What Are Chia Seeds? A Comprehensive Guide to Reaping the Health Benefits of This Superfood
Chia seeds may seem like a modern fad, but their use actually goes back hundreds of years. Many Native American tribes, such as the Chumash, Maidu, and Costanoan, ate chia seeds as a significant part of their diet, and the seed was grown alongside corn in some places in Mexico, according to the United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service (USDA). (1)
But back then, chia seeds weren’t staples in breakfast bowls and smoothies. Some people mixed them with flour to make tortillas, while others combined them with water and cooked them to make a porridge or soup. The seeds even had medicinal uses, and were used to treat a range of ailments, from fever to inflammation, the USDA notes. (1)
Over time, this ancient seed grew in popularity — though not first as a popular superfood. Indeed, as the New York Times reports, chia seeds first resurfaced in our homes as a novelty item — in the form of Chia Pets, which were widely popular a few decades ago. (2)
Since then, chia has experienced another little renaissance, and now finds its way into our puddings, smoothies, breads, and much more.
What Are the Nutrition Facts of Chia Seeds?
Why are chia seeds so popular now? A key reason may be their reputation as nutritional powerhouses: One tablespoon (tbsp) of chia seeds contains about 69 calories, as well as, roughly: (3)
- 2 grams (g) protein
- 5 g fat (1 g saturated, 7 g polyunsaturated, 1 g monounsaturated, and 0 g trans)
- 6 g carbs
- 5 g fiber
Chia seeds also contain a number of vitamins and minerals. One tbsp offers: (4)
- 2 milligrams (mg) phosphorus (about 11 percent of an adult’s recommended daily value, or DV)
- 7 mg calcium (8 percent of DV)
- 8 mg potassium (1 percent of DV)
- 2 mg phosphorus (11 percent of DV)
- 5 IU vitamin A
- 2 mg vitamin C (1 percent of DV)
- 1 mg vitamin E (1 percent of DV)
As reported by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, chia seeds come from Salvia hispanica, a desert plant that is part of the mint family. (5)
What Are the Possible Health Benefits of Chia Seeds?
Chia seeds are definitely packed with nutrients, and are listed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate guidelines as a great source of protein. But what does this actually mean for your health?
It turns out, many things. A review in the Journal of Food Science and Technology notes that chia seeds are a fantastic source of omega-3 fatty acids, as well as a source of a number of different antioxidants, such as chlorogenic acid, caffeic acid, myricetin, quercetin, and kaempferol, which may have heart-healthy, antiaging, and anticarcinogenic benefits. (6)
The fiber in chia seeds can aid the digestive system — and the review further noted that previous studies have found chia seeds can benefit people managing various diseases and health issues, including type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure (hypertension), and depression. (6)
Other studies back up the power of fiber. One study published in the American Journal of Medicine found evidence of an association between high fiber intake in a diet and low risk of heart disease. (7)
Importantly, chia seeds have high amounts of linoleic and alpha-linolenic (ALA) fatty acids, as the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health notes. (8) These acids can be used to create other omega-3 fatty acids, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), which the body can more readily use. (9)
Can Adding Chia Seeds to Your Diet Help With Weight Loss?
Because chia seeds do have lots of fiber, they promote a feeling of fullness, and so might prevent the overeating that contributes to weight gain. But not a lot of evidence to date supports the idea that downing chia seeds will slim your waistline.
For example, a study in Nutrition Research looked at how well chia seeds helped promote weight loss in overweight adults. (10) To their surprise, researchers found that consumption of 50 g of chia seeds (about ¼ cup) daily did not have any significant effect on body mass or on risk factors for certain diseases, such as inflammation and high blood pressure. (10)
Chia seeds are healthy for a variety of reasons, and contain fiber, protein, calcium, phosphorus, and omega-3s. (8) Some animal studies even show that they increase the feeling of fullness and help with weight loss, but so far, literature reviews and studies on humans haven’t backed up these claims. (8)
Are There Any Potential Health Risks of Eating Chia Seeds?
