The Top 5 Health Benefits Of Chia Seeds: Digestion, Heart Health & More
Thanks to their tiny, unobtrusive size and ability to thicken any drink, pudding, or homemade jam in a flash, chia seeds have become a popular pantry item in recent years. But if you haven't hopped on the bandwagon just yet, the seeds' health perks may very well convince you to make the leap.
Ahead, we break down the main chia seed benefits, nutrition profile, and how to incorporate the seed into your diet, all backed by health experts and the latest research.
What are chia seeds?
With origins in Mexico and northern Guatemala, the chia plant is also grown in Australia, Bolivia, Columbia, Peru, and Argentina, among other countries. It was traditionally used for medicinal purposes and food in Aztec and Mayan societies, but today, the plant is primarily grown for its edible seeds1.
Just 2 millimeters long, chia seeds vary in color: You'll find black, gray, white, and black-spotted varieties (which run $7 to $9 per 12 ounces), but their nutritional profiles are nearly identical1. The mild-flavored seeds are most well known for their highly absorbent nature, says Whitney Crouch, RDN, CLT, an integrative dietitian and LEAP therapist.
"The seeds are hard until they're moistened, and I often see them used in dishes where they're able to absorb some liquid," she explains. "When they absorb liquid, they become gelatinous on the outside and, depending on how much liquid they have, they might still have a little bit of crunch on the inside."
Chia seed nutrition
- Calories: 138
- Carbohydrates: 11.9 grams
- Fat: 8.7 grams
- Fiber: 9.75 grams
- Protein: 4.68 grams
- Calcium: 179 milligrams
- Potassium: 115 milligrams
- Magnesium: 95 milligrams
- Iron: 2.19 milligrams
Fiber is the standout nutrient in chia seeds, offering nearly 35% of the recommended dietary allowance per ounce. "For their size, [chia seeds] pack a lot of fiber, and when compared to other foods gram [per] gram, chia has one of the highest amounts of fiber," says Dana G. Cohen, M.D., an integrative medicine practitioner.
Rich in omega-3 fatty acids, chia seeds offer high amounts of polyunsaturated fats2 and minimal monounsaturated and saturated fats. "A wealth of research shows that omega-3 fatty acids are especially important for our health, and you have to get them from food because your body can't make them on its own," says Cohen. "Research shows that omega-3s play a role in everything from lowering blood pressure and balancing cholesterol3 to fighting age-related memory loss and Alzheimer's disease4."
To top it off, chia seeds offer micronutrients such as calcium, potassium, iron, and magnesium, says Crouch.
Chia seed benefits:
They support cardiovascular health.
Thanks to their omega-3 fatty acid content, chia seeds may help prevent heart disease and sudden death from heart attack, says Cohen.
Studies suggest that chia seeds build blood levels of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)—types of omega-3 fatty acids—and, in turn, may counteract cardiovascular illnesses5. In a meta-analysis of 14 studies, researchers found that increasing ALA intake by just 1 gram per day was linked with a 12% decrease in fatal coronary heart disease risk6.
Research on the food, specifically, also backs up this chia seed benefit: A meta-analysis found that consuming chia seeds has a protective effect on the lipid profile7, helping to reduce total cholesterol, triglyceride levels, and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels.
High LDL cholesterol levels are linked with plaque buildup in blood vessels that can contribute to heart disease, stroke, and, when combined with high triglyceride levels, also increase your risk of heart attack8. In the meta-analysis, chia seeds were also found to increase high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, which can help lower your risk of heart disease and stroke.
They may prevent constipation.
Both types of fiber play a role in preventing constipation, says Crouch. Insoluble fiber particles have also been found to irritate the gut lining, leading to water and mucus secretion, and gel-forming soluble fiber resists dehydration, both of which lead to a higher water content in stool that makes it bulky, soft, and easy to pass, research shows10.
They may reduce cancer risk (but we need more research to know for sure).
Despite their small size, chia seeds boast a large number of natural antioxidants, including tocopherols, phytosterols, carotenoids, and polyphenolic compounds1. These plant compounds work to neutralize free radicals, highly unstable molecules that trigger oxidative stress and may contribute to cardiovascular disease and cancer development.
Initial research on rats induced with breast cancer suggests the oil extracted from chia seeds may inhibit cancer cells12, but more studies need to be conducted before applying this finding to the general population.
They may help control blood sugar and reduce diabetes risk.
Since chia seeds are rich in fiber and fat, they can help keep your blood sugar stabilized after a meal, says Crouch. "[These nutrients] slow the rate that your stomach dumps food into your intestines, as well as the rate that food is digested and absorbed into your body, which then reduces spikes in blood sugar," she explains.
In the long run, consuming this fiber-rich ingredient can also support your metabolic health. Consuming high amounts of dietary fiber, particularly cereal fiber, may reduce the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes13. Chia seeds' phenols—compounds that can act as14 antioxidants—may also help prevent oxidative stress15 caused by free radicals, which can contribute to the development of diabetes16.
They contain minerals that support bone health.
For 19- to 31-year-old women, an ounce of chia seeds provides nearly 31% of the RDA for magnesium—a mineral that's often under-consumed, says Crouch. "Magnesium is involved in hundreds of enzymatic reactions in the body, so every body system is impacted by not having enough of it in your diet or in your supplement," she explains.
