Chia (Salvia hispanica L.)
Chia is a herbaceous annual that is part of the lamiaceae plant family and native to Guatemala and the central and southern parts of Mexico. Plants in this family contain very aromatic essential oils in all of their parts. Other well-known plants found in the lamiaceae family are mint, sage, oregano, thyme, rosemary, and sage.
Chia (Salvia hispanica) grows in well-drained clay or sandy soils with a lot of sun. Its beautiful flowers are bee and pollinator friendly, but chia does not tolerate frost. It should be harvested immediately after the first killing frost.
There are multiple varieties of chia such as Chan (Hyptis suaveolens) which is also sometimes called ‘Chia’. Unlike Salvia hispanica, Chan is high in Omega-6 essential fatty acids and not in the Omega-3s. Golden Chia (Salvia columariae Benth) produces seed that is used just like Salvia hispanica. Salvia miltiorrhiza, a “chia” that is native to China and used in Traditional Chinese Medicine is called red sage, Dan Shen, and Shen so. The root is used for medicinal purposes as a blood mover, traditionally in the form of a tea.
Chia has been an ancient source of food for well over 5,000 years. Highly esteemed by the Mayan and Inca peoples, the seeds of the Chia plant were likely the most important part of their dietary staples. It was once called “warrior’s food” and just one tablespoon of this nutritious seed was said to provide a whole day’s worth of energy.
As a food, Chia is a veritable nutrition explosion! The following are some nutrition facts would garner appreciation from any health food aficionado.
- Has 6x more protein than beans. It runs neck-in-neck with spirulina as the highest source of plant-based protein. Once ounce of Chia has 4.9 grams of protein.
- Is a ‘complete protein’containing 18 of 20 different amino acids including all nine of the essential amino acids that the body can obtains only through food.
- Can absorb up to 27x their own weight in water!
- Is high in selenium and has 3x more iron than spinach.
- As a source of calcium is 5x greater than that of milk.
- Is high in vitamins B-1, B-2, & B-3.
- Provides 15x more magnesium than broccoli.
- Is high in antioxidants, higher than blueberries. The y keep the oils from going rancid which contributes to the long shelf-life of 4-5 years.
So far so good, right? Chia certainly stands out as one righteous seed! Except, perhaps for a minor ‘blemish’ if you will, which is not really chia’s fault.
True or False?
Chia provides 8x more omega-3s than salmon.
The truth is that chia seeds are indeed a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids. However, as a plant source of omega-3s, chia provides only alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). ALA is not active in the human body and has to be converted into forms form the body can use. There are two useful forms, eicosapentaenoic acid, known as ‘EPA’ and docosahexaenoic acid or ‘DHA’.
Both EPA and DHA are readily bioavailable to humans in animal sources like fish and fish oil, but ALA must first be converted to these two forms to provide the same benefit. A not-so-easy task.
The human body is ineffective at processing plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids.
The problem is, the body has limited ability to convert ALA. Ultimately, only 5 percent of ALA gets converted to EPA and less than 0.5 percent is converted to DHA. Among other things, EPA reduces inflammation and prevents blood from clotting too easily. DHA is important because it is the omega-3 necessary for brain health.
While chia is heralded as having “one of the very highest plant sources of omega-3s” and that it “provides 8 times more omega-3s than salmon” – The answer to the first statement is: Yes it does. The answer the second is: No. It does not.
Only 5% of ALA gets converted to EPA
Less than 0.5% of ALA is converted to DHA.
Comparing the omega-3s from coldwater fish sources to omega-3s from plant sources is like comparing apples to oranges. Fish sourced EPA/DHA is completely different than plant-sourced ALA. As we have previously discussed, they are not the same,. Therefore, they cannot be measured the same way. Simply because chia is high in omega-3 fats does not mean the human body is able to convert and use it.
Unfortunately, there are those in the habit of comparing plant-sourced essential fatty acids (EFAs) to fish-sourced EFAs and so the misinformation abounds. Now does this mean that chia isn’t a beneficial food? By all means NO! Chia offers plenty of benefits when enjoyed in moderation within the parameters of a healthy diet. Just don’t make the mistake of relying upon it as a primary source of omega-3s.
