Health Benefits of Chia Seeds – Why They Should Be in Your Diet
You’re playing trivia with your friends and you stumble across this question: What plant food packs, ounce for ounce, more calcium than milk and omega-3 fatty acids than salmon?
You’re stumped and need more clues, right?
Fine. Research shows this seed – yes, I practically gave it away – can benefit various conditions including diabetes, dyslipidemia, hypertension, inflammation, oxidative stress, and blood clotting. It makes a great laxative, boosts vision and immunity, and can even relieve mood disorders like anxiety and depression. (1)
I’m talking about chia seeds. Ounce for ounce, these tiny seeds are one of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet.
What Are Chia Seeds?
Let’s get the history lesson out of the way. The word chia is Spanish from chian, or oily. Oily means they’re high in fat content. (Lots more on that in a minute.)
Chia seeds originated from Mexico and Guatemala, and humans have been eating them for about 5,500 years. Aztecs and Mayas people used chia seeds to prepare folk medicines, food, and even canvases. During pre-historic times in Columbian societies, chia was the second main crop after beans.
Versatility aside, chief among their popularity is nutrient density: Chia seeds pack a wallop of omega-3 fatty acids, protein, dietary fiber, vitamins, minerals, and polyphenolic antioxidants. (1)
They also absorb water and hold things together well, which makes chia seeds ideal for powders, nutrition bars, breads, and cookies. (2)
You can even use chia seeds as an egg substitute. (Who knew? Now you do.) You can replace one large egg in your recipe with one tablespoon of ground chia seeds and three tablespoons of water. (3)
For a while now, chia seeds have been labeled a super food. Are they overhyped or do they truly earn their A-list status? Let’s take a look at what chia seeds offer.
Before we talk about the fatty acids in chia seeds, let’s briefly review why these fatty acids are so important. Stay with me: We’re heading into slightly complicated fatty-acid territory.
Dietary fat comes in three “flavors”: Saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated. Biochemically, those with no double bonds are saturated. Those with one double bond are monounsaturated. And fats with more than one double bond are polyunsaturated fats.
To make this more complicated, polyunsaturated fats (which carry the convenient acronym PUFAs) come in two sub-flavors: Omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. Of all dietary fats, only omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids are deemed “essential” because your body can’t make them. That means you need to get them from food or supplements.
These two essential fatty acids include the omega-6 fatty acid linoleic acid (LA) and the omega-3 fatty acid alpha linolenic acid (ALA). Your body converts LA into the more functional fatty acids arachidonic acid (AA) and ALA into eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
Let’s simplify this:
- LA (omega 6) – becomes arachidonic acid (AA)
- ALA (omega 3) – becomes eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
Put that another way: LA and ALA are the “bases” your body needs to create those longer-chain fatty acids. Think of them as a starter kit for making the fatty acids your body needs. Take ALA, which converts into longer-chain EPA and DHA. Your brain is about 60 percent fat, predominantly DHA. (4) Your body needs to convert ALA to DHA to give your brain those crucial fatty acids.
But just because you give your body that fatty-acid starter kit doesn’t mean it will convert LA and ALA into those longer-chain fatty acids, and here’s why.
As a general rule, omega-3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory while omega-6 fatty acids are inflammatory. (There are exceptions, like gamma-linolenic acid or GLA, an omega-6 fatty acid that’s anti-inflammatory. But that’s another article.)
That doesn’t mean you should (or could) completely avoid omega 6s. Arachidonic acid (AA), which you’ll remember is the longer-chain omega-6 fatty acid from LA, contributes to membrane flexibility and permeability.
Only when you eat too many of those omega 6s – and most of us do – can AA create problems including obesity. (5) In fact, studies show chronic inflammation – and by default, omega-6 fatty acids like AA – contribute to nearly every disease on the planet. (6)
But back to these two “starter kit” fatty acids. Theoretically, your body can convert the omega-6 LA and omega-3 ALA into longer-chain omega-3 and omega-6 derivatives, but here’s the thing: Your body isn’t great at doing that because you share one set of enzymes to convert both LA and ALA into their longer-chain derivatives.
Whereas researchers estimate Paleolithic humans got about equal amounts of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, today we get about 20 times more omega-6s. (5)
In other words, you’ve got one set of enzymes running around trying to convert LA and ALA into longer-chain fatty acids, but with way more omega 6s, oftentimes converting ALA into EPA and DHA becomes a challenge. (5)
Think of it this way. Let’s say you’ve got a dinner party and one hostess is serving you in one room and 25 people in the other room. Maybe you’re just feeling antisocial or just want to be alone and watch the new Will and Grace rather than hang out with these 25 dinner guests.
Guess where that hostess is going to spend almost all of her time? Yup: In the room with 25 people. That’s how your enzymes work with elongating omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.
