Over the last few years, the variety of our common, everyday foods has exploded. While growing up in the 90’s, dinner consisted of a piece of meat with a side of some sort of microwaved frozen vegetable and a starch. In the lunch room, the deep fried mystery meat was served with a slice of white bread slathered in butter as a side. Now, as I round off my 20’s, such meals are not only considered unhealthy, but almost barbaric. It seems that if every meal these days does not contain kale or chickpeas it is not complete. This may be a result of the health crazed millennials, or, perhaps, our advancements in food refrigeration and transport. Whichever way you look at it however, the hype of these superfoods is undeniable and they are showing up in everything we eat. While researching this topic, one superfood that caught my eye were chia seeds. As I began reading about them, I had to ask, do they actually have nutritional benefit beyond their amusing use as styled terracotta figurines*? While figuring chia seeds have to have some nutritional benefit (otherwise they would not have obtained the elite superfood status) what I discovered about the history and health benefits of these little seeds was astounding.
As it turns out, chia seeds are nothing new, in fact, they have been consumed as food since 3500 B.C. There is evidence of both the Aztecs and the Mayans utilizing chia seeds not only for food, but also for various medical uses and paintings. Chia seeds were the third most utilized crop in pre-Columbian societies (societies in existence prior to the voyages Christopher Columbus in 1492) existing primarily of corn, beans, and chia seeds. When the pre-Columbian cultures were conquered during the Spanish Conquest, their superior diet was replaced with one consisting of wheat, barely, and carrots, the preferred diet of the conquerors, which is very similar to the composition of our modern diets. In today’s society, chia seeds are classified as a non-conventional seed and not considered a typical part of a normal diet in many countries (1).
Scientists today have classified the diet of the pre-Columbian people as far superior to that of our modern day diet due to its nutrient and nutraceutical (food containing health-giving additives and having medical benefit) contents. Chia seeds alone are packed full of nutrition from high proportions of essential fatty acids, natural forms of antioxidants, to substantial levels of fiber, B-vitamins, essential proteins, and minerals (1). This is an impressive number of nutrients to be packed into a seed that is no thicker than a dime.
Each chia seed contains a significant amount of essential fatty acids or oil, in fact the word “chia” in the Aztec language translates to “oily”. Essential fatty acids are oily groups (i.e. will not dissolve in water) that are important for our everyday biochemistry within our cells (1). Our bodies are not capable of producing essential fatty acids, therefore, we must obtain them from our diet. The most abundant essential fatty acid found in chia seeds is omega-3 (1). Omega-3 is the same essential fatty acid commonly associated with the health benefits of eating salmon or taking fish oil supplements (2). The levels of omega-3 within chia seeds is the highest of any known plant source (1). Biochemically, omega-3 is very beneficial to every day health, as it has been shown to reduce cholesterol levels, control blood sugar, and increase immune system functioning. These effects decrease one’s risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, as well as neurological diseases such as depression and epilepsy (1, 2).
In addition to omega-3, chia seeds are largely abundant in dietary fiber (1). The benefits of daily fiber intake span well beyond solving inconsistency problems in the bathroom. Fiber has been shown to reduce the risk of stroke, diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular diseases in addition to keeping you in a state of feeling full longer (3). One serving of chia seeds contains the entire recommended amount of dietary fiber for an average person per day (1, 3). In fact, chia seeds contain higher levels of fiber than other common superfoods such as quinoa and flaxseed (1).
Finally, chia seeds are packed full of essential minerals, such as calcium, potassium, and iron among others. When compared to a 3.5 ounces of milk, chia seeds contain six times more calcium and four times more potassium. Furthermore, chia seeds contain six times more iron than spinach (1).
Beyond their abundance in health benefiting nutrients, chia seeds also have other intriguing characteristics. Due to their high oil content, chia seeds were originally used for paints by the Aztecs and Mayans. This same oily property makes them very beneficial as a natural substance for use in medication capsules. They are naturally gluten free and their leaves contain natural essential oils that act as insect repellents, and, therefore, the plants can be grown without pesticides or other chemical compounds (1).
For being so tiny, these seeds pack a serious health punch. There are many different ways to incorporate chia seeds into your diet. I personally like them in The Minimalist Baker’s recipe for Peanut Butter Overnight Oats. They are also great added to a smoothie. With all these health benefits, why not give them a try?
*Disclaimer: do not eat the seeds provided with the terracotta figurines, these are not meant for consumption. Instead, chia seeds are available at your everyday grocery store.
Is there something else about chia seeds that you want to know? Leave a comment or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org! I’d love your feedback!
Want to learn more? References below:
- Muñoz, L. A., Cobos, A., Diaz, O., and Aguilera, J. M. (2013) Chia Seed ( Salvia hispanica ): An Ancient Grain and a New Functional Food. Food Rev. Int. 29, 394–408
- Calder, P. C., and Yaqoob, P. (2009) Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and human health outcomes. BioFactors. 35, 266–272
- Anderson, J. W., Baird, P., Davis Jr, R. H., Ferreri, S., Knudtson, M., Koraym, A., Waters, V., and Williams, C. L. (2009) Health benefits of dietary fiber. Nutr. Rev. 67, 188–205