Chia Seeds – Worth The Hype?
It is Wednesday morning and I don’t feel like making eggs for breakfast today. I realized I still have two portions of homemade chia pudding in the fridge, so I am going to grab one now and tell you how I made it. But before that, let me tell you why I made it and why I think you should try it too. You probably have heard the word superfood a lot around certain foods, plants, herbs, or seeds, and we already have a post about what we can call the Original Superfoods, those that have been around for hundreds of years, used for their health benefits in ancient traditional cultures. For marketers it is a great way to sell more of their miracle products if they use some kind of magical wording to describe them, and the word superfood does sound very appealing. I am going to stay away from that term for now, because whether you think of chia seeds as one or not, their nutritional value is much more important than the superfood label they may or may not come with.
Chia seeds come from a plant called Salvia Hispanica, a member of the mint family, that mostly grows in Central America. The plant itself requires a constant temperature and light, so it is not very easy to grow it in more variable climates. Chia seeds are naturally gluten free and they have a lot of health benefits, but also some negatives that we should take into consideration. Ancient Aztecs, Mayans, and Incans probably had no idea about the micronutrient profile of these seeds, but they used them for the undeniable benefits they experienced during long distance runs and battles. Today, we are able to understand the nutritional breakdown of these seeds to figure out why ancient civilizations valued these tiny seeds so highly that they even used them as a tribute to their rulers.
Benefits and Uses of Chia Seeds
They look like nothing at first glance, but they are powerful little things! First, lets examine the macronutrients they bring to the table (literally). One ounce of chia seeds contains 5 grams of protein, 9 grams of fat, and 12 grams of carbohydrates. They contain all of the essential amino acids, which is rare in the plant world, making them a great protein source for Vegans and Vegetarians. Most of the chia seeds fat comes as polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA), most of which are Omega-3s, again making chia seeds stand out in the plant world. Even though most of these Omega-3s are ALA and not DHA (our bodies can turn ALA and EPA into DHA, but the ratio is very low; getting our dose of essential DHA from sources like fatty fish is so much easier and more convenient), the fat profile of chia seeds is still very good, also because of the good Omega-3 to Omega-6 ratio. (Why is this a good thing? Learn more here.) Eleven grams of the 12 mentioned above come from fiber and only 1 gram of sugar. The majority of the fiber is insoluble. This fiber is indigestible, doesn’t raise blood sugar, and helps to improve digestive function (making chia seeds you new best friend if you’re trying to stop using coffee for your morning constitutional). The soluble fiber in chia seeds helps to feed gut flora, promoting gut health by nourishing your microbiome.
As for micronutrients, chia seeds are very rich in calcium (18% of the recommended daily intake, which is more than a glass of milk!), phosphorus (27%), and manganese (30%) in one ounce. They have plenty of antioxidants, other trace minerals like iron (more than spinach), copper, zinc, and vitamins A, B, E and D. The soluble fiber in chia seeds is called mucilage (you can find the same compound in flax seeds or agar agar) and this fiber is able to absorb up to 10 times more liquid than it weights, creating a gel-like consistency (and here comes the chia pudding). Don’t confuse this with gelatin or collagen which form protein and animal based gels; this gel is carbohydrate based (fiber), doesn’t require cooking (simply soak whole or ground seeds in water or coconut milk and wait 10-15 minutes for the mixture to thicken), making it perfect substitute for commercially sold (and chemically laden) energy gels runners and other endurance athletes like to use. Mix a few tablespoons with coconut water to make your own, super healthy energy gel without chemical additives and colorings. Its a perfect option for runners, hikers, or active kids! You can also purchase reusable food pouches like these or these to pour your gel into for easy grab-and-go snack. They are freezer safe, BPA, and phthalate free and the second option is guaranteed to last for a whole year!
