Chia seeds have recently joined the league of ‘superfoods’ (though that’s about as easy as becoming a member of S.H.I.E.L.D.). They have been so extensively promoted by the media that you’re probably wondering whether it’s all hype or if there’s some truth to the panoply of health claims surrounding the seeds.
Native to Central America and Mexico, chia seeds (or Salvia hispanica) have constituted a staple of the Mayan and Aztec diets since 2600 BC and were nicknamed the ‘running food’. And these guy’s weren’t average Joe Schmoe’s. To this day the Tarahumara people from northwestern Mexico are renowned for their extraordinary ability to run long distances – able to move from one settlement to another by running 200 miles over a couple of days. Their magic potion? A beverage called iskiate. To you and me that’s a mix of chia seeds and water or “10,000-year-old Red Bull” as Born to Run author Christopher McDougall likes to call it.
The Tarahumara are formidable. But it’s the 21st century and let’s face it, most of don’t want to, and thankfully don’t need to, run 200 miles in 2 days. So should we care? The simple answer is, yes we should. The ancient Mayans and Aztecs mightn’t have known a whole lot about the science of it all, but they sure did have a good idea about what works and modern science now knows why.
Health benefits of chia seeds
Chia seeds have a remarkable nutrient profile: they may be tiny but they’re jam packed with fiber, protein, omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants and magnesium. Research suggests that these nutritional powerhouses may help:
- Prevent insulin resistance that often leads to diabetes if left untreated 1.
- Improve blood lipid profiles by increasing HDL-cholesterol and lowering triglycerides among diabetics. This can reduce the risks of heart disease 1.
- Normalize blood pressure – The seeds are rich in calcium, magnesium and phosphorus; minerals which are needed to maintain a healthy ticker 1.
- Reduce inflammatory factors 2.
- Suppress the growth and spread of cancer cells 3.
- Enhance performance during training lasting for over 90 minutes 4. In this study, the athletes were given two different carbohydrate loading beverages: either 100% Gatorade or 50% of calories from Gatorade and 50% from chia seeds.
- Increase blood levels of omega-3 EPA in post-menopausal women. This could in turn improve cardiovascular health and counter inflammatory responses 5.
Chia seeds are also believed to:
- Boost satiety levels and aid weight loss – Rich in fiber (a whopping 9.8g/oz), protein (4.7g/oz) and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), chia seeds should, in theory, help you to eat less by helping you feel fuller and by it’s slow release of energy after eating. This should ultimately facilitate weight loss. Though it makes sense, so far research hasn’t been able to back up that theory 6.
- Alleviate constipation and offer relief against inflammatory bowel syndrome. Although there is no scientific evidence to prove this, chia seeds may promote a healthy bowel, seeing that they’re rich in fiber and have been shown to alleviate inflammation.
- Help eliminate cravings – One possible mechanism is that when chia seeds absorb water, they may be able to prevent your blood glucose levels from going on a roller coaster.
- Rejuvenate the skin – Chia seeds are rich in omega-3 fatty acids that can help keep the skin well hydrated and firm by strengthening the skin’s lipid barrier and preserving collagen integrity.
Uses for chia seeds
Chia seeds aren’t just healthy, but also user-friendly and incredibly versatile. No massive time investment, special recipes or cumbersome preparations needed. Chia seeds are super easy to include in your day-to-day meals and snacks. Just think of chia seeds as a meal-enhancing, bonus ingredient.
You can use chia seeds:
- as a substitute in traditional recipes
- add them to regular recipes
- as a topping on virtually anything
- make a chia-based dish
Add it to almost anything to make your meal more nutritious and filling. And when it comes to taste, it barely imparts any. Chia seeds are pretty bland and mild, which is great, because it means you can add it to virtually anything.
Here are 16 awesome uses for chia seeds:
1. As an egg substitute
If your recipe calls for one egg but you don’t have any or you’re allergic to eggs, replace that egg when baking with 1 tablespoon of finely ground chia seeds and three tablespoons of water. (FYI, this won’t work for omelets or scrambled eggs!)
2. As a thickener
Ground or whole chia seeds can be used to thicken soups, stews, gravies, batters, meatloaf or Chinese dishes such as chop suey. This works a treat, because the thickening properties of chia seeds lie in their ability to absorb seven to ten times their weight in liquid when allowed to soak in water. Simply add one tablespoon of chia seeds at a time until you’re happy with the consistency.
