It is estimated that chia seeds have been cultivated in South America since as far back as 3500 BC. The great pre-Columbian civilizations including the Aztecs of Mexico, the Mayans and the Indians of South America all relied on the protein rich chia seeds as a staple crop. At the time of the Spanish conquest in South America chia seeds were one of the four most important nutrient rich crops that made up the daily diet – the others being maize, beans and amaranth. The seeds were eaten as a grain alone or combined with other grains, mixed with water and drank as a beverage, ground into flour, included in medicines and pressed for oil.
Aztec warriors and runners are believed to have sustained themselves for a whole day on just a tablespoon of chia seeds hence it’s reputation as the “runner’s seed”. The seeds were so prized by the Aztecs that they were received as tributes from conquered nations, offered to gods during religious ceremonies and used as currency.
Recent research explains why these ancient civilisations considered chia to be such an important dietary component. Here are just some of the recent discoveries about chia.
Coronary Heart Disease (CHD) is the most common cause of death in the western world so it’s advisable to include foods that reduce the risk factors for CHD. Research has found that chia seeds reduce serum triglycerides (blood fats) and increase levels of beneficial HDL cholesterol as well as improving the plasma omega 6 to omega 3 ratio (1). They also reduce cardiac and hepatic inflammation thus offering protective effects to the heart and liver (2).
Blood Sugar Control and Weight
Chia seeds have been shown to prevent dyslipidaemia and insulin resistance, to improve glucose tolerance and to reduce visceral fat in rats fed a high sucrose diet (3). It is likely to be the mucilaginous and swelling properties of chia that make it so good for keeping blood sugar levels stable. This effect can be seen by mixing a spoonful of chia in a glass of water. After 10 minutes a thick gel will have formed due to the absorption of the water by the soluble fibre. When eaten this gel creates a physical barrier that slows down the action of digestive enzymes on carbohydrates eaten with the chia. This reduces the rate at which carbohydrates are converted to sugar meaning there is no rapid rise in blood sugar but instead a steady trickle of glucose into the blood stream that provides prolonged energy. This slowing of digestion means hunger is staved off for longer making it a great food for those trying to loose weight.
Hydration and Digestion
Chia seeds soaked in water can hold up to 12 times their own volume in water as well as having oil -retention capacities (4). The mucilaginous gel that forms when chia is soaked in water helps to lubricate and hydrate the intestines making bowel movements easier to pass. This property means chia can be used to prolong hydration in the body and to maintain electrolyte balance.
Those with digestive sensitivities to certain foods may find the culprit foods are tolerated better if a hydrophilic colloid such as chia is included in the diet. Chia seeds have an extremely low allergic potential and the mucilage they form in water coats the intestines thus providing a protective and lubricating barrier that prevents irritation of the intestines by problem foods.
Chia seeds are a good source of protein containing good amounts of glutamic acid, arginine and aspartic acid (4). Researchers found that chia seeds can be added to bread mixes to increase the protein and essential fat content (5). The protein in chia is digested and assimilated very easily making it an excellent food for growth and regeneration. Children, pregnant and breast feeding women, athletes and those recuperating from illness may all benefit from the regenerating effects of chia.
Chia seeds are richer in the essential omega 3 fats than flax seeds. The omega 3 fats have anti-inflammatory properties and are essential for the brain and nervous and endocrine systems, including the thyroid, adrenals and reproductive system. They are also vital for healthy skin, hair and nails. The beneficial fats in chia also aid the absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins A,D, E, and K.
Chia seeds are an excellent source of soluble fibre as well as providing good amounts of calcium, potassium, biotin, chromium and antioxidants including quercetin and myricetin.
Chia and Endurance
Chia seeds have been shown to be a good alternative to carbohydrate loading prior to endurance events. This allows athletes to reduce their sugar intake while increasing their omega 3 fatty acid levels. In the study 50% of the usual carbohydrate was replaced with chia seeds (6).
In conclusion the properties of chia include:
- Stabilising blood sugar levels and reducing insulin resistance
- Providing easily digested protein.
- Having a high Essential Fatty Acid (EFA) content
- Providing a rich source of plant based antioxidants, vitamins and minerals including calcium
- Helping to increase endurance and to build muscles and tissues
- Providing dietary fibre which is satiating and cleansing to the intestines
- Having protective effects on the liver and cardiovascular system
Cooking with Chia Seeds
Being gluten free and of low allergenic potential chia can be used in many recipes as a substitute for problematic foods. Chia remains nutritionally sound when heated to 350F or 180C in the oven so is suitable for use in baked goods. A good ratio is 3 parts flour to one part chia in baked goods. Its thickening property means that ground chia seeds can be used to thicken sauces and gravies.
One way to use chia is to combine 2 tbsp of chia with a cup of water and leave to soak for 10-15 minutes – it helps to whisk it after 5 minutes to stop it clumping at the bottom of the glass. This forms a gel which can be used to replace eggs or butter in cakes or biscuits. Adding the gel to recipes displaces calories and fat while imparting a pleasant, nutty flavour. 1 tbsp of gel replaces 1 egg. Half the butter can be replaced with an equal portion of chia gel.
Any liquid can be used to make the chia gel depending on what you want to use it for; water, oat or nut milk, fruit juice or stock are all suitable.
Chia seeds can be added to oatmeal, muesli, fruit spreads, soups, yoghurt, smoothies, apple sauce, puddings, breads, baked goods and salads. It is not advisable to toast the seeds as this may damage the unsaturated fats.
1. Ayerza R Jr, Coates W. Effect of dietary alpha-linolenic fatty acid derived from chia when fed as ground seed, whole seed and oil on lipid content and fatty acid composition of rat plasma. Ann Nutr Metab. 2007;51(1):27-34
2. Poudyal H, Panchal SK, Waanders J, Ward L, Brown L. Lipid redistribution by α-linolenic acid-rich chia seed inhibits stearoyl-CoA desaturase-1 and induces cardiac and hepatic protection in diet-induced obese rats. J Nutr Biochem. 2011 Mar 22 (Epub ahead of print)
3. Chicco AG, D’Alessandro ME, Hein GJ, Oliva ME, Lombardo YB. Dietary chia seed (Salvia hispanica L.) rich in alpha-linolenic acid improves adiposity and normalises hypertriacylglycerolaemia and insulin resistance in dyslipaemic rats. Br J Nutr. 2009 Jan;101(1):41-50
1. Olivos-Lugo BL, Valdivia-Lopez MA, Tecante A. Thermal and physicochemical properties and nutritional value of the protein fraction of Mexican chia seed (Salvia hispanica L.). Food Sci Technol. Int. 2010 Feb;16(1):89-96
2. Justo MB, Alfaro AD, Aguilar EC, Wrobel K et al. Integral bread development with soybean, chia, linseed, and folic acid as a functional food for women. Arch Latinoam Nutr.2007 Mar;57(1):78-84
3. 6. Illian TG, Casey JC, Bishop PA. Omega 3 Chia seed loading as a means of carbohydrate loading. J Strength Cond Res. 2011 Jan;25(1):61-5