Can You Get Sufficient Omega 3 Fatty Acids from Plant Foods?
Theoretically, your enzymes can make the longer-chain omega 3s EPA and DHA from the ALA in plant foods like chia seeds, but with one set of enzymes doing double duty, that doesn’t always happen. A more efficient option, then, becomes getting EPA and DHA directly rather than depending on enzymes to do the job.
Omega-3s found in fish and animal foods like grass-fed beef come as EPA and DHA, whereas plant-based omega-3s like flaxseeds and chia seeds are ALA. In fact, about 65 percent of the oil content in chia seeds is ALA.
“Some plant foods [like chia seeds] contain an omega-3, but it’s a medium-chain omega-3, as opposed to the long-chain omega-3s that are found in fish,” write Drs. Jonny Bowden and Steven Masley in their book Smart Fat. “Most of the proven benefits from long-chain omega-3 fats come from marine sources, not plant sources of omega-3.”
For years, experts thought you could get sufficient amounts of omega-3 fatty acids from ALA-based plant sources like chia and flaxseeds. During that time, flaxseed oil became all the rage.
Later research showed that isn’t the case, and while some reputable companies still sell flaxseed oil, evidence shows taking fish oil gives you more bang for your buck.
“Omega-3 fatty acids, usually from fish oil, have been shown to reduce inflammation and help prevent certain chronic diseases, such as heart disease and arthritis,” says the University of Maryland Medical Center. “Studies are mixed about whether flaxseed oil is useful for the same conditions.” (6)
If you do insist on flaxseed oil (as I said, some good companies still sell it), look for a cold-pressed organic oil with antioxidants like carotenoids and tocopherols in dark glass or BPA-free containers. (7) In all fairness, I would say the same thing about buying fish oil.
Whenever possible – meaning, if you can consume fish – I would recommend skipping the middleman and buying straight fish oil.
If not, aim for a professional-quality flaxseed oil and then add lots of chia and flaxseeds into your shakes.
Bowden and Masley note that while ALA in seeds like flaxseeds and chia seeds can convert to EPA and DHA “the conversion is inefficient and only a small percentage—probably only 5 percent—winds up as EPA and DHA.”
That’s because as I mentioned earlier, those enzymes that elongate ALA into EPA and DHA are so busy working on the surplus of omega 6s, and ALA gets left in the dust.
In his book Eat Fat, Get Thin, Dr. Mark Hyman says more than 90 percent of Americans are deficient in the longer-chain EPA and DHA fatty acids. That’s a real problem for lots of reasons, including the aforementioned DHA and brain health.
That doesn’t mean you should skip out on chia seeds. They contain an impressive amount of ALA and a good ratio of omega 3s and omega 6. (8) Yet to get sufficient amounts of omega 3s, you also need to get EPA and DHA from wild-caught fish and other animal sources and probably take a quality fish oil supplement too.
If you’re OK with that, I would say get the majority of your omega 3s from animal sources (including fish oil) and complement that EPA and DHA with ALA-rich plant foods like chia, flax, and walnuts.
Obviously that’s going to be a problem if you’re a vegetarian. Omega-3 enriched eggs are one option. One comparative study using flaxseed, rapeseed, and chia seed as chicken feed found eggs from hens fed with chia had the highest ALA content compared with hens fed flaxseed or rapeseed. (8)
Obviously, eggs aren’t an option for vegans. In those cases – whether you’re a vegan or vegetarian – eat seaweed salad (along with algae, that’s what fish eat to get DHA) several days every week, use an algae-derived DHA supplement, and incorporate plenty of ALA-rich foods like chia into your meals.
Another strategy – whether you’re a vegan, carnivore, or somewhere in-between – is to downgrade your inflammatory omega-6 intake including vegetable oils. That way, you’re giving your enzymes a better chance to elongate the omega-3 fatty acid ALA into longer-chain EPA and DHA.
Chia Seeds Protein Content – Don’t Get TOO Excited, But It’s Impressive
Compared with the fatty acids, protein in chia seeds becomes pretty simple. An ounce of chia seeds carries nearly five grams of protein. (9) For a plant food, that’s pretty impressive.
Chia seeds contain a complete array of essential amino acids, although its rate-limiting amino acid is lysine. (10) The amino acid leucine was highest. Worth noting: Leucine, isoleucine, and valine are the three branched-chain amino acids (BCAA), which make up about one-third of muscle protein. (11)
If you’re curious – I know you are – more than 60 percent of non-essential amino acids in chia are glutamic acid, arginine, and aspartic acid. (2)
While they contain an impressive array of amino acids, the nearly five grams of protein in an ounce of chia seeds is nothing to write home about. But you’re not using chia seeds as your sole protein source, and it gives a nice protein boost to your protein shake or another protein-rich source.