And here comes my favorite part The Pudding! I don’t like mine too sweet, so I only mix coconut milk with a few tablespoons of chia seeds (adding some cinnamon, cardamom, cacao powder, or vanilla extract is optional, but highly recommended; of course feel free to add a bit of honey or maple syrup if you like your dessert/breakfast pudding a little sweeter), blend for a few seconds (you can use a blender, but just shaking the jar does the trick), pour into small mason jars and let set overnight (it will thicken in less than 30 minutes, you don’t need to wait until the next day) in the fridge, so then I have a tasty and healthy, sugar and dairy free breakfast (or snack) option ready every time I don’t feel like making scrambled eggs (like this morning). You can of course add some fresh berries or banana slices at the bottom of the jar for more flavor, but just this plain recipe makes an excellent low-carb option that is packed with nutrients, and without the insulin spike you would get from breakfast cereals. The texture is interesting and fun, a little bit like more crunchy oatmeal, and kids usually love it too!
Chia seeds are very versatile in cooking, especially because they are neutral in flavor so they will not affect the taste at all. You can either use them whole, or grind them up to make a flour. Chia flour mixed with water (1tbsp of chia flour + 3tbsp of water) makes a great egg substitute for baking (particularly for Vegan recipes). Just mix the two together, allow it to sit for a little while to let the substance gel, and use instead of an egg in pancakes, baking, or even meatloaf. Ground chia seeds are also a good soup or sauce thickener. Experiment with them in your kitchen, try using them as a breading for fish or chicken to get a crunchy crust without gluten (like from regular bread crumbs) or too much Omega-6 (as you might get from nut flours).
The Dark Side of Chia Seeds
We all know by now that nothing is just rainbows and unicorns, right? When a little bit of something is good, it doesn’t necessarily mean that more is better. Too much of basically anything can have a negative impact on your body, and chia seeds are no exception. They are not magical, they need to be consumed with adequate knowledge, care, and personal experience. Knowing your own fiber tolerance is key, especially if you consume chia seeds on a daily basis. Eleven grams of fiber is a lot, so if you already experience some digestive issues or constipation, be careful that you don’t over-do it with too many chia crackers or too much chia pudding for breakfast. If you are actually trying to increase your fiber intake, consider getting it from vegetables first, don’t make chia your primary fiber source (or your main protein source either). To get the ideal amount of protein from chia seeds, you would have to consume somewhere between five to six ounces, that is a huge amount, most people would probably never eat that much in one sitting. Considering how too much fiber can affect digestion, with six ounces of chia seeds, the amount of insoluble fiber would be too much to handle. Use chia seeds in moderation as part of a well balanced diet. They’re great, just not wise to binge on.
Another potential downside of chia seeds is phytic acid, present in most seeds and grains. Soaking usually helps to reduce the amount of this antinutrient, we soak nuts for the same reason. The amount of chia seeds one usually consumes is pretty low, so we generally don’t have to worry too much about this compound. It is relatively easy to overeat nuts, but chia seeds are so dense and filling (thanks to mucilage and its ability to absorb so much liquid and expand in volume) it probably doesn’t need to be a concern. If you experience some kind of digestive distress though and you realize chia seeds are to blame, I would recommend staying away from them and focusing on your gut health first. They can be too much to handle for someone who is still healing leaky gut, or dealing with conditions like Crohn’s or Ulcerative Colitis, or any condition where there are nooks and crannies in the gut for them to get caught up and cause irritation as in the case of Diverticulitis. Even though they are a good source of many important nutrients, they do not have anything special in them you wouldn’t be able to find somewhere else, so mix up your sources.
Chia Seeds – Yay or NayY?
Like I just said chia seeds are great and a fun option, but there is no particular magic to them. They have a number of benefits and are very convenient, affordable, and easy to use. They make perfect egg substitute for those who are sensitive to eggs but still want to bake a banana bread from time to time, they make a fun energy gel option, and an easy fake oatmeal for breakfast. There is nothing super unique about them and you do have to be careful to not eat too many chia seeds, mostly because its just too much for most digestive systems to handle. I don’t use them regularly and I don’t always have a pack in my pantry, but from time to time I like to switch it up a bit and have fun with my breakfast. It is nice to have options, especially when you know you are not sacrificing your health. Overall you don’t need to fall for chia seeds. Use them if you like the texture and taste, but don’t think you are missing out on something magical if you don’t add chia seeds to your diet. They’re marvelous, nutrient dense little seeds, but that doesn’t mean they’re the best choice for every person. Listen to your body and eat accordingly.