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Nowadays, with the ever-growing variety of health foods, superfoods, and supplements available, it can be hard to know what healthy ingredients are really worth incorporating into your diet. Some are just too expensive while others sound way too good to be true. Well, in the case of the chia seed, its proven abundance in beneficial qualities has very much earned it the "superfood" label. After being discovered as a nutrient-dense protein source in ancient cultures, the chia seed has risen to become one of the most popular health foods in the US.
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WHAT ARE CHIA SEEDS?
Chia seeds are tiny flat oval-shaped seeds that are blackish/gray or white in color with irregular lines and markings, often compared to or described as mini dinosaur eggs. These distinctive-looking seeds come from the saliva hispanica plant: a flowering variety of mint native to Mexico and Guatemala. Though only becoming a popular health food in Western culture in the last few decades, chia seeds have been around for hundreds of years. Chia seeds were harvested and eaten as part of a staple diet in Aztec and Mayan cultures as it was believed to provide energy and strength for their hunters and warriors. These seemingly magical seeds are still a staple crop and nutrient source in many Native American communities today.
So what makes chia seeds so unique and special compared to other edible seeds? Well, they are a hydrophilic seed which means they can absorb 12 times their weight in water and soften to a gel-like consistency. For the Aztecs, chia seeds provided effective sustenance and hydration when other food sources were scarce or as a fuel for long hunts. In today's "clean-eating" culture, chia seeds offer an easily digestible source of protein and fiber making them a suitable aid for weight loss as well as a great addition to a healthy wholefood diet.
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HOW TO USE CHIA SEEDS
With the popularity of chia seeds increasing over the last few decades, we have come up with lots of different recipes and uses for these magical seeds. The most popular way is to soak them to create a gel-like mixture perfect for breakfast pots, jams, and puddings. Soaking the seeds, ideally in water, plant-based milk, or fruit juice, makes them a lot easier to digest as well as providing a low-calorie water-dense snack or meal. However, you can also eat them dry: they are a great topping for smoothie bowls or soups and even bake well into crackers or granola.
Because of the health properties and versatility of chia seeds, they have now become a staple ingredient in many modern-day diets. For example, they are a great protein option or a suitable egg replacement in a vegan, plant-based diet. And, because they are low-carb and gluten-free, a chia pudding can also be an ideal breakfast dish or snack for anyone following a Paleo Diet or Keto Diet
For more information on Paleo, check out our detailed article "The Paleo Diet - A Complete Guide For Beginners".
THE NUTRITIONAL FACTS OF CHIA SEEDS
Discovering the unique macronutrient profile of chia seeds is what has made them such a health food trend. One tablespoon (12 grams) of chia seeds contains roughly:
- 58 calories
- 5 grams of carbohydrates (of which 4 grams is fiber)
- 2 grams of protein
4 grams of fat
These numbers translate into chia seeds being comparably low in calories as the majority of the carbohydrates are actually fiber. They also contain many essential proteins and amino acids as well as omega-3 fatty acids: all of which are necessary for optimal health. When looking at the micronutrients, chia seeds contain high levels of minerals such as calcium, potassium, iron, magnesium, and selenium as well as antioxidants and vitamins A, C, and E. With so much nutrition crammed into such a tiny seed, it is understandable that it receives such high praise from health and wellness experts.
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HEALTH BENEFITS OF CHIA SEEDS
Aids Weight Loss
With the chia seed's impressive spectrum of nutrients, they, of course, will add additional benefits to any healthy balanced diet. However, they have also been shown to help with weight loss. Because of the high fiber and protein content, soaked chia seeds can be very filling, keeping you fuller for longer as well as keeping you hydrated. This makes them an ideal low-calorie, low-fat option for breakfast or as a snack.
Being packed with many essential amino acids make chia seeds an excellent protein source to include in a vegan plant-based diet. It is important for us to consume a wide range of essential amino acids through our diet to support overall health and so, if you choose not to consume meat, eating a diverse range of high protein plant sources such as quinoa and chia seeds is very beneficial. Chia seeds also contain an amino acid tryptophan which has been proven to help you sleep better, just another reason why these seeds are so amazing!
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Though the most common source of omega-3 fatty acids is in oily fish and algae, there is a significant amount in chia seeds: the highest in all known plant foods. Having a good source of omega-3 fatty acids in your diet has been shown to lower the risk of heart disease, type-2 diabetes and reduce inflammation in the body. Again, if you are choosing to have a plant-based vegan diet, chia seeds are a perfect natural source of fatty acids to consider rather than taking an Omega-3 supplement.
