Health Benefits of Chia Seeds: Are They Really a Superfood?

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Chi-chi-chi-chia! It’s back–again. Not in the form of green “fur” on bald clay animals–thank goodness. Instead, these tiny seeds that once fueled ancient Aztec and Mayan empires are now a key element of the latest diet craze, the Aztec Diet. But do they deserve their miracle weight-loss superfood status?

The Nutritional Truth About Chia Seeds

No one disputes that the seed is nutritious–“It’s the highest plant source of omega-3s,” in the form of ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), says Wayne Coates, PhD, professor emeritus of agricultural engineering at the University of Arizona. It’s also a complete protein, boasts more fiber than flax and contains niacin, magnesium, and antioxidants. Whether chia has more to offer is up in the air. The handful of clinical trials on the seed are mixed. Most have found that people who eat chia regularly (two to five tablespoons a day) have higher levels of ALA in their blood, which has been loosely linked in other studies to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. But most trials show no direct link between eating chia and lowering blood pressure, cholesterol or inflammation–actual markers of cardiovascular disease. They also don’t confirm that chia helps people lose weight or boosts energy or focus or concentration.

Some Promising Data, But More Studies Needed

A few intriguing results–from small studies–do exist, however. In 2007, Vladimir Vuksan, PhD, a professor at the University of Toronto, found that when people with type 2 diabetes ate about three tablespoons a day of a variety of chia called Salba (compared to when they ate the same amount of wheat bran), their systolic blood pressure and hs-CRP–a marker of inflammation–decreased significantly, possibly because their blood omega-3s increased. A 2010 study Vuksan conducted of healthy people–using Salba baked into bread–showed participants had lower spikes in blood sugar after eating bread with higher amounts of Salba. They also felt satisfied for longer.

Chia makes for a heart-healthy nutritious ingredient (mix it into a smoothie or sprinkle it on a salad as you would sunflower seeds). But, at this point, that’s all we know. If you’re sensitive to mustard, sesame seeds, oregano, or thyme, you may be allergic to chia. And if you’re taking blood thinners or other heart medications, check with your health care provider before stocking up on chia.

Editor’s Note: Don’t miss this delicious Cashew and Chia Breakfast Pudding and our quick and easy recipe for chia gel, a nutritious addition to smoothies and salad dressings.

Articles © 2004-2013 Eating Well, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, an innovative primary care practice with offices in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington, DC.