Myth Busters: Chia Seeds

photo: puroticorico via Flickr

Did you ever have one of these?  Yup, that’s a chia pet, and if you were “cool” in the 1990’s, you probably had one. But I bet you didn’t eat the seeds, did you? Well, these days the chia plant (aka Salvia hispanica) is making a big comeback in pop culture, this time as a nutritional supplement.

Chia seeds have been touted for their role in cardiovascular health, weight loss, appetite suppression, consistent bowel patterns, increased energy levels, blood sugar control, and hydration. Many sing their praises, including Dr. Oz and Christopher McDougall (author of the ever-popular book Born to Run). I’ve tried them, and personally I am not a fan of their texture.  Here’s the low-down on this current hot-ticket item.

Do they improve exercise performance?  This seems like a simple question, but there’s not much evidence to prove or disprove the claims made by producers. There are plenty of personal anecdotes, describing chia’s almost-magical properties, but unfortunately you can’t rely on anecdotes.  Some people respond differently than others.  Chia seeds do form a gel when they are placed in liquid.   Does this prove that they prevent dehydration during exercise?  No.  In addition, the “extra energy” some people report may be a placebo effect rather than an actual improvement.  Again, it’s all anecdotal.

Do they improve cardiovascular health?  While there is some research indicating a positive effect of chia seeds on cardiovascular risk factors and blood glucose control, these claims lack sufficient evidence to make a concrete conclusion.  The claim for weight loss effects hasn’t been proven either.

So what can we conclude about chia seeds for athletes?  Unfortunately, not much. We can, however, use what we currently know about their nutrient composition to determine how they fit into a healthy diet.

How much should I eat? There is no recommended serving size for chia seeds, but according to the USDA’s Nutrient Database, a 1 oz serving of dried chia seeds (about 3 Tbsp) contains:

  • Calories: 138
  • Carbs: 12g (4% DV)
  • Fat: 9g (14% DV)
  • Unsaturated fat: 7g
  • Protein: 5g
  • Fiber: 10g
  • Calcium: 180mg

*Note: Daily values (DV) are based on a 2000-calorie diet.

Chia seeds provide a good source of calcium (equivalent to 4oz milk), fiber, and omega-3 fatty acids while being low in total carbs. However, like most other nuts and seeds, they are relatively high in fat and calories.   It’s important to moderate portion sizes and incorporate them into a well-balanced diet.  One serving per day is adequate for most people, and it may be reasonable idea not to exceed two servings per day (6 Tbsp).

How should I eat them? As a non-chia fan, I can’t recommend favorite recipes or ways to eat this food. However, you might check out this website or do your own web search to discover how to incorporate it into your daily meals. Popular uses include puddings or gels, drinks (especially smoothies), soups, breads, and even some desserts!  Chia seeds are a bland ingredient, so they pair well with many types of foods.  Chia seeds are being added to commercial food products, like energy bars and cereals, but the amount per serving is likely to be small.

Are there harmful side effects?  One great thing about chia seeds is that they’re a natural plant seed rather than a laboratory-manufactured product. However, this doesn’t mean that they are completely risk-free. Large doses may cause upset stomach or diarrhea due to the high fiber content of the food.  Stick to small portions (ex: 1 tsp) and monitor your tolerance, before increasing frequency or portion size.  Also be aware that the seeds may get stuck in your teeth!  But a little floss can easily fix that problem.

Where/How can I get it?  You can purchase chia seeds online, at health food stores and even some major grocery stores.  At about $12-13 per pound, they’re not cheap!  However, since a small serving goes a long way with this product, you may find that you can nurse a single bag along for quite a while.

Now that you know what there is to know about chia seeds, you can try them out with a better understanding of what your money buys.

 

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