By Rachael Moeller Gorman, "Chia: Fad Food or Cure-All?,"May/June 2013
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?
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, Ph.D., 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 (2 to 5 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.
A few intriguing results—from small studies—do exist, however. In 2007, Vladimir Vuksan, Ph.D., professor at the University of Toronto, found that when people with type 2 diabetes ate about 3 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 he did 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 it. 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 in with your doctor before stocking up on chia.
How 3 Super Seeds Stack Up
Unlike flax, you can eat chia seeds whole or milled, and both seem to be equally nutritious. Below, see how these seeds compare nutritionally (per tablespoon).