top 7 health benefits of chia seeds

Chia seeds – what are they? You’re probably familiar with the craze around these power-filled seeds; chia pudding, chia eggs, chia smoothies. You may have even heard of chia pets, those popular toys from the 1980’s and 90’s. Mintel, a global marketing research company, measured this increasing popularity and actually found that there was a 10-fold increase in chia seed use worldwide between the years 2009 and 2014.1 So, what’s so special about chia seeds? Here, we have narrowed down what we consider the top 7 health benefits of chia seeds.

Chia seeds are a superfood – top 7 health benefits

Chia seeds have been cited in recipe books, articles, and scientific papers as “superfoods”. This label can be attributed to their high nutritional density; in one small seed, there is a lot going on! The average chia seed composition is approximately 15-25% protein, 30-33% fat, 26-41% carbohydrate, and 18-30% dietary fiber.

They are also a significant source of omega-3 fatty acids; chia seeds contain 63.79% omega-3 fatty acids compared to another omega-3 powerhouse, flax seeds, at 56.37%.2 Chia seeds also contain the minerals magnesium, calcium, and phosphorus. One ounce of chia seeds (2 tablespoons) is packed with 140 calories, 4 grams of protein, 11 grams of fiber, 7 grams of unsaturated fats, and 18% of the recommended daily amount (RDA) for calcium.3 They even contain all 9 essential amino acids 2 that our bodies cannot produce.

Understandably, there is a lot of good going on in those tiny seeds. But, are they worth the craze? How significant an impact would one or two tablespoons of chia seeds have on overall health? There has been extensive research completed in recent years, analyzing the potential of chia seed use.

#1: Chia seeds may improve heart health by lowering cholesterol

You’ve likely heard that too much cholesterol is bad for your health. Cholesterol is a sterol, or a type of lipid (fat) that contributes to bodily functions including maintaining cell membrane fluidity. But too much cholesterol does more damage than good. High cholesterol can increase arterial plaque build-up, making it more challenging for blood to pass through, consequently raising blood pressure. Elevated blood pressure poses a serious risk for stroke. 

How can chia seeds help?

A 2008 study looked at the impact of chia seeds on the lipid content of plasma in rats suffering from dyslipidaemia. Dyslipidaemia is characterized by elevated blood lipid levels or low levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL).

HDL can be thought of as the ‘good’ cholesterol, because it works to remove excess cholesterol from the blood. .

Two groups of rats with dyslipidaemia and insulin resistance were fed a high-sucrose diet for three months. Then, from months 3-5, one group was fed chia seeds as their fat source, while the other group was given starch instead. The rats given chia seeds had significantly improved blood lipid content and insulin resistance.4 

Another study looked at rabbits with high blood cholesterol and vascular dysfunction. There were four groups tested: regular diet, 10% chia oil, 1% cholesterol, and 1% cholesterol with 10% chia oil. The 1% cholesterol group demonstrated significantly increased triglycerides, LDL, and cholesterol. The cholesterol/chia seed group showed increased alpha linolenic acid (omega-3) levels and a reduced triglyceride level compared to the 1% cholesterol group.5

At the start of the experiment, the rabbits with high blood cholesterol also had reduced acetylcholine response in the aorta. Acetylcholine relaxes blood vessels by inducing nitric oxide release. This relaxation can help alleviate high blood pressure. The rabbits given chia seed oil showed an improved acetylcholine response, and nitric oxide release was completely restored. Chia seed oil also reduced the response to noradrenaline and angiotensin II, which both increase blood pressure. 

These studies suggest that eating chia seeds may be a ‘heart-healthy’ addition to those at risk for high blood pressure and cardiovascular dysfunction.

#2: Chia seeds may help strengthen bones

Weakening bone density is a concern as we age. It can be a risk factor for frailty and osteoporosis.

One study looked at the impact on bone mineral density when rats were fed chia seeds for a long period of time. After 13 months, the rats fed a diet with 10% chia seeds had significantly higher bone mineral content than those that were not fed chia seeds.

The researchers also noted positive effects on the minerals found in the bones as well as the weight of the overall musculoskeletal system.6

According to the researchers, these effects may be due to the high levels of calcium, magnesium, and potassium in chia seeds. Chia seeds contain six times more calcium, 11 times more phosphorus, and four times more potassium than milk 7 – these  all contribute to maintaining strong bones. Reduced risk for osteoporosis then, may be another one of the many benefits of chia seeds. 

