Ch-ch-ch-chia! If you were around in the 80s, your first association with chia seeds was probably the same as mine: growing weird little grass pets. I have to admit that because of this association I was at first skeptical about eating them when they started to get popular. Nowadays chia seeds are toted as a nutrition superstar, capable of everything from controlling hunger to aiding in weight loss, hydrating you, fueling your workouts, and fighting cancer and heart disease.
But do they live up to the hype?
One tablespoon of chia seeds contains approximately 60 calories, 5 grams of carbohydrate, 5 grams of fiber, 5 grams of fat, and 2 grams of protein. Most of those 5 grams of fat are from polyunsaturated fats, specifically alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is an omega-3 fat. It’s probably not new news to anyone these days that omega-3 fats are full of health benefits, including promotion of heart and brain health. In those 2 grams of protein are all of the essential amino acids, making them a complete protein source and a good option for vegetarians in particular. In addition, chia seeds are a good source of calcium, phosphorus, manganese, magnesium, and zinc. That’s quite the nutritional punch!
So what about sports performance? The omega-3 fats in chia seeds are anti-inflammatory, meaning they could be helpful with recovery from strenuous exercise. Chia seeds were supposedly used for energy by the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico, who were said to be able to run hundreds of miles after drinking chia seeds soaked in water. Chia seeds can help with hydration, as they are highly absorbent. Soak chia seeds in a glass of water for ten minutes and you’ll see how much they soak up the water as they become thick gelatinous blobs. Gross? Kind of, but this is why they are able to help with hydration. Chia seeds also contain magnesium, which is thought to help with muscle cramping, another possible benefit for athletes who struggle with this issue. So chia seeds could be beneficial for athletes, although studies on sports performance and chia seeds are scarce.
And what about all the other hype? Chia sees are said to help with weight loss and feeling satiated. They are high in fiber, which can help aid weight loss by helping you feel fuller longer. It’s also believed that because chia seeds expand in water they can help create a feeling of fullness as they expand in your stomach. Chia seeds (and all seeds, really) are pretty calorie-dense however, so the calories can add up pretty quickly. If you’re watching your weight, stick with 1-2 tablespoons per day.
Chia seeds are a good source of antioxidants, which help eliminate free radicals in the body. Since free radicals may cause cellular changes that could lead to cancer, chia seeds could potentially be helpful with cancer prevention, but this by no means guarantees that eating chia seeds will prevent or cure cancer. They could, however, along with other antioxidant-packed fruits and vegetables, help form the base of a healthy diet that would provide potential cancer protection benefits.
As I mentioned above, chia seeds contain omega-3 fats, which is why they have been linked to a decreased risk of heart disease. Omega-3 fats help raise the HDL, or “good,” cholesterol, as well as lower trigylcerides. Because they are anti-inflammatory, they can help reduce inflammation in blood vessels, thus helping stave off heart disease. Unfortunately the only omega-3 that chia seeds contain is ALA, where the omega-3s DHA and EPA have been correlated with greater health benefits. Some ALA is converted in the body into DHA and EPA, but it may be best for heart health to eat foods that contain DHA and EPA, like fish.
Chia seeds are certainly packed with nutrition and may provide some benefit for weight loss and heart health; however, studies on this are limited. Chia seeds are not a superfood, though, because there are no superfoods. Sorry to burst your bubble, but there is no one magical cure-all food. It’s best to eat a wide variety of foods, since different foods contain different nutrients. That being said, because chia seeds are highly nutritious, they are worthy of incorporation into your diet.
Chia seeds are a bit pricey. I paid about $17 for a 15-ounce bag (35 tablespoons). Granted, they were organic and I bought them at Whole Foods, so I’m sure there are better deals to be found. A little bit goes a long way, though, as 1-2 tablespoons a day is sufficient.
If you want to try chia seeds for sports performance, consider soaking them in water and drinking them as part of your pre-workout fluids. Remember never to try anything new on race day! Make sure to experiment with this first on training runs or rides, as the fiber could cause GI distress for some people.
Chia seeds can be eaten raw or cooked, ground or whole. Unlike flaxseed, the human body is able to digest whole chia seeds. They can be sprinkled on top of oatmeal, yogurt, or salads, or even baked into breads and other baked goods. Beware that chia seeds have a tendency to stick to your teeth when eaten in oatmeal and yogurt!
Try this delicious dessert recipe that contains another of my “Should You Eat” blog topics, as well: chocolate!
Chia Seed Pudding
2 cups coconut milk
1/2 cup chia seeds
2-3 tablespoons cocoa powder (or to taste)
1 teaspoon vanilla (or to taste) or cinnamon
1 tablespoon or more sweetener of choice, optional (honey, agave, Stevia, pure maple syrup, etc.)
Place all ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth. Divide among four small bowls or cups and put in fridge for ten minutes to thicken.
Jen is a registered dietitian, a certified specialist in sports dietetics, a former NASM certified personal trainer, and a self-appointed mountain girl. As a cyclist, skier, hiker, and runner (among other things), she knows firsthand the importance of proper nutrition and training. She offers nutrition coaching and consulting through Peaks Coaching Group. Find more great tips, recipes, and articles at Jen's blog, Mountain Girl Nutrition and Fitness.