Why Chia Seeds Are Good for You (and the Healthiest Way to Eat Them)
The dried seeds of the Salvia hispanica plant are edible, and they are good for you, too. Better known as chia seeds, these healthy seeds have been used to treat a wide range of diseases and conditions, including skin problems, colds and flu, lack of energy and stamina in atheletes, insulin resistance, and joint inflammation. Loaded with fiber and omega-3 fatty acids, these 'super seeds' are also thought to be good for the heart, and indeed, some studies suggest that chia seeds may help lower high blood pressure and reduce the risk of coronary heart disease, heart attack, and stroke. Furthermore, there is some evidence that the seeds of Salvia hispanica may also help prevent certain types of cancer.
The purpose of this article is to provide an overview of the numerous health benefits of chia seeds – based on the findings of recent scientific studies, complemented with historical knowledge of the medicinal uses of chia.
Immune Boosting Properties
Native to Central America, the seeds of the Salvia hispanica plant were a staple food in the diets of the ancient Aztecs and Mayans. Already back then, these dark gray seeds were considered a super-food with medicinal properties and were used, among other things, to treat colds and flu. Today we know that chia seeds are loaded with antioxidants which have strong immune-boosting properties and which may therefore help fight the common cold and flu. According to research from the University of the Valley of Guatemala, chia seeds have a remarkable antioxidant rating of 1909, expressed as Vitamin C Equivalent Antioxidant Capacity (milligrams of vitamin C per 100 grams). With this antioxidant rating, chia seeds are much more powerful in terms of antioxidant capacity than, for example, blackberries, mango, noni fruit, grapes, pineapple, or carambola.
The nutrient profile of chia seeds is broad, and there are numerous nutrients and phytochemicals that are likely to contribute to the extraordinary antioxidant power of chia. These include vitamin C, vitamin E, certain flavonols (such as quercetin, myricetin, kaempferol), phenolic acids (such as caffeic acid), and lignin (not to be confused with lignan which is a phytoestrogen found in flaxseed). Also zinc, which is abundant in chia seeds, plays a role in the antioxidant defense system of the body, even though it is not an antioxidant in its own right.
Positive Effects on Heart Health
Australia is the world's largest producer of chia, which is why it is not surprising that much of the research done on the potential medicinal properties and health effects of chia seeds has been conducted Down Under. One Australian study, conducted by a group of researchers from the University of Queensland, found that rats that ate chia seeds showed more signs of good cardiovascular health, including improved insulin sensitivity, reduced fat accumulation around the abdominal area, and reduced cardiac inflammation – compared to rats that did not eat chia seeds.
These potential cardioprotective health benefits associated with eating chia seeds have been largely attributed to alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Alpha-linolenic acid is a type of omega-3 fatty acid that our bodies cannot produce, and that we must therefore obtain through our diet. While the plant kingdom offers numerous good sources of alpha-linolenic acid – such as soybeans, kiwifruit seeds, lingonberries, hemp seeds and flaxseeds – chia seeds are by far the best natural plant-based soure of alpha-linolenic acid.
Note: As omega-3 fatty acids, such as ALA, can act as a blood thinner, you should talk to your doctor before taking chia seeds if you are taking any medication (including anticoagulant drugs such as Warfarin) or are scheduled for surgery.
Improved Insulin Sensitivity
The same Australian study that suggested that chia seeds are good for the heart and cardiovascular health also unveiled another interesting health benefit associated with eating chia seeds: improved insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance. Insulin sensitivity is a term used to describe how well your body responds to insulin, a hormone that processes glucose. Deteriorating insulin sensitivity, also known as insulin resistance, is a precursor to pre-diabetes and type 2 diabetes.
The prevalence of both of pre-diabetes and type 2 diabetes has been increasing at an alarming rate since the early 1990s. What's more, type 2 diabetes – which used to be a typical "adult disease" – is becoming increasingly prevalent among the teen population. The good news is, this chronic disease can often be prevented or delayed by adopting healthier eating habits. Besides chia seeds, foods that are good for you if you want to reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes include salmon, flaxseeds (they are very similar to chia seeds in terms of nutritional properties), whole grains, legumes and vegetables.
Protection Against Breast and Cervical Cancer
In an intriguing French study, a group of scientists from Tours, France, analyzed biopsies of adipose breast tissue from over 100 women with invasive non-metastatic breast carcinoma. A group of over 50 women with benign breast cancer served as controls. The scientists found no link between breast carcinoma and most of the analyzed fatty acids (saturates, monounsaturates, long-chain polyunsaturates n-6 or n-3). However, unlike the other fatty acids, alpha-linolenic acid appeared to have an inverse association with the risk of breast cancer. This study was published in the European Journal of Cancer in 2000.