The “nutritional value of chia is the reason why it is used in prophylaxis of several non-infectious diseases such as obesity, hypertension, cardiovascular diseases (CVDs), cancer and diabetes.” This is exciting stuff. Let’s move along in our discussion.
The seed of the chia plant is most commonly used for food but can be used medicinally for its nutrition, its mucilaginous properties, and its fiber content. Chia’s actions are anorectic, anti-cancer, anti-proliferative, antioxidant, and cardio-protective.
Chia is a good source of calcium, including minerals like magnesium, boron, strontium, iron, etc. that push calcium deeper into the bones.
- Iron is necessary for proper bone formation through the synthesis of collagen. A lack of iron is believed to cause bone resorption.
- Both Copper and Zinc are crucial to collagen formation and maturation which provide the structure that holds bone together.
- Boron is notable as it creates stronger bones by ionizing calcium which then allows it to penetrate deeper into the tissues.
- Magnesium and calcium are antagonists – they keep each other in balance. Two-thirds of the magnesium of the body is stored in the skeletal bones. Magnesium is necessary for proper bone growth and maintenance.
- Phosphorus, up to a whopping 85% of it, is stored in the bones as calcium phosphate. In conjunction with calcium, phosphorus is required to build new bone.
- Potassium is necessary to neutralize metabolic wastes because they are acidic. This way they cannot eat away at the bones and weaken them. Researchers have found that those who consume a potassium-rich diet also had more bone mass.
Chia offers antioxidants which are known to enhance the walls of blood vessels. This is thought to benefit such conditions as hypertension and varicose veins. When hydrated, the seeds provide fiber in the mucilage which hinders the absorption of dietary cholesterol thereby reducing serum cholesterol.
The fiber in chia is beneficial for gut microbes as it feeds the friendly microbes. The fibrous gel hydrates the GI tract and facilitates the movement of chyme through the digestive tract.
Chia seeds lower calcium in the bloodstream which has a beneficial effect in reducing build up of the calcium-oxalate type of kidney stones.
Liver & Gallbladder
Chia seeds are notably liver protective and reducers of fat (lipid) concentrations in the blood. One study of dyslipidemia and steatohepatitis in Rats concluded that “The pharmacological effects of dietary chia are correlated to its high content of omega-3 and omega-6 (1:1), protein, dietary fiber, and phenolics. The results suggest that inclusion of chia in diets of non-obese patients with dyslipidemia and/or NAFLD/NASH may improve their health state preventing cirrhosis or HCC [hepatocellular carcinoma]. [my clarification]
“Supplementation with chia prevents the “reabsorption of some of the digestive juices that come from the gallbladder and are rich in cholesterol. These qualities have already been reported in the twentieth century by Maximino Martinez in the uses of chia against gallbladder stones.”
Chia leaves heated and applied in a poultice have been found helpful for sore muscles.
Chia is a food source of tryptophan, a naturally-occurring amino acid that helps the body to relax for a good night’s sleep.
Weight Loss & Diabetes
One 12-week study of 90 overweight or obese men and women aged 20 to 70 years with no other apparent health problems found that body composition, inflammation, blood pressure, and lipoproteins were no different between the chia seed group and the placebo group.
The participants were given 25 grams of chia seed or a placebo before the first and last meal of the day for 12 weeks for a total of 50 grams per day. At the conclusion of this study chia seed appeared to have no influence on body mass composition or the measurements of various disease risk factors.
However in a different, double-blind study lasting six-months and consisting of 77 overweight or obese patients with type-2 diabetes who were placed on a calorie-restricted diet which included 30 grams of chia seed (or a placebo, respectively) each day, the results were much more encouraging. The study found that chia seeds were beneficial in promoting weight loss in the test group through appetite suppression and maintaining good glycemic control.
This parallels the findings of other studies which have found that weight loss accompanies increased fiber consumption. Additionally, beneficial changes were noted in satiety hormones which serve to increase the feeling of fullness. Chia’s protein content also may assist in the lessening of the desire for food.
Ingest one teaspoon of chia in a glass of water 30 minutes before every meal. This causes the fiber to hydrate and increase its volume in the stomach thereby creating a feeling of fullness and satiety.
