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."
Chia seeds for autoimmune disease
What about the claim that they can cure autoimmune disease? For starters, the aforementioned Appalachian State study also found that chia seeds do not alter disease risk factors, again in overweight adults.
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It’s true that a strict, healthy diet and significant exercise can help reign in the symptoms of some autoimmune conditions, though rarely do these ever "cure" the condition. Could a high-fiber, high-protein diet help those with Type II diabetes? Certainly. Could a food high in Omega-3 fatty acids be good for fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome? Sure. But, as David Neiman noted, chia seeds don't cure diseases by themselves.
Chia seeds for sports performance
Chia's popularity as a food was revived after the release of the best-selling novel Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, which championed the benefits of barefoot running and rediscovering energy-boosting super-foods. McDougall trained with Native American tribes, including the Tarahumara, some of whom are famous for runs of 50 to 100 miles. Chia, he felt, was one of the keys to such unusual endurance. McDougall also cites chia as a being good for building muscle, lowering cholesterol and reducing risk of heart disease.
Chia absorbs up to 12 times its weight in water, which slowly is converted into energy – the equivalent of carbo-loading, just without the loading up on carbs. This was actually confirmed by research conducted at the University of Alabama, which concluded that chia "is a viable option for enhancing sports performance in events longer than 90 minutes."
A variety of different chia seeds can be found at most health food stores and WholeFoods.
Illian, T.G., Casey, J.C., Bishop, P.A. (25 January 2011). "Omega 3 chia seed loading as a means of carbohydrate loading." PubMed. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21183832.
MacVean, Mary. (2 June 2012). "Chia seeds are popular again – this time for nutrition." Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from http://articles.latimes.com/2012/jun/02/health/la-he-chia-20120602.
McKay, Gretchen. (24 May 2012). "Chia seeds go from sand to goo, but they're oh-so-good for you." Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Retrieved from http://www.post-gazette.com/stories/life/food/chia-seeds-go-from-sand-to-goo-but-theyre-oh-so-good-for-you-637288/.
Nieman, D.C., Cavea, E.J., Austin, M.D., Henson, D.A., McAnulty, S.R., Jin, F. (29 June 2009). "Chia seed does not promote weight loss or alter disease risk factors in overweight adults." PubMed. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19628108.
Stepkin, Kay. (20 June 2012). "Skip the pet, go with healthful chia seeds." Chicago Tribune. Retrieved from http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2012-06-20/features/sc-food-0615-veggie-chia-seeds-20120620_1_chia-health-benefits-vegetarian-cooking-class-instructor.