Recently, at the DC Gluten Free Expo in Washington, D.C. one of products being touted as the latest “superfood” were chia seeds. The benefits of superfoods can be debated, but a promoter of chia seeds at the Expo insisted that they had helped cure her autoimmune disease. Others have claimed that the seeds can help you lose weight and still others say they can give you more stamina during physical activity.
So what does the scientific research say?
What are chia seeds?
Salvia hispanica L, better known as chia, is a plant native to Mexico and Guatemala, a member of the mint family. Originally consumed by the Mayans and Aztecs in the pre-Columbian era, these days it’s served as seeds, mixed with liquid in a paste, or ground up to a texture similar to sand. It can be sprinkled into a variety of foods, including yogurt, cereal or oatmeal. Other recipes involve cooking chia seeds into breads or sprinkled onto meats or even drinks such as lemonade.
And yes, they are the same plants that sprout from clay pots in the shape of animals, according to the Chicago Tribune.
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A single spoonful of chia seeds has 60 calories, 5 grams of fiber, 3 grams of protein, 3 grams of fat and a variety of vitamins and minerals – a very impressive load for such a small amount of the product. Chia seeds are said to contain more omega-3 fatty acids than any other known plant. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, gram-for-gram, chia has "three times more iron than spinach, twice as much potassium as bananas and five times as much calcium as milk."
"This means eating chia seeds increases the amount of oxygen transported through our blood stream, nourishing cells and organs, and helping to prevent disease," according to Wayne Coates, professor of agricultural research at the University of Arizona, as quoted in the Tribune.
Note: Salvia hispanica should not be confused with Saliva Divinorum, a plant that, when smoked, has hallucinogenic properties.
Chia seeds for weight loss
One of the many health benefits claimed by chia defenders is that it helps with weight loss. When combined with a liquid, chia turns into a gel-like substance, a metamorphosis that is thought to also occur in the stomach when eaten, leading those eating it to feel full.
David Neiman, who has conducted numerous studies of chia seeds at Appalachian State University was quoted in the LA Times as saying that, "chia seeds are not the magic that will keep people Olympian strong and model slender while they live like couch potatoes." He added, "Exercise and a good diet still are key."
The Department of Health, Lesiure and Exercise Science at Appalachian State University did conduct a study on this claim, and found that "chia seed does not promote weight loss in overweight adults."