. Likewise, in the past few decades, chia seeds have been rediscovered by the masses, and we have agricultural and medical experts, in addition to health food advocates, to thank for the resurgence of interest in chia seeds and their consumption. Chia seeds are now being cultivated throughout the world, and as a result, these diminutive seeds have become a popular superfood and add-in ingredient in many food products.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), a 1-ounce serving (approximately 2 tablespoons) of chia seeds contains 137 calories, 11 grams of dietary fiber, 4 grams of protein, 9 grams of fat (1 gram of saturated fat), and 4 grams of omega-3 fatty acids.

Source

Nutritional Benefits of Chia Seeds

The increased availability of chia seeds certainly has contributed greatly to renewed interest in them. However, the wide variety of nutritional benefits they provide is what has made them so popular with medical experts, nutritionists, athletes, raw foodists, and people trying to make health-promoting lifestyle changes. Naturally, the exact health benefits of chia seeds will vary slightly from person to person. Factors that could affect the health benefits obtained from chia seeds include any current or serious medical conditions, amount of exercise and physical activity engaged in, and the amount of chia seeds regularly consumed. Here are just a few of the reported benefits:

  • decreased inflammation and joint pain
  • lowered cholesterol levels
  • increased energy levels
  • enhanced athletic performance
  • improved digestion and regularity
  • augmented weight loss
  • refined appearance of skin, hair, and nails

Even though they may be tiny, chia seeds are extremely nutritious.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), a 1-ounce serving (approximately 2 tablespoons) of chia seeds contains 137 calories, 11 grams of dietary fiber, 4 grams of protein, 9 grams of fat (1 gram of saturated fat), and 4 grams of omega-3 fatty acids.

  • The following are some of the vitamins and minerals found in significant amounts in chia seeds: niacin, folic acid, calcium, magnesium, potassium, and iron; in lesser amounts are vitamins A, C, and E, and selenium. Adding chia seeds to your daily diet will also provide you with many beneficial antioxidants, which will help your body neutralize free radicals that can damage cells and cause oxidative stress, a condition that has been linked to degenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, cardiovascular disease, cataracts, cognitive impairment, immune dysfunction, macular degeneration, and Parkinson’s disease.
  • Chia seeds are an excellent source of low-fat, plant-based protein and contain even more protein than wheat. Vegans and vegetarians will be glad to know that chia seeds, like soybeans, are considered to be a complete protein and contain all nine essential amino acids, which our bodies cannot manufacture and must be obtained through dietary sources.
  • Dietary fiber, found only in plant-based foods, is plentiful in chia seeds. It’s important to eat adequate amounts of foods rich in both soluble and insoluble fiber for proper digestive and bowel health. Doing so can also help maintain proper weight, lower blood cholesterol levels, and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and some forms of cancer. Fortunately, chia seeds contain both types of fiber.
  • We also need to make sure that the foods we eat provide us with healthy sources of fat, or as medical professionals refer to them, essential fatty acids, also called EFAs. The two types are linoleic acid, also known as LA or omega-6 fatty acid, and alpha-linolenic acid, also known as ALA or omega-3 fatty acid. EFAs also must be obtained through food sources, and they are further converted by the body into other compounds needed to perform various physical and mental functions. Chia seeds are reputed to be the richest plant-based source of omega-3 fatty acids. Many people believe that seafood is the optimal dietary source of omega-3 fatty acids, but chia seeds can literally blow that notion out of the water, as gram for gram, chia seeds contain eight times the amount found in both wild and farmed salmon. Eating foods with high levels of omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to reduce inflammation, improve mental functions and decrease the risk of chronic diseases, such as cancer, heart disease, and arthritis.
  • According to data from the USDA and several independent lab tests, a gram-to-gram comparison between some commonly consumed foods and chia seeds showed that 100 grams of chia seeds contain the following:
  • 15 times the amount of magnesium as broccoli
  • 9 times the amount of phosphorus and 5 times the amount of calcium as whole cow’s milk
  • 3 times the amount of protein as canned kidney beans
  • 3 times the amount of iron as spinach
  • 2 times the amount of selenium as flaxseeds
  • 2 times the amount of potassium as bananas
  • 2 times the amount of dietary fiber as bran flakes cereal
  • People concerned about heart disease will be pleased to know that chia seeds are free of cholesterol and trans fats and low in calories and sodium. And if you’re among the ranks of thousands of people chia seeds are free of cholesterol and trans fats and low in calories and sodium. And if you’re among the ranks of thousands of people who suffer from celiac disease or who are trying to limit their consumption of gluten-containing grains and by-products, you’ll be happy to learn that chia seeds are gluten-free too.

Chia seeds are a perfect companion to your dessert.
Chia seeds are a perfect companion to your dessert. | Source

How to Add Chia Seeds to Your Diet?

Now that you know a little bit more about the various nutritional benefits that chia seeds have to offer, you’re probably eager to get your hands on some and start working them into your daily meals more often. I recommend buying organic chia seeds to avoid any agricultural contaminants. My personal favourites are Nutiva Organic, non-GMO chia seeds and Viva Naturals organic chia seeds.

These seeds are virtually tasteless, so you can easily use them to add a nutrient boost to daily meals. They are also easily digestible, and unlike flaxseeds, they don’t need to be ground first before consumption. Thanks to a high antioxidant content, the oil in chia seeds will not become rancid if stored at room temperature or in direct sunlight, unlike the oils found in flax and other types of seeds and nuts. Store chia seeds in an airtight container in a cool, dry place; they will keep for about two years from the date of purchase.

You’ll be amazed how easy it can be to work chia seeds into your daily diet.

  • You can eat them whole by the handful, stir them into juices or other beverages, or blend them into smoothies.
  • Sprinkle them over your morning bowl of cereal or oatmeal, or scatter them atop cooked grains, noodle dishes, and other foods.
  • Chia seeds are easy to sprout. As with other seeds, sprouting increases the seed’s nutritional content. Chia sprouts are a delicious addition to sandwiches and salads.
  • Whole chia seeds and chia seed gel can be used to thicken soups, stews, and sauces or to replace some or even all of the oil in salad dressings and other recipes.
  • Chia seed gel can be used as a binder in veggie burgers and meatless loaves and as an egg replacer in baked goods and desserts.
  • The whole seeds can also be ground into a fine flour or coarse meal for use in baked goods, veggie burgers, and other dishes.

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    © 2018 Varsha

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