3. As a flour substitute
If you have a gluten intolerance or celiac disease, or are limiting your wheat intake for other reasons, use chia flour as a flour substitute.
If you’re cutting out wheat entirely:
- For doughs that tend to be a bit thick or gummy simply replace the flour in any recipe with equal parts chia flour.
- For more solid mixtures like cookie dough mix 3 part of another gluten-free flour which 1 part chia flour in gluten-free recipes.
If you’re only cutting down your intake, but not eliminating flour altogether, try 3 parts flour to 1 part ground chia.
TIP! For fresh chia seed flour, buy chia seeds whole and grind them dry in a coffee grinder or powerful blender for maximum nutrition. Once you’re happy with the texture of the ‘flour’, store it in an airtight glass jar and store in the fridge. If you’re grinding lots of chia seeds, keep some of the flour in the freezer. This will prevent the flour from becoming rancid.
4. To make chia pudding or mousse
Add 1 to 2 cups of coconut milk or almond milk, ½ cup of ground chia seeds, 1 tablespoon of raw honey, ½ cup raw cacao and 1 teaspoon of pure vanilla essence in a blender or large bowl. Blend or whisk until smooth and allow to chill in the fridge until firm. For a raspberry or coffee version, omit the cocoa and vanilla and add the fruits or coffee. You can also use cinnamon or nutmeg – the possibilities are endless.
5. To make your own energy gels
Forget those commercial chemical slurries loaded with high fructose corn syrup or maltodextrin, artificial flavorings and colors. You can easily make your own gel by mixing a few tablespoons of ground chia seeds with some coconut water.
Or make yourself a fruity version: allow 1 oz of chia seeds to gel in 3/8 cup of coconut water and add in ½ cup of fruit mash (using 16 oz of mixed berries or ½ ripe mango and 8 oz pineapple), raw honey and ½ oz of dry fruit pectin. Bring the mixture to a boil (low to medium heat) in a small saucepan; let it boil for 1 minute, remove from the heat and pour directly in a sterilized mason jar.
6. As a substitute for breadcrumbs
Feel like making gluten-free meat balls? Ditch the breadcrumbs and use two to three tablespoons of chia seeds instead.
7. For baking crackers or energy bites
Have a seed cracker recipe you fancy? Then toss in some chia seeds – the amount will depend on how much ingredients you’re using. For instance, if you’re using ½ cup of sunflower seeds, ½ cup of sesame seeds and ½ cup of pumpkin seeds, then add in ½ cup of chia seeds. You can also alter the flavor of your crackers by adding in some minced garlic, cayenne pepper or dried herbs.
8. Add to breakfast cereal, oats or muesli
If you want to make sure you get a daily dose of chia seeds just add them to your breakfast cereal. It makes for a great breakfast boost and an awesome start to the day.
Turn your regular oatmeal into “chia oatmeal” by adding a tablespoon or two to cooked oatmeal. Alternatively, allow the seeds to “gel” first by letting them soak in about a 3/4 cup of milk (regular milk or nut milk works great) first. Or try Bircher muesli. You can also add chia seeds to your overnight night oats. If you’re not into oats, sprinkle some seeds over your cereal of choice.
9. To make smoothies & juices filling
Smoothies and chia seeds were made for each other. Chia seeds get gelatinous when soaked in liquid, which makes them easier to digest. Still let’s be honest, not everyone likes the texture of a gelatinous seed mixture. But you’ll never know in a smoothie! Thick and creamy, chia seeds work great in smoothies and add a bit of crunch, like that of raspberry seeds.
If there’s a downside to smoothies it’s that, though they might be jam packed with nutrients, they’re not always particularly filling. Chia seeds solve this problem as they add thickness to smoothies and are rich in protein, healthy fats, and fiber – all of which help us to feel full and satisfied. In other words, chia seeds add substance to smoothies, helping turn a snack in to more of a meal.
But why stop there? Juices can also benefit from a sprinkling of chia seeds. Simply mix 1 cup of chia seed gel with 1 cup of the juice of your choice and mix well. Yes, it’s that easy. If you’re worried about drinking gelatinous “seedy” goop, don’t! The seeds are absolutely tiny. And in terms of taste, the gelatinous layer around the seed keeps it intact so the seeds add no flavor at all to your beverage. But it does give your drink body and a dose of protein, healthy fats, fiber, and antioxidants.