#3: Chia seeds may help with weight management 

Chia seeds have a high protein content at 15-25%. Protein helps maintain a healthy body weight and can even help lose weight.

In one study, 113 overweight individuals lost an average of 7.5% body weight, and then they were asked to maintain their weight for six months. Participants that ate a high-protein diet containing 30 grams of protein per day showed a significantly lower weight gain and decreased waist circumference than participants on the regular diet.8 Although the increased protein consumption in this study was minimal (15% to 18%), the difference in weight maintenance was significant.

Another study took 65 people, and split them into three groups: high-carb (12% energy from protein), high-protein (25% energy from protein), and a control group. Over a six-month period, weight loss in the high-protein group reached an average of 8.9kg, with an average fat loss of 7.6kg.9 The high-carb group had an average of 5.1kg weight loss and 4.3kg fat loss.

Protein assists with weight management, likely due to the enhanced feeling offullness it provides. Incorporating chia seeds into a healthy diet may then give that extra protein-kick needed to achieve a healthy weight.

#4: Chia seeds are full of fiber!

Chia seeds are high in fiber; per 100g, they contain 34-40 grams: 100% of the RDA for a healthy adult.10 They contain about 34% by mass of fiber, which is higher than flax seeds (27%), and significantly higher than other seeds and grains including quinoa, nuts, oat bran, and wild rice.11

Most of this fiber is soluble fiber, which helps slow digestion. Fiber also helps increase stool volume and can help improve gut health by feeding our “good gut bacteria” and improving peristalsis (stool movement through our intestines).

Fiber has also been shown to assist individuals with type 2 diabetes; in one study, soluble fiber helped reduce blood sugar levels and insulin levels significantly.12 

#5: Chia seeds have antioxidant power

Chia seeds contain high antioxidant activity; in fact, one study showed that the activity was comparable to that of Trolox,13 a commercial antioxidant. Why are antioxidants important? Antioxidants protect us against oxidative damage caused by free radicals in our body. These free radicals can destroy tissue and even induce some cancers.  

#6: Chia seeds provide vegan protein & fat

Another one of our top 7 health benefits of chia seeds is their versatility among popular diets. We have seen a significant rise in plant-based diets and veganism over the past few years. Those who eat plant-based diets risk deficiencies in omega-3 fatty acids, protein, vitamin D, Zinc, Calcium, and Iron.14 

One study found that the energy gained from protein was 16% in meat eaters, 13.1% in vegetarians, and 12.9% in vegans.15 Adding chia seeds, with 17 grams of protein per 100 grams, to a vegan diet may assist with increasing protein intake. 

Omega-3 fatty acids are important to the maintenance of our cellular membranes and act as anti-inflammatory agents.16 In Western diets, the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids tends to be high, which can actually be problematic. Too much omega-6 fatty acids can contribute to cardiovascular disease. Eating more foods – like chia seeds – that have a ratio of about 0.3:0.35,2 can help increase the daily amount of omega-3. 

#7: Chia seeds are a gluten-free protein

Most people who are gluten-free have celiac disease, an autoimmune disease where the body attacks gluten, protein found in wheat. However, the gluten-free diet has become increasingly popular in recent years, even among those without a gluten intolerance.

Although some may choose to go gluten-free to improve their health, they risk losing out on important proteins that may be missing from gluten-free products. One study found that over a period of 12 months, a female population on a gluten-free diet had significantly less intake of protein than those who were on a regular diet.17

Chia seeds are gluten-free, making them an attractive choice for those abiding by a gluten-free diet, and they are  high in protein, at 15-25%. Incorporating dry chia seeds into smoothies, baked goods, or even acai bowls may help gluten-free individuals maximize their protein intake. 

What Next? 

Chia seeds are a small, but mighty addition to any diet. They can be consumed ground or whole; there was no significant difference in blood glucose levels noted when whole versus ground chia seeds were consumed.18

They are a vegan and celiac-friendly protein source, that may help maintain body weight, improve bone density heart, and gut health, with beneficial antioxidants. 

These top 7 benefits of chia seeds are only an overview of what these tiny seeds can do. As research continues to be done, what else will we discover about this superfood? 

