I’ve heard controversial statements about chia seeds. What health benefits do they really give us? – AJ
Thanks for the question, AJ. It’s one that needs to be asked more often.
Chia (Salvia hispanica), found in the mint family, was commonly grown in Central America as a food staple of the ancient Mayan and Aztec cultures. Mythic folklore told stories of it providing such strength and endurance that it was valued as currency.
The word “chia” translates loosely to “oily.” In the past decade, due to the work of savvy marketing professionals, we’re once again duped into believing that experts discovered yet another full-fledged power food that would provide the cure for diabetes and heart disease, be an antioxidant for cancer, be a calcium supplement, aid in fast weight loss, provide super power, endurance, and energy, and feed us a complete protein without much thought or effort on our part.
While research into the history of the ancient Aztec and Mayan cultures confirms that they grew and consumed chia seed (raw, cooked or mashed into a flour-like meal), and that it aided in sustaining energy and strength for battles and long journeys, modern cultures cannot prove these discoveries as 100 percent true.
Since the chia seed was authorized as a dietetic nutritional supplement by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration it has skyrocketed in sales. People from the North America, South American, Europe, Australia, and many areas in Asia have consumed the seed in alarming amounts – “alarming” because the seed hasn’t been on the consumable market long enough for consistent conclusive evidence to prove one-way or the other whether the seed is a super food or a super sell.
After shaking it all down, the three main health truths from chia seeds are that they are a complete protein with all of the required amino acids, they contain a high level of omega-3 fatty acids, and they are high in insoluble dietary fiber (the healthy kind). Researchers are conducting studies to look closer at the claims that the combination of omega-3 fatty acids and insoluble fiber reduce heart disease and fight cancer.
It’s true that chia seeds have a high omega-3 content. However, the particular fatty acid found in chia seeds is a short-chain ALA omega-3 that needs to be converted to long-chain EPA/DHA omega-3. Unfortunately, our bodies aren’t efficient in this conversion, so the absorption of this specific omega-3 doesn’t match what our systems can absorb when eating wild fish, grass-fed beef, and pure fish oils. So, while high in our favorite fatty acids, chia seeds don’t provide us with enough of the omega-3 that’s required.
It has been proven in laboratory studies that chia seeds are high in insoluble fiber. Fiber is good for moving foods through our digestive system while helping us absorb needed nutrients. And, when combined with a healthy diet, adequate amounts of water and movement can lead to weight loss. But the presence of insoluble fiber doesn’t alone equate to weight loss. Insoluble fiber is required for daily maintenance of our small and large intestines but is just as important as soluble fiber. Each fiber functions differently in our gut and provides different health benefits. Soluble fiber attracts and dissolves in water and aids in slowing down digestion, aiding our digestive systems to absorb nutrients. Apples, oatmeal, legumes and most vegetables are a limited example of soluble fiber.
Insoluble fiber does not dissolve in water. Instead, it passes through the digestive tract intact, adding bulk to our food while increasing the movement of chyme (digested food) and waste through our guts. Examples include whole wheat and grains, seeds, nuts, and most fruits.
Both fibers are important for proper bodily function and performance. Neither is more important than the other, but they cannot act alone for weight loss.
According to a research study published in the June 29, 2009 issue of “Nutrition Research,” after a 12-week study was conducted on 90 overweight adults, Appalachian State University in North Carolina found no clinical evidence that chia seeds aid in weight loss.
The Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, NY studied the combination of omega-3 fatty acids and fiber to see if it reduces the risk of heart disease. What they found was that while chia seed consumption barely reduced blood pressure, fibrinogen, and C-reactive protein levels in 20 subjects with Type 2 diabetes with heart disease, they also discovered that chia seeds could intensify medications designed to lower blood pressure to a dangerous level.
Both Sloan Kettering and the University of Colorado have conducted several tests on the effects of chia seeds on cancer patients and have found no conclusive evidence supporting claims that the seeds aid or hinder in the fight against cancer.
It would be safe to say that chia seeds are an adequate source of a complete protein and insoluble fiber for humans. But it’s also apparent that more studies are required before chia seeds – and many other foods linked to super medicinal claims – can be recommended by a medically or nutritionally trained professional.
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