The Health Benefits and Side Effects of Adding Chia Seeds to Your Diet
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably seen at least a few super-hip chia seed recipes pop up on your social media feeds. Chia pudding looks pretty darn strange, and I can’t imagine going out of my way to give it a shot without a good reason.
This leads me to believe that the chia seed benefits for health must be pretty incredible.
I decided to do some research to check out what adding chia seeds to your diet can do for you, and if there are any potential negative side effects. I’m sharing what I found (and my own personal chia experience) with all of you today.
What are Chia Seeds?
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of chia seeds? For me, it’s those little animal-shaped clay pots that you plant a little pack of seeds in. A remarkably short time later, you had a terra cotta pet covered in fine, green grass (I think the point was that it looked like hair!).
The chia health food you hear about today is in fact the same thing that was part of those novelty planters.
Chia seeds are part of the plant Salvia hispanica. The cultivation of this plant dates back to Aztec and Mayan times. The name ‘chia’ is thought to mean ‘strength’.
Salvia hispanica is an annual, meaning it must be replanted each year. It is considered an herb, though it also produces purple and white blooms. The mottled black, brown, gray, and/or white seeds themselves are very small - only about one millimeter around.
The Nutritional Value of Chia Seeds
When you take a look at the nutritional stats of chia seeds, it’s really no wonder they’ve become such a health food staple.
These seeds are a whole grain food containing four grams of protein, nine grams of healthy fats, and eleven grams of fiber per one ounce serving.
At just 139 calories per serving, that’s a lot of nutritional punch for such a tiny seed. They also contain vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. We know the critical role that these substances play in our bodies. So far, chia seeds seem a likely candidate for a super healthy food we should definitely add to our diets.
It’s no surprise that you hear the buzz word “superfood” associated with chia seeds. Chia seed benefits are pretty far reaching, even when you take into account only their basic nutrition facts.
How are Chia Seeds Prepared?
Chia seeds are often added to ‘healthy’ foods. You can add these little seeds to smoothies, yogurt, granola, cereal, tortillas, or bread for an extra boost of nutrition. They can safely be consumed raw and whole, and are equally effective when prepared or even simply ground.
Chia puddings are one of the trendiest recipes out there right now. These gelatinous desserts are made by mixing one quarter cup of chia seeds with one cup of liquid, plus any other ingredients one might desire. I think they’ve become so popular because they’re a rare, healthy dessert option.
Purported Chia Seed Benefits for Health
As is the case with most superfoods, there are a ton of so-called experts out there spouting the incredible benefits of chia seeds, often times to sell them. The main health claims surrounding chia seeds are that they contribute to heart health and aid weight loss.
While there’s no denying that chia seeds can be exceptionally good for you, there is also little scientific evidence to back up these claims. They certainly aren’t going to hurt you, but neither are they a miracle cure for heart disease or obesity. They are a healthy part of a balanced diet, not a miracle worker.
In my mind, that’s really one of the biggest problems with this whole superfood craze. It tends to confuse people. It also allows ‘gurus’ looking to make a buck an in with potential customers, frequently based on scare tactics and false (or grossly overstated, at least) claims.
You should always do your best to check out these sorts of claims for yourself before taking them as absolutes. Do your research, find information from impartial and credible sources, and consider talking to a doctor or nutritionist if you have further questions.
The Real Skinny on Chia
Even taking the above into account, these tiny seeds really are good for you. They contain significant amounts of important vitamins and minerals like B vitamins, manganese, calcium, iron, zinc, and magnesium, plus tons of omega-3 fatty acids like a-linolenic acid and dietary fiber.
These components are what make chia a superfood, not claims of miracle cures. We’ll discuss some of the potential health impacts of these components to determine whether chia seeds are right for you.
B vitamins are a group of eight water soluble vitamins that help our bodies perform many important functions. All of them are involved in the process that turns food into fuel. Chia seeds contain the B vitamins thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, and folate (vitamins B1, B2, B3, and B9, respectively).
Thiamine is a necessary compound for the functioning of the nervous system. Since the nervous system impacts literally every bodily function, this B vitamin is pretty darn important for keeping your body running right. It also plays into healthy muscle function and digestion.
Riboflavin is another important B vitamin. It’s involved in metabolism, helping turn food into usable energy. Vitamin B2 is crucial in metabolizing many medications as well, so an adequate intake of this compound is particularly important if you take medication. Riboflavin is also a known antioxidant.