Chia Seeds Fiber Content
Besides its fatty acids, dietary fiber might be chia seed’s staring factor. Of its 12 total carbohydrates, one ounce of chia seeds contains an impressive nearly 10 grams of dietary fiber. (9)
Researchers estimated Paleolithic humans got about 100 grams of dietary fiber daily. (12) That’s far below what we get today: The American Heart Association Eating Plan recommends total dietary fiber intake of 25 – 30 grams daily, yet intake among American adults averages about 15 grams a day. (13)
Dietary fiber rocks for so many reasons. Yes, it keeps you regular, but that alone doesn’t really sell this nutrient.
“Fiber fills you up—literally,” write Bowden and Masley. “Fiber-rich solid foods take longer to chew, which allows your body to get the signal to your brain that your hunger is being dealt with. [F]iber-rich foods also take longer to digest and absorb, leaving you satisfied for much longer… And with high-fiber foods, you’ll have fewer cravings, more energy, and you’ll be less likely to overeat at your next meal, or worse, make a bad snack choice to tide you over until the next meal.”
Just as importantly, chia seeds have about equal amounts of soluble and insoluble fiber. (17) Among their benefits, soluble fiber optimizes your lipid profile (read: your doctor will be happy with your labs) while insoluble fiber keeps you regular. (18)
You need both types of fiber, and chia seeds provide them in ideal amounts. And, worth repeating, a mere one ounce contains about 10 grams (40 percent) of your day’s fiber intake.
Nutritional Value of Chia Seeds
Chia seeds pack impressive amounts of magnesium, calcium, phosphorus, iron, zinc, manganese, and other minerals. (2) [Just to provide an example: One ounce of chia seeds contains 179 mg of calcium, (9) which ounce for ounce outranks cow’s milk.]
All in all, it’s quite a mineral punch.
“I think the [Recommended Daily Allowances or Recommended Daily Intake] for most nutrients are woefully inadequate—particularly magnesium—but chia seeds still offer a lot of nutrition for a modest number of calories,” writes Bowden in The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth.
Chia seeds are also packed with antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer flavonoids including rutin and hesperidin. (2)
Among the other antioxidants in chia seeds include chlorogenic acid, caffeic acid, myricetin, quercetin, and kaempferol that provide cardiac, hepatic protective effects, anti-ageing and anti-carcinogenic characteristics. (1)
Beyond their health benefits (and trust me, these are worth it alone), these antioxidants are important because they protect ALA from rancidity. Omega-3 fatty acids are incredibly fragile, and studies show chia and other omega-3 rich foods can go rancid from oxidation. (19)
For the record: I recommend keeping whole chia seeds or ground chia seeds in a glass container tightly closed and keep them refrigerated.
Chia Seeds for Weight Loss? Maybe…
Chia seeds pack quite a nutrient wallop, providing the key foundation for weight loss including satiating protein, inflammation-lowering fatty acids, hunger-busting fiber, and plenty of minerals and antioxidants.
While that doesn’t make them a magic bullet for weight loss (you can’t just eat chia seeds and watch the weight magically fall off…), added to protein shakes and food, chia seeds might provide a favorable nudge to lose weight and keep it off. One study found people who ate about 35 grams (about 1.25 ounces) of chia seeds for 12 weeks lost weight and improved their lipid profile. (20)
Where to Buy Chia Seeds
If you’re looking for ways to incorporate more chia seeds into your diet, you’re going to have a problem finding good recipes online.
Just kidding. Seriously: A quick Google search will reveal a plethora of shakes, smoothies, puddings, and other concoctions that incorporate chia seeds. Like I said, these little seeds are massive nutrient rock stars, and they’re also incredibly versatile.
How to Use Chia Seeds
Simply put: Any way that you can. Use them as an egg substitute, sprinkle them into your protein shake (start slowly and gradually increase), add them into recipes, and fit them into your eating plan however you can.
1 can coconut milk, 1/4 cup chia seeds, 1 teaspoon organic vanilla, 1 teaspoon cinnamon
1. Combine all ingredients in a mixing bowl or a blender, and stir until mixed thoroughly.
2. Cover, and place in the refrigerator to thicken.
3. Serve topped with cacao, raw unsweetened coconut flakes, or dried fruits, berries or nuts.
If recipes aren’t your thing, visit your nearest health food store. A quick search at Thrive Market revealed chia crackers, bars, “squeezes” (juices), chips, and even a chia seed face oil. Of course, you can also buy regular chia seeds or ground chia seeds.
You’ll notice either chia seed colors vary from black, grey, and black spotted to white. (8) From what I’ve read, any color has about an equal nutrient value.
A bigger concern is quality. Buy from a reputable brand, look for certified organic, non-GMO chia seeds, and check their expiration date. I suggest buying organic chia seeds in a small bag. And worth repeating is their rancidity: Once you open chia seeds, use them within a few weeks and keep them well-sealed and refrigerated.