Foods we love: Chia seeds

Chia seeds are a metabolic powerhouse that help lower glucose and deliver essential nutrients. Here's how to buy, store and use chia.

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The Basics

This small seed comes from the Salvia hispanica plant (or its close relative), found in North America, Central America, South America, and Australia. A whopping 60% of the oil in chia seeds is α-linolenic acid (ALA). This omega-3 fatty acid is associated with everything from lowering the risk of heart disease and memory loss disorders to promoting healthy skin and nerve function.

In addition to this impressive fatty acid profile, chia seeds are also a good source of protein (which accounts for approximately 18-24% of a chia seed’s mass) and contain essential amino acids for nutrition: isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, histidine, and valine.

Chia also has a type of soluble fiber called mucilage that allows it to absorb anywhere from 10 to 20 times its weight in water; mix chia with water, and you’ll see it expand and form a kind of gel around it. By putting chia under an electron microscope, researchers have found that chia has a unique molecular structure that enables this gel formation, with nanoscale fibers that extend out in all directions that may trap moisture between them.

Metabolic Punch

These bulking and gelling effects appear to have metabolic benefits. Because chia seeds expand so much when they absorb liquid, it feels like you’re eating a larger quantity of food. Studies show that chia can create more satiety after eating than even other high-fiber foods

Fiber-rich foods tend to slow digestion, which can prevent blood sugar spikes after eating a meal. Researchers have found that chia’s particular fiber, which has a high viscosity, may help it blunt glucose response. In a study in which people took 50g of glucose along with either chia or flax, which has higher fiber content, chia showed a lower initial rise in glucose and a lower total area under the curve.  

What’s more, all of that fiber (2 tablespoons of chia seeds have around 11 grams of fiber) feeds your gut microbiome: Once you digest fiber, your gut bugs produce short-chain fatty acids, which help to regulate appetite and promote the balance of insulin and glucagon to keep blood glucose steady, according to research

While chia seeds are most well-known for their high levels of fiber, protein, and essential polyunsaturated fats, they’re also a fantastic source of micronutrients relevant to metabolic functioning like calcium and magnesium, iron, zinc, copper, manganese, and niacin. And they’re loaded with polyphenols—plant-based antioxidants that work to prevent diseases caused by oxidative stress. In fact, one study in a lab found that extracts from chia seeds were capable of neutralizing more than 70% of a free-radical-containing compound contained in a test tube. This matters for metabolic health because excess free radicals in the body—termed oxidative stress—may be strongly related to the development of metabolic dysfunction. 

Buying Advice

  • You can get chia seeds in black or white—there’s minimal difference in nutritional content.
  • Go ahead and buy in bulk to get the best deal (opt for organic if you can). Chia seeds last for a long time—anywhere from four to five years if stored correctly.
  • Store them in an air-tight container in the fridge to minimize the oxidation of the oils in the seeds.

Tips for Using 

  • Unlike flax seeds, which have to be ground to get the nutritional benefits, you can use chia seeds whole.
  • Don’t feel the need to hydrate chia seeds before you eat them. Sprinkle raw chia seeds on salads, soups, or any of your meals. You can eat as much as four to five tablespoons a day. 
  • That said, don’t toss back chia seeds by the spoonful on their own. One case report of a man who ate a tablespoon of dry chia seeds followed by a glass of water made headlines after the seeds expanded in the esophagus and caused a blockage.
  • A good rule of thumb if you eat chia seeds raw: Have them with food (such as sprinkled on top of yogurt, a sweet potato, or a salad), which will have some water content in it to help the chia become gelatinous and flow through your body.

Chia Ideas 

Chia pudding. You’ll find countless recipes online—from breakfast pudding to chocolate-flavored desserts—and can easily whip up your own variation by following a basic recipe: Mix 6 tablespoons of organic chia seeds with 2 cups unsweetened nut milk in a mason jar, shake, and refrigerate overnight. You can add various mix-ins before you refrigerate—like cocoa powder, nut butter, or vanilla—and top with more seeds, nuts, and fresh berries when it’s ready to serve.

Chia gel. Thanks to their bland flavor, you can mix chia seeds into any recipe to add satiety-boosting fiber without altering the taste of what you’re making. Adding chia gel to your go-to meals is a great way to do this. Mix 1/4 cup of chia seeds with 1 cup of liquid, and you’ll see it turn into soft gelatin in about 20 minutes. You can store this in the fridge for up to a week to easily add a tablespoon to soups, smoothies, salad dressings, or even use it as an egg replacement when you bake (replace one egg with 1/4 cup chia gel).