Additionally, chia seeds offer roughly 18% of the RDA for calcium, another mineral that makes up the structure of bones and teeth18. Just like magnesium, calcium can help increase bone mineral density, with one meta-analysis finding that consuming more calcium from dietary sources led to small improvements in bone mineral density19 in the hips, lumbar spine, and femoral neck after two years.
How to eat them
There's no set amount of chia seeds you should aim to eat daily to enjoy their benefits, according to the experts. However, 1 to 3 tablespoons is considered a standard serving, says Crouch, so you may want to consume that amount if you're looking to eat chia seeds every day. Thankfully, due to their mild flavor, chia seeds are relatively easy to mix into your meals.
As a dessert:
For a tasty yet good-for-you dessert, Cohen recommends whipping up a chia pudding. "My favorite is 1 cup coconut milk, ¼ cup chia seeds, ¼ teaspoon vanilla extract, and maple syrup to taste," she explains. "Whisk together and refrigerate for a few hours. You can then add anything you like—berries, bananas, chocolate shavings, jams, coconut, [or] almond slivers." This chia pudding recipe combines many of those mix-ins into one sweet-tooth-satisfying dessert.
Added to smoothies or yogurt:
To up the fiber in baked goods:
Aside from those conventional uses, Crouch prefers to incorporate them into muffins and pancakes. The added chia seeds will boost the fiber and protein content of the carb-heavy meals without altering the flavor profile much. Just use extra liquid in your batter to account for the seeds' absorption effect, she recommends.
What about chia powder?
There aren't any nutritional benefits to choosing chia powder over whole chia seeds, says Crouch. Chia powder may have a stronger nutty flavor than the seeds, so it can be a better option for savory uses (think a thickening agent in a soup or broth), she adds. However, you may be better off using whole seeds for dishes like chia pudding, as the powder may make the texture a bit thick and off-putting to some individuals.
How do they compare to other seeds?
Chia seeds vs. Flaxseeds:
The biggest difference: Flaxseeds need to be ground into a powder before consumption, says Crouch. "Your body can't break through the hard shell of those little flaxseeds, so often people will consume them and then see them come out in their stool," she explains. "But if they are ground, then the body doesn't have to break through those cell walls and can access those nutrients."
Chia seeds vs. Hemp seeds:
The edible fruits21 of the Cannabis sativa L. plant, hemp seeds are higher in protein than both chia and flaxseeds, offering22 9.48 grams per 3 tablespoons, says Crouch. That said, hemp seeds are often shelled (aka hemp hearts), so they offer significantly less fiber (1.2 grams) per serving than chia seeds.
Buying and storage tips
Ready to start nabbing those chia seed benefits? When shopping for chia seeds, opt for organic brands, suggests Crouch. Weeds can affect the yield and quality of chia plants, particularly in the first 45 days of growth, so herbicides may be applied to control them. With organic crops, pests, weeds, and diseases will be managed via mechanical and biological methods rather than synthetic options.
You'll also want to avoid buying from bulk bins, as there's no way to determine how long they've been in the containers and potentially going rancid, adds Crouch.
Once you've stocked up, store your whole chia seeds in a cool, dry spot, such as a pantry or cupboard, for up to five years. To prevent chia powder from going rancid, store it in the fridge or freezer in a sealed container for a long shelf life, suggests Crouch.
Chia seed side effects
When first incorporating chia seeds into your diet, make sure to take a slow and steady approach. "It can cause some GI upset and some distress in the bowels if someone goes from zero to 100 with chia seeds—or any fiber for that matter," says Crouch. Gradually increase your consumption to build up your gut's tolerance. As you do so, make sure to stay on top of your fluid consumption, as the absorbent chia seeds can cause constipation if you're not hydrating well enough, she notes.
How many chia seeds should you eat a day?
There's no "best" amount of chia seeds to eat each day, and it's best to incorporate a variety of seeds—flax, hemp, sunflower, you name it—into your diet to ensure you're getting a wide array of micronutrients, says Cohen. But if you're looking for a general guideline, 1 to 3 tablespoons of chia seeds is considered the standard serving size, says Crouch, and the seeds are safe to eat daily.
What are the side effects of chia seeds?
Some folks can experience GI distress and excessive gas when first incorporating chia seeds into their diet. But starting with small amounts and gradually building your tolerance can help prevent this side effect of chia seeds.
What are the benefits of chia seeds in water?
Adding chia seeds to your morning glass of water will give you the same benefits as consuming chia seeds in any other form, whether that's in a pudding, sprinkled on yogurt, or in a baked treat, says Cohen. If you want to mix chia seeds in your water, go for it, adds Cohen. But there are plenty of other—usually more appetizing—ways you can score their benefits, so don't force yourself to down a cup, she notes.
Don't be fooled by their small size: Chia seeds have plenty of benefits to offer, including improved cardiovascular and bone health, reduced risk of cancer and diabetes, and better bowel movements. While chia seeds may cause digestive upset, this side effect can usually be prevented by slowly adding them to your diet. Along with other seed varieties, chia seeds are well worth stashing in your pantry and mixing into your everyday meals.
Megan Falk is an experienced health and wellness journalist whose work has appeared in publications such as SHAPE.com, Health.com, LIVESTRONG.com, Equinox, DoctorOz.com, and SAVEUR magazine, among others. Most recently, she was the assistant editor at SHAPE.com, primarily covering exercise tips, fitness modalities, workout trends, nutrition, and more.
Megan is a graduate of Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications with a bachelor's degree in Magazine Journalism and a minor in Food Studies. She's also a certified personal trainer through the American Council on Exercise.