So which study is right?
Although these studies appear to come to opposing conclusions, consideration should be given to the differences in the above studies when making personal application.
First, the length of time for identifying a beneficial result was twice as long in the second study than in the first.
Secondly, and perhaps even more important are the differences in dietary considerations between the two. In the first study, no dietary modifications were mentioned, while in the second study, calorie restriction was used. While both groups lost weight in the second study, the Chia Seed group displayed greater weight loss than the control group.
In light of this, it would be beneficial to consider dietary modification when supplementing Chia Seeds for desired of weight loss.
The taste of chia seeds is a bit on the bland side with a hint of a nut. Not unpleasant in the least and because they are mild-tasting, chia seeds adapt well to any flavor they are paired with.
It is possible, but not recommended, to eat chia seed dry, (and a decorative sprinkle on food should not pose a problem) however, one should note that the seeds can absorb moisture from the gastrointestinal tract. This can cause or exacerbate dehydration as chia can absorb multiple times its weight in liquid. Imagine how dehydrating they could be for the person that eats them dry.
One study asserts that there is a risk of choking as the dry seeds can get stuck in the esophagus and then swell. “This is particularly true for people with a history of swallowing problems or a constricted esophagus” as “chia seeds have the ability to absorb up to 27 times their weight in water,” said the author of the study Dr. Rebecca Rawl, from Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, N.C.
Yet when chia is hydrated, it also serves to hydrate to the body. Every ounce of soaked chia seed has the potential to carry along with it 27 ounces of liquid. How cool is that? This is one reason why Athlete’s pre-hydrate with chia before prolonged strenuous activity.
The digestive process can take a long time, anywhere from “33 to 53 hours – from the time food goes in one end and out the other. Most water re-absorption is in the small intestine, but the large intestine (colon) which is the last stretch of the journey, continues to absorb quite a bit, too.
Unlike say, a simple glass of water or juice which is processed by your body relatively quickly, the water absorbed in chia seeds will take much longer to process, since your body has to fully break down the fibers before it can remove the water (and that doesn’t happen right away).”
In just a bit, we will share some delicious recipes, but first, here are some ideas for incorporating chia seed into your diet.
How to eat chia?
- Make a pudding
- Consume as a beverage in water, juice, bone broth, a smoothie, etc.
- Add to dressings and sauces
- Mix with oatmeal or yogurt
- Sprinkle on salads (or add as sprouts)
- Add to soups, homemade breads, muffins, cakes, & cookies
- Sprout and eat them as micro-greens
Absolutely! Does the the advertising jingle of days-gone-by ring a bell? “Ch-ch-ch-chia!” Some may remember slathering gelatinous chia all over a terra cotta animal and waiting for the chia “hair” to sprout.
Chia seeds are an especially nutritious food when sprouted. They take anywhere from three to seven days to sprout depending on the temperature and humidity. Soaking them in water, even overnight begins the process increasing chia’s nutritive benefits and makes them even easier to digest.
Adding the microgreens to cooked dishes once they have cooled slightly will help to preserve the essential fatty acids that break down due to heat. They are also delicious on sandwiches and in salads.
So enjoy chia, but take care to eat it in moderation.
Not for Everyone
Chia seeds have been found to contain moderate amounts of lectins. Lectins are anti-nutrients that can cause inflammation, IBS, decrease the immune system, and exacerbate autoimmune conditions in certain individuals. Chia seeds are not a no or low lectin food source, therefore, lectin-sensitive people may wish to avoid them completely or limit their use.
While there are minimal side-effect from chia, digestion of the soluble fiber may cause some bloating and gas. Rarely, some may experience cramping, constipation, or even diarrhea. Occurrence of chia allergy is extremely rare and has resulted in dermatitis.
Those who are sensitive to sesame seeds or mustard, or the herbs oregano or thyme may not be able to tolerate chia. Also, people with GI issues should avoid chia seed. As chia is a natural blood thinner, those on blood thinning or hypertensive medications who desire to consume chia seeds should consult with their doctor to avoid potential complications.