References

  1. Mintel Press Office. “In with the old: Chia seeds, prickly pears, find new life as ancient superfoods”. Mintel. (June 2014). Retrieved from https://www.mintel.com/press-centre/food-and-drink/superfood-product-trends. 
  2. Nitrayova S. et al. (2014). Amino acids and fatty acids profile of chia (Salvia hispanica L.) and flax (Linum usitatissimum L.) seed. Potravinarstvo; 8(1): 72–76. doi: 10.5219/332. 
  3. Suri, S. et al. (2016). Chia Seed (Salvia Hispanica L.) – A New Age Functional Food. 4th International Conference on Recent Innovations in Science Engineering and Management
  4. Chicco, A. et al. (2009). Dietary chia seed (Salvia hispanica L.) rich in alpha-linolenic acid improves adiposity and normalises hypertriacylglycerolaemia and insulin resistance in dyslipaemic rats. British Journal of Nutrition; 101(1): 41-50. doi: 10.1017/S000711450899053X
  5. Sierra, L. et al. (2015). Dietary intervention with Salvia hispanica (Chia) oil improves vascular function in rabbits under hypercholesterolaemic conditions. Journal of Functional Foods; 14: 641-649. Doi: 10.1016/j.jff.2015.02.042. 
  6. Chani, E. M. M. et al. (2018). Long-Term Dietary Intake of Chia Seed Is Associated with Increased Bone Mineral Content and Improved Hepatic and Intestinal Morphology in Sprague-Dawley Rats. Nutrients; 10(7): 922. Doi: 10.3390/nu10070922
  7. Beltrán-Orozco, M. C. and M. R. Romero. (2003). La chía, alimento milenario. Mexico, Departamento de Graduados e Investigación en Alimentos, E. N. C. B., I. P. N. 
  8. Lejeune, M. P. G. M. et al. (2005). Additional protein intake limits weight regain after weight loss in humans. British Journal of Nutrition; 93(2): 281-289. Doi: 10.1079/bjn20041305. 
  9. Skov, A. R. et al. (1999). Randomized trial om protein vs. carbohydrate in ad libitum fat reduced diet for the treatment of obesity. International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders; 23(5): 528-536. Doi: 10.1038/sj.ijo.0800867.
  10. Ali, N. M. et al. (2012). The promising future of chia, Salvia hispanica L. Journal of Biomedicine and Biotechnology; 2012: 171956. Doi: 10.1155/2012/171956.
  11.  USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 28. 2018. Available online: http://www.ars.usda.gov/ba/bhnrc/ndl.
  12. Chandalia, M. et al. (2000). Beneficial effects of high dietary fiber intake in patients with type 2 diabetes mellitus. The New England Journal of Medicine; 342(19): 1392-1398. Doi: 10.1056/NEJM200005113421903.
  13. Reyes-Caudillo, E. et al. (2008). Dietary fibre content and antioxidant activity of phenolic compounds present in Mexican chia (Salvia hispanica L.) seeds. Food Chemistry; 107(2): 656-663. Doi: 10.1016/j.foodchem.2007.08.062
  14. Craig, W. J. (2009). Health effects of vegan diets. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition; 89(5): 1627S-1633S. Doi: 10.3945/ajcn.2009.26736N. 
  15. Davey, G. K. et al. (2007). EPIC-Oxford: lifestyle characteristics and nutrient intakes in a cohort of 33 883 meat-eaters and 31 546 non meat-eaters in the UK. Public Health Nutrition; 6(3): 259-263. Doi: 10.1079/PHN2002430.
  16. Simopoulos, A. (2006). Evolutionary aspects of diet, the omega-6/omega-3 ratio and genetic variation: nutritional implications for chronic diseases. Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy; 60(9): 502-507. Doi: 10.1016/j.biopha.2006.07.080. 
  17. Shepherd, S. J., and P. R. Gibson. (2012). Nutritional inadequacies of the gluten-free diet in both recently-diagnosed and longterm patients with coeliac disease. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics; 26(4): 349-358. Doi: 10.1111/jhn.12018.

Ho, H. et al. (2013). Effect of whole and ground Salba seeds (Salvia Hispanica L.) on postprandial glycemia in healthy volunteers: a randomized controlled, dose-response trial. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition; 67: 786-788. Doi: 10.1038/ejcn.2013.103. 

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