Chia seeds pack a lot of nutrition, but you will want to keep portion size in mind if you’re looking to lose or maintain weight. Of course, this rule is true of any food, and most people won’t have trouble with this if they consider the typical 1 tbsp portion size for chia seeds, which contains only 69 calories. (3)
That said, another potential health risk of eating chia seeds in excess is digestive issues due to their fiber content. If your body isn’t used to regular fiber intake, be sure to increase the amount you eat gradually and drink plenty of water.
Also, while there are studies suggesting that chia seeds have some important health benefits, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics notes that a lot of the information available comes from animal studies or from studies with a small pool of participants. (5) The Harvard School of Public Health similarly notes that many reviews and studies have not found evidence that chia seeds have a significant impact on inflammation, body weight, blood sugar, blood pressure, and lipid levels. (8) Most likely, these sources say, the benefits of chia seeds come from their incorporation into a rich diet full of healthy plant-based foods, not from just consuming chia seeds alone. (8)
You do want to be careful about how you consume chia seeds. One case study presented to the American College of Gastroenterology in 2014 described how a patient who first consumed dry chia seeds and then a glass of water ended up with an obstruction in his esophagus — because the chia seeds absorbed the water and expanded in the patient’s throat. To avoid this, don’t eat dry chia seeds — cook them or mix them with water first. (8,11)
What Are the Best Ways to Eat Chia Seeds in Your Diet?
There are lots of ways to eat chia seeds! The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics notes that they can be added raw to dishes like cereal, yogurt, and even vegetables. Because the seeds develop a gelatin-like texture when they absorb water, they are often used to create healthy puddings. (5)
Chia seeds don’t have much flavor on their own, so they pair well with a number of dishes, and can be added to things like: (8)
- Bread batter
- Muffins and cakes
They can even be used as an egg replacer in baking, thanks to their gelatinous texture when mixed with water.
Try the Harvard School of Public Health’s recipe for the equivalent of one whole egg: Mix 1 tbsp of chia seeds or 2 teaspoons (tsp) of chia seeds with three tbsp of water, let sit for five minutes, and then add to your batter. (8)
Recipe Inspiration for Cooking or Baking With Chia Seeds
Since chia seeds are so versatile, there are endless ways you can include them in your diet, from trying a popular chia seed pudding to sprinkling them on salads or over cereal. You can even experiment with chia seed meatballs and chia seed breads and crackers.
Here are just a few recipes you can start with:
- Coconut Berry Chia Seed Pudding
- Chia Chipotle Bean Burger
- Coconut Cardamom Vegan Overnight Oat Parfait With Blueberry Chia Seed Jam
- Banana Chia Muffins, Chia Seed Jam, Chia-Chicken Meatballs, and more
Quick Answers to 4 FAQs About Chia Seeds
1. How much chia should I consume?
There are no hard-and-fast guidelines on how many chia seeds you should eat daily. But some doctors and institutions offer reasonable recommendations, such as Columbia University, which suggests eating 20 g (or a bit under 2 tbsp) of chia twice per day. (12) Naturally, this varies depending on factors such as your age, sex, and weight. Because they’re so dense in fiber, just remember to increase the amount you eat gradually and drink plenty of water.
2. Are chia seeds safe for all people?
Use caution before eating chia seeds if you have any food allergies, such as to sesame or mustard seeds — check with your doctor first before adding chia seeds to your diet, Columbia University recommends. Also, if you are on high blood pressure medication or blood thinners, or are pregnant or breastfeeding, talk to your doctor before adding chia seeds to your diet. Finally, Columbia University notes that ALA, which is found in large doses in chia seeds, may increase your risk of prostate cancer. (12)
3. Where can I buy chia seeds?
You can buy chia seeds at many local grocery stores — check near the produce or any packaged “superfood” sections, or you may find them in the baking aisle. You may even find them in stores like Home Goods.
You can buy chia seeds ground or whole, and they last about four to five years in your pantry. (8)
4. Is there more than one kind of chia seed?
Yes! Chia seeds can come in black or white varieties, though their nutritional profile is the same regardless of which color you go with. (8)