Niacin plays a role in cardiovascular health, with studies showing adequate niacin intake may help improve cholesterol levels and heart health. Preliminary results indicate that niacin could help prevent several diseases. This is one vitamin you do not want to skimp on.
Folate, also known as folic acid in its man-made form, aids in the development of new cells and tissues and helps them to function properly. It does this through its role in the formation of DNA. The cells in our body are constantly dying and being replaced, meaning steady folate intake is very important.
Manganese is an important component of the free-radical fighting antioxidant, ‘SOD’. Free radicals, though naturally occurring in the body, can potentially cause disease and may be part of the reason we age. Antioxidants help eliminate these free-radicals from the body.
This compound is also crucial in the formation of connective tissues like tendons and ligaments, sex hormones, and the blood clotting factors that allow our bodies to begin to heal themselves by stopping injuries from bleeding.
Calcium is likely one of the most versatile compounds used by the human body. Dairy ads have likely already taught you that calcium plays a huge role in keeping bones and teeth healthy. You may not realize how crucial it is in some many other body functions, though.
Calcium is vital for the health and function of your muscles. Don’t forget, your heart is a muscle too! Calcium is also necessary for the transmission of nerve signals to and from the brain.
Iron is literally found in every cell of your body. An adequate dietary intake of iron is important. Iron helps get oxygen to your cells. It does this by allowing the body to make hemoglobin and myoglobin, both of which are compounds necessary to carrying oxygen in the blood through the body.
All cells need oxygen to survive, and blood needs hemoglobin and myoglobin to help carry that oxygen to the cells. This means that the life and death of every single cell in your body depends on your iron intake.
Zinc plays a role in the function of the immune system, helping to create cells that are crucial to your body’s immune response. It is also important to your body’s ability to metabolize food.
One thing that should be noted about this particular mineral compound is its potential toxicity. Taking in zinc in supplement form rather than in the form of food is oftentimes not recommended because zinc can be toxic at fairly low levels.
Magnesium, like calcium, plays a role in many bodily functions. It is used by almost every system to maintain healthy function. The heart, muscles, skeleton, brain, and immune system all rely on magnesium to do their jobs.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Outdated dietary guidelines made fat seem like the enemy, but we now know that that’s not the case. Current medical science has determined that there are some types of fats that are not only not unhealthy, but are in fact great for the body.
Omega-3 fatty acids are one of those ‘good’ fats. Research now shows that they can help lower triglyceride levels (blood fat). They may also help reduce joint pain, prevent and improve brain diseases like Alzheimer’s and ADHD, and even play a role in reducing mental illness.
These fatty acids are often found in fish, but the high levels of ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) found in chia seeds make them a good alternative.
Dietary fiber, like the fiber found in chia seeds, is an essential part of a healthy diet. While the most purpose of dietary fiber is to prevent constipation, there’s a lot more to it than that. The health benefits of plenty of dietary fiber are innumerable.
A sufficient intake of dietary fiber may also help to maintain healthy cholesterol and blood sugar levels. It also helps with weight loss by making you feel full. Fiber-rich foods tend to have less calories than is average for their bulk, as well.
Potential Side Effects
There’s almost always some potential for negative side effects when consuming any food, particularly when eating a lot of it. Most of the time, these side effects are minimal. Moderation is almost always the key when it comes to nutrition.
Chia seeds are no exception. It has been found that too much of the types of fats found in chia seeds can raise triglyceride levels. Studies also show that large amounts of alpha-linolenic acid may contribute to the development of prostate cancer.
Dry chia seeds have the potential to take in a lot of water. There is some concern that, in eating large amounts of dry chia, the seeds may absorb moisture your body needs for its healthy function, causing dehydration. Drink plenty of liquids or soak chia seeds before consumption to avoid this.
The Final Word on Chia Seeds
While the potential chia seed benefits are real, they are no miracle cure. They aren’t likely to solve all of your health problems. You won’t automatically get skinny due to chia seeds, nor will heart health issues resolve themselves.
They do, however, offer some very powerful nutritional benefits. The vitamins and minerals chia seeds contain can help maintain your overall health when consumed in moderation. They have a lot to offer as a part of a balanced diet with plenty of fruits, veggies, and other healthy foods.
Use chia seeds to create healthier homemade granola, as a tasty, textured topping on hand crafted bread, or in a unique chia pudding to add this beneficial whole grain seed to your diet.