If you want something a little more special look no further than Mexico. The Mexicans – longtime fans of chia – have been drinking a lemonade chia drink, known as chia fresca, for centuries. To make it, add one tablespoon of chia seed to 2 cups of water (or coconut water) and 1/2 tbsp fresh lemon, then sweeten with a teaspoon of honey, agave nectar or stevia. Allow it to sit for 10 minutes, or until the seeds completely swell.
10. Add to salad dressing
Add substance to salad dressing and add whisk in some chia seeds. The longer the salad dressing stands, the thicker it gets. Why not substitute poppy seeds with chia in a classic poppy seed dressing.
11. To make granola bars
For a healthy and delectable treat make your own chia seed granola bars. It’s quick to make and requires next to no skill in the kitchen. Just combine dates, oats, chia seeds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds and dried Goji berries, spread on a baking sheet and bake for 30 minutes. Could it be any easier?
12. To make chia pops
There aren’t many things in life better than a cool, refreshing treat on a hot summer’s day. Chia popsicles are as easy to make as 1-2-3. One, blend fruit, chia seeds, liquid, and sweetener. Two, pour into popsciple forms and freeze. Three, take out of freezer and enjoy. Takes less than 10 minutes (to make – not freeze!) and they’re low on calories and high on nutrients.
13. As a substitute for breading
Mix some almond flour, a little bit of garlic paste and some chia seeds together and use it to coat your fish and chicken. You can also use ground chia seeds only – you’ll get the same nutty and crunchy texture and flavor.
14. To make jam, jelly or spread
Looking for an entirely natural, low-sugar jam you can make in a minute? Asking for the impossible? Nope. Chia seeds gelatinous texture is ideally suited to making jam. While not exactly like regular jam, it comes pretty close. All you need is fresh fruit, chia seeds, honey, lemon and water.
To make it simmer fruit with just a little bit of honey until it’s liquidy. Add chia seeds and stir in. Remove from the stove and allow the jam set and cool. Transfer to an air tight container and store in the fridge for 1 – 2 weeks. And just like that you’ve made yourself a simple, healthy jam. If you’re in a real hurry and don’t want to use the stove, mix chia seeds with pureed fruit, sweeten to taste and let sit for 30 minutes for a no-cook fruit spread.
15. Straight up!
You can also chew a few tablespoons of chia seeds for an extremely quick breakfast but be forewarned: they stick to teeth like crazy!
If you’re into sprouting seeds, why not sprout some chia seeds for your salads? All you’ve gotta do is disperse about a tablespoon of seeds on a wet plate and slowly pour some water in the plate to soak the seeds. The follwing day, sprinkle some more water on the seeds if the water has been absorbed. And soon you’ll see some tiny green shoots popping out. Too much effort? (Seriously?!) Just sprinkle whole (unsprouted) chia seeds on top of your favorite salad — you’ll hardly taste them, but they’ll add sublet crunch to your salad.
Adults: 2 tablespoons per day
Kids: 1 tablespoon per day
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- Chicco, A. G., D’Alessandro, M. E., Hein, G. J., Oliva, M. E., & Lombardo, Y. B. (2009). Dietary chia seed (Salvia hispanica L.) rich in α-linolenic acid improves adiposity and normalises hypertriacylglycerolaemia and insulin resistance in dyslipaemic rats. British journal of nutrition, 101(01), 41-50.
- Espada, C. E., Berra, M. A., Martinez, M. J., Eynard, A. R., & Pasqualini, M. E. (2007). Effect of Chia oil (Salvia Hispanica) rich in ω-3 fatty acids on the eicosanoid release, apoptosis and T-lymphocyte tumor infiltration in a murine mammary gland adenocarcinoma. Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids, 77(1), 21-28.
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- Jin, F., Nieman, D. C., Sha, W., Xie, G., Qiu, Y., & Jia, W. (2012). Supplementation of milled chia seeds increases plasma ALA and EPA in postmenopausal women. Plant foods for human nutrition, 67(2), 105-110.
- Illian, T. G., Casey, J. C., & Bishop, P. A. (2011). Omega 3 chia seed loading as a means of carbohydrate loading. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 25(1), 61-65.