High in Fiber
Most of the carbohydrates in chia seeds are fiber which is sugar-free and not actually digested by the body. However, fiber is very important for the body as it aids digestion, keeps the lining of the gut healthy, and helps to remove any unwanted material from the gut. If you struggle with digestion issues, you may want to look into increasing your uptake of fiber. Incorporating chia seeds into your smoothies or breakfast bowls could be the ideal solution.
RISKS & CONS OF CHIA SEEDS
Eating Too Many
Because chia seeds are so tiny, it can be easy to overindulge and eat too many which may reduce the positive nutrition these seeds can offer. If your body isn't used to large intakes of fiber you could overwhelm your digestive system which may cause bloating, constipation, and discomfort. It's recommended to introduce high-fiber foods gradually into your diet. Start with just a teaspoon of chia seeds a day and see how that affects you before adding more.
Risk of Choking
It is important to make sure you eat chia seeds either immersed in a liquid or eaten with other foodstuffs. Eating a handful of dry chia seeds may increase the risk of choking as the seeds may get stuck in your mouth or throat and start to swell. This is a very minimal risk but it is always best not to eat chia seeds just by themselves.
With the growing popularity of chia seeds, be mindful of the quality of seeds you are buying. In order to make more profit, some producers will produce low-quality seeds that have a more brownish color to them. Also, they are GMO varieties cropping up as producers are looking to farm chia seeds all year round to keep up with demand. Ideally, look for organic, non-GMO chia seeds to ensure the highest content of nutrients.
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HOW TO EAT & COOK WITH CHIA SEEDS
The most popular way to consume chia seeds is in the form of a "chia pudding". Simply whisk 1 part chia seed to 4 part liquid ie: ¼ cup chia to 1 cup milk or water. Let the mixture sit for 10 minutes or even in the fridge overnight and the seeds will swell and absorb the liquid to create a pudding-like consistency. These puddings are very easy to flavor and you can find lots of different recipe ideas online. The Choosing Chia blog has a delicious Golden Milk Latte Chia Pudding that makes a great healthy immune-boosting breakfast.
Chia Seed Jam
Despite fruit jams being utterly delicious, they are not exactly healthy as traditional jam recipes have a 1:1 ratio of fruit to sugar. By thickening unsweetened fruit compote with chia seeds, you can create healthy jams and jellies that are perfect to have with yogurt, on toast, or as part of a dessert. Check out this 10-minute Chia Jam recipe to learn more.
Juices & Smoothies
Adding a teaspoon of chia seeds to smoothies or juices can be an easy way to incorporate more protein and micronutrients into your diet. Simply blend the chia seeds into the smoothie or juice and enjoy. The chia seeds will thicken the drink slightly so you may need to add more water, but that is never a bad thing. If you want a smoother texture to your blended drinks you can use ground or powdered chia seeds instead.
Because chia seeds swell and coagulate, they can be used as a binding agent in baking. The traditional binding agent in cakes and cookies is usually eggs and so chia seeds offer a great solution for vegan-friendly baking. To make a "chia egg", mix together 1 tablespoon of chia seeds with 2½ tablespoons of water and let it sit for 5 minutes to thicken. This quantity is a direct substitute for one egg and can be used as a replacement in most cake, cookie, or pancake recipes. The only main noticeable difference is that your baked goods will have speckles of chia seeds throughout. If you want, you can blend your chia egg to break up the seeds before adding it to your batter.
Garnish or Topping
Similar to other seeds such as sunflower, pumpkin, or sesame, chia seeds can be sprinkled over pretty much anything you like. You can sprinkle them over yogurt, porridge, soups, desserts or bake them into crackers and breads. Once you start buying and keeping chia seeds handy in your kitchen cupboard, you may be surprised at how easy it is to add them to your daily diet in many different ways.
THE BEST CHIA SEEDS TO BUY
THE BEST CHIA SEED COOKBOOKS
THE BOTTOM LINE
At the moment, it seems that any health food with an impressive nutritional profile can be labeled as a superfood, making it hard to really know what is really going to benefit your overall health. Regardless of its current popularity, the chia seed has been proven to be nutritionally beneficial for cultures over hundreds of years and so should be considered adding to any healthy whole food diet.
The information provided in this article is not nutritional or medical advice. Please read our disclaimer.