A superfood revered by ancient Aztec and Inca cultures, chia seed is making a brilliant comeback on the modern nutritional scene.
The tiny black seeds come from a South American plant in the mint family known as Salvia Hispanica; Mayans called it chia, their word for “strength,” as a tribute to the enhanced energy they enjoyed after eating them.
A gluten-free source of high quality protein and fiber, chia seeds are light on calories, heavy on antioxidants, compatible with low-carb diets, and may even enhance athletic performance.
Though it’s short on drawbacks, chia seed isn’t likely to take honors as a gourmet food with its bland presentation, but the upside of that is the ease of working it into your meal plan. Sprinkle it over salad, add it to soup or stew, blend with morning smoothies, or fold into a cup of yogurt, and the goodies can be yours with no fuss, no muss.
However you choose to eat it, chia seed’s nutritional profile is a winner.
Here are 8 reasons to put it on your shopping list.
- High Quality Protein in a Small Package
While most plant foods are fairly low in protein, chia seed delivers 14% protein by weight. A single ounce of these black seeds provides 4 grams of protein rich in essential amino acids, which increases bioavailability and makes it easier for your body to actually utilize the protein.(1)
Adequate protein is associated with a number of health benefits (2), and the generous amount in chia seed make it an especially good choice for vegetarians and people who eat only small amounts of animal foods.
Protein not only reduces appetite, but is the friendliest nutritional component for weight loss. Studies show people who include high-protein foods in their diet spend less time obsessing about food and experience fewer urges to indulge in late-night snacking. (3, 4)
- Rich in Nutrients Vital to Bone Health
Providing 18% of the RDA for calcium in an ounce, chia seed actually delivers more of this bone-nourishing mineral than many dairy products.
It also contains good amounts of magnesium and phosphorus, all of which contribute to keeping bones strong and healthy. (5)
Getting these nutrients from bioavailable sources is always preferable to taking a supplement.
- Low in Calories
At 137 calories an ounce, chia seed is one of the most nutritionally dense foods in the low calorie category. (6)
Two tablespoons of chia seed makes a 1-ounce serving; it’s usually grown organically, and you never need to worry about whether this ancient seed has been genetically modified or altered.
- High in Fiber and Low in Carbohydrates
With so many people following low-carb diets to achieve better health, the carbohydrate content of nutritious foods bears more scrutiny than ever. Chia seed makes the cut with only 12 carbs per serving, 11 of which are fiber.
At 40% fiber by weight, it’s among the richest sources of fiber available. Despite the fact that fiber is undigestible, it’s vital for keeping the digestive tract healthy. It feeds friendly bacteria, but doesn’t spike blood sugar or stimulate insulin release. (7)
Absorbing between 10 and 12 times its weight in water when it hits the stomach (8), chia seed also can help you feel satisfied eating smaller amounts of food.
- Bonus Points for Antioxidant Content
Foods rich in antioxidants appear in recommendations for building a good diet by most health-conscious professionals, and chia seed tested out as a super-performer in this important nutritional arena. (11)
- Beneficial Results for Diabetics
In a 12-week study with 20 diabetic patients, half received chia seed and the other half got wheat bran; both were given at 37 grams daily, or about three tablespoons.
While those eating chia seed had small drops in blood sugar, the most significant results lay in reduced blood pressure (down between 3 and 6 mm/HG) as well as 40% lower readings of an inflammation marker called hs-CRP. (12)
Since inflammation is associated with a higher risk of developing an frightening list of disorders from heart disease to depression (13), these benefits could extend far beyond treatment for diabetes.
- Improved Athletic Performance
It’s common knowledge staying physically active is an important aspect of overall good health; even if you’re not competing in marathons, chia seed serves as excellent fuel for both mild and intense exertion.
Historians believe the ancient Aztecs and Mayans used chia seed as a nutritional base when preparing for athletic events, and one recent study actually compared the performance of subjects who carb-loaded with Gatorade and those who used half chia seed and half Gatorade.
After an hour-long treadmill run, participants completed a timed 10 km jogging course; both groups had similar results, indicating chia seed offered comparable available energy to those who used it in place of part of the energy drink. (14)
- Easy Incorporation into Diet
It’s practically effortless to slip a tablespoon or two of chia seed into the food you already enjoy. They are small, have very little flavor, and don’t need to be ground, like flax seed.
Boost the nutritional value of any dish by adding chia seed; try them in baked goods, casseroles, rice, cereal or even sauces, which thicken up nicely as chia seed takes on the texture of a gel. Raw or cooked, chia seed packs a punch without causing a ruckus.
Beware of eating too many at a time if you’re not used to a lot of fiber.
Other Potential Benefits
Eating chia seed may help improve conditions like hypertension, elevated cholesterol and other markers associated with a higher risk of developing heart disease and metabolic imbalances like diabetes.
Participants in one recent study experienced significant positive changes from adding chia seed, nopal, soy protein and oats to their diet (15), but isolating the effects of chia seed in this test isn’t possible.
Rich in alpha lipoic acid, chia seed may also bump up omega-3 fatty acid intake; the catch with this one is that our bodies aren’t well equipped to convert ALA into the active forms necessary for utilization (16), so you may do better addressing that need with a supplement, or including cold water fish like salmon in your diet.
While some nutritional experts believe chia seed can help with weight loss, the results of several trials don’t support that hypothesis. With its high fiber content, chia seed could act as an appetite suppressor. More studies may provide conclusive data.
Summary: In the wake of recent contenders, as well as pretenders, Chia seed appears to have a good chance of living up to that tall order.