1 Egg = 1 TBSP Chia Seed + 3 TBSPS Water
Grind the Chia seeds into a powder (a blender works fine) and mix with water. Allow to sit for 5 minutes or so, until The mixture thickens. Then use as a replacement for one egg in baked goods or smoothies.
Basic Chia Pudding
Into a wide-mouth pint canning jar, place:
¼ C (4 TBSPS) Whole Chia Seeds
1 C Nut or Grain Milk
1 TSP – 1 TBSP Natural Sweetener: Maple Syrup, Honey, etc. (optional)
1 TSP Vanilla (optional)
Fresh or frozen fruit (optional)
Add the milk to the chia seeds then stir. Stir again after adding the additional ingredients you choose. Let set for five minutes and stir again before placing in the refrigerator for a couple of hours or overnight.
Here’s another recipe to try. We love to offer delicious ideas on different ways to play with your food!
Darlene’s O-So Delicious
Into a pint jar mix:
1 TSP ground Cinnamon
3 TBSPS whole Chia Seeds
1½ TBSP unflavored Gelatin (optional)
1-2 TBPS chopped Nuts (optional)
½-1 TSP Vanilla Extract (optional)
Stir dry ingredients, then add:
½ C unsweetened juice
Stir again – until all ingredients are blended well. Then add:
1 C Almond Milk, coconut Milk, Oat Milk, Rice Milk
Stir again and let sit a minimum of 20 minutes (or refrigerate overnight) before eating.
Cinnamon is a sweet herb that helps stabilize blood sugar and reduces the need for sweeteners in this recipe Mixed with the unsweetened juice, this makes a nice nutritious treat for those avoiding added sugars/sweeteners. If it’s not sweet enough, add 2-3 drops of liquid Stevia,r honey, or maple syrup.
If you don’t want to add gelatin, then compensate by adding more Chia Seeds. Play with the recipe to get the flavors you love and post all the ways you made it better in the comment section below. We would love to try out your ideas too!
A refreshing lemon, lime, or lemon/lime (be creative!) beverage. You can be creative and use other fruit juices or blends if you like!
2 C Water
½-1 Lime or Lemon (approx. 1-2 TBSP of concentrate)
½ TSP Honey or approx. 3 drops liquid Stevia (optional)
1 TBSP of Chia seed
Pinch – Sea Salt
Put the lime or lemon juice into a 16 ounce glass. Add sweetener, if desired, then fill with water. Lastly, stir in the chia seed.
Allow the beverage to sit for 15-20 minutes while the chia seed hydrates. Stir again, and as needed while sipping to keep the chia from settling out. Enjoy!
1 Chia Seeds and Dysphagia: A Cautionary Case Study
2 Marcinek K, Krejpcio Z. Chia seeds (Salvia hispanica): health promoting properties and therapeutic applications – a review. Rocz Panstw Zakl Hig. 2017;68(2):123–129.
3 Fernández-Martínez E, Lira-Islas IG, Cariño-Cortés R, Soria-Jasso LE, Pérez-Hernández E, Pérez-Hernández N. Dietary chia seeds (Salvia hispanica) improve acute dyslipidemia and steatohepatitis in rats. J Food Biochem. 2019;43(9):e12986. doi:10.1111/jfbc.129863
4 Properties of Chia
5 Chia Seed does not promote weight loss or alter disease risk factors in overweight adults by Nieman DC, Cayea EJ, Austin MD, Henson DA, McAnultyo SR, Jin F. Department of Health, Leisure, and Exercise Science Appalachian State University, Boone, NC 28608, USA, email@example.com
6 Salba-chia (Salvia hispanica L.) in the Treatment of Overweight and Obese Patients with Type 2 Diabetes: A double Blind Randomized Controlled Trial by V. Vuksan, A.L. Jenkins, C, Brissettem, L. Choleva, E, Jovanovski, A.L. Gibbs, R.P Bazinet, F. Au-Yeung, A/ Zurbau, H.V.T. Ho, L. Duvnjak, J.L. Sievenpiper, R. G, Josse, A. Hanna (et al.)
7 Use Chia Seeds with Caution,k Researcher Warn
8 12 Chia Seed Health Benefits and 1 Nasty Side Effect