The findings of a more recent analysis, published in the Journal of Molecular Biochemistry in 2013, may provide an explanation for the beneficial effects of alpha-linolenic acid observed in the French case-control study. This analysis found that alpha-linolenic acid, the dominating fatty acid in chia seeds, could induce apoptosis in certain types of breast cancer and cervical cancer cells, without damaging non-cancerous cells. Apoptosis is the body's natural way of eliminating unnecessary or damaged cells, but cancer cells have developed mechanisms to evade apoptosis, allowing them to grow uncontrolled.
Now, before you rush to incorporate chia seeds into your anti-cancer diet plan, consider this: While alpha-linolenic acid may provide some protection against breast and cervical cancer, its impact on other cancers remains unknown, and in some cases, controversial (see Chia Seeds May Prevent Breast Cancer but Increase Prostate Cancer Risk).
Alternative to Carbohydrate Loading for Athletes
During the times of the Aztec civilization, chia seeds were also recommended to warriors and other men who would benefit from increased endurance and stamina. According to some Spanish manuscripts, messengers who ate chia seeds were able to run the entire day on just a handful of chia seeds. Inspired by these claims, researchers specializing in sports nutrition have undertaken scientific studies to evaluate the potential benefits of chia seeds for athletes and other people who who regularly engage in strenuous exercise.
In one recent study, researchers investigated whether eating chia seeds could enhance athletic performance in events lasting more than 90 minutes and allow athletes to substitute omega-3 fatty acids for some of the sugar traditionally used in pre-competition carbohydrate loading. The researchers recruited six highly trained male subjects whose performance was measured after the two types of treatments used in this study. The test treatment involved drinking an "omega-3 chia loading drink" (50% of calories from the sports drink Gatorade, and the reamining 50% from greens and omega-3 acids from chia seeds) while the control treatment involved drinking pure Gatorade.
The researchers found no statistical difference between the two treatments, which implies that omega-3 acids from chia seeds may be just as effective as sugar in preparing athletes for competition. This study was published in the January 2011 issue of the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research.
Support for Good Joint Health
Back in the 1400s, the Aztecs were convinced that, in addition to all the other health benefits of eating chia seeds, these 'super seeds' were also good for the joints. Now, fast-forward to today, and you will find numerous anecdotal reports touting the beneficial effects of chia seeds on joint health. However, despite all the testimonials, little actual scientific research has been conducted on the subject. That said, many of the nutrients abundant in chia have been widely researched, and many of these have been shown to possess strong anti-inflammatory and anti-rheumatic properties, suggesting that chia seeds may indeed help reduce inflammation associated with joint pain. You can read more on the topic in our article Are Chia Seeds Good for Joint Health?.
Nutrition for Skin and Hair
Thanks to its strong antioxidant properties, chia is also good for your skin. Antioxidants slow down the aging of the skin by destroying free radicals – unstable molecules than can wreak havoc on cells and tissues in your body. While free radicals are generated by your body's normal metabolic processes, there are several external factors that can add to your free radical load. These include drugs (both medical and recreational), tobacco smoke, X-rays, infections, air pollution, pesticides in food, and exposure to the sun's ultraviolet rays.
So, we have established that chia seeds are good for your skin, but what about hair? A look at the nutrient profile of chia seeds reveals that these powerhouse seeds are also supercharged with hair health promoting nutrients. They are an excellent source of protein, which is crucial for healthy hair growth. They are also rich in zinc, copper, thiamin (vitamin B1), niacin (vitamin B3), and iron – all of which are known to help promote healthy hair growth.
The Healthiest Way to Eat Chia Seeds
By now, you probably agree that chia seeds are indeed pretty good for you. But how should you eat them in order to get the maximum health benefits? For one, don't exceed the daily dosage recommendation of 2 tablespoons of whole seeds, and be sure to drink plenty of water when you're taking chia seeds. These are the most important tips to follow in order to avoid gastrointestinal distress caused by adding this new food to your diet, but more tips to help your body get used to chia seeds can be found here: How to Avoid Constipation and Bloating When Taking Chia Seeds?.
With regard to whole versus ground seeds, there doesn't seem to be a big difference from a nutritional point of view, so eat your seeds the way you like. To get some inspiration on how to incorporate chia seeds into your diet, check out these 10 Tips on How to Use Chia Seeds.