All The Health Benefits Of Chia Seeds + A Few Recipes You Haven't Tried Yet
Chia seeds are often lauded as teeny tiny superfood staples that belong in every kitchen pantry—but are they worth the hype? Well, between the seeds' impressive nutrition profile and versatility in baking, sipping, and sprinkling, there's lots to love. Let's take a look at some of their nutritional benefits and how to eat them.
So what are chia seeds?
Chia seeds are from the Salvia Hispanica L. plant, a member of the mint family. At one time, pre-Chia pet craze of the '90s, chia seeds were cultivated as a food source in Central and South America, and legend has it that they were cultivated as early as 3500 B.C. and used as an offering to the Aztec gods. A related plant, Salvia columbariae (golden chia), was used in the Southwestern United States by Native Americans too.
These days, you'll usually see one of two varieties of the seeds: white or gray-black. Brown varieties, while seen a little less often, are also used—these are just seeds that have not fully matured.
What about their nutritional benefits?
Here are the basics: Two tablespoons of chia seeds come out to be about 140 calories with 4 grams of protein, 7 grams of unsaturated fat, and 11 grams of fiber. While they also contain trace minerals like zinc and copper as well as antioxidants, they pack a whopping 18 percent of your recommended daily amount of calcium. Chia seeds are also complete proteins, meaning they have all nine of the essential amino acids the body can't make on its own.
There seem to be a few factors that play into the nutritional profile of these tiny superfoods: the fatty acids and all that fiber. Their omega-3 fatty acids and alpha-linolenic acids (ALA) have been shown to have a positive effect on cardiovascular health in some studies. One body of research found that women who ate more ALA fatty acids had a 40 percent reduced risk of sudden cardiac death, while the Cardiovascular Health Study found that there was a 50 percent reduced risk of fatal ischemic heart disease with higher ALA intakes in both men and women over age 65.
There's also reason to believe that chia seeds might help lower LDL cholesterol and regulate appetite levels by promoting feelings of fullness. One study found that chia seeds paired with yogurt as a midmorning snack worked for short-term satiety. Another study on rats found that long-term intake of chia seeds was associated with increased bone mineral content. After 13 months, the bone mineral content of those fed chia seeds was significantly higher than that of the controls.
With that said, it's important to note that many of the research studies on chia seeds have been animal studies or small-scale human studies. A review published in the Journal of Biomedicine and Biotechnology found that the scientific evidence solidifying the health benefits of chia seeds is small. More studies really need to be done to verify their alleged benefits. With that being said, there is no doubt that they are packed with nutrients, so there's no harm in eating them if they agree with you.
How should I eat 'em?
Chia seeds are delicate and easy to digest whole, so there's no need to grind them like flaxseeds. (We'll take some simplification any day of the week, thank you very much.) Chia seeds barely have any flavor of their own, which makes them easy to sneak into a variety of dishes so you can reap the nutritional benefits.
When cooking with chia seeds at home, I love using them as toppings sprinkled over things like yogurt, oats, salads, and grain bowls or as add-ins for muffin and bread recipes. Just remember: When combined with liquid, chia seeds absorb it and form a gel-like consistency, so start with just a tablespoon or two and see how it goes. You can take advantage of this reaction by adding chia to homemade dressings and sauces for some more creaminess.
Here are some more ways to eat chia seeds at various points in the day:
Chia Vegan "Eggs":
Since chia seeds become a binding agent when wet, they actually make for an excellent vegan egg replacement. To make this egg-like substance, mbg's food director Liz Moody recommends grinding 1 tablespoon of chia seeds until powdery using a coffee or spice grinder (or with some upper-body strength and a mortar and pestle) and then adding 3 tablespoons of water. After about 5 minutes, the mixture is ready to use in baking!
Chia Seed Pudding:
If you haven't tried chia pudding yet, prepare for your life to change. To make the creamy treat, simply combine chia seeds with a milk or milk alternative (in a ratio of 1 cup liquid to 3 tablespoons of seeds) and throw in a bit of sweetening. You can also add in spices, matcha, or a hit of flavor and color with beet root powder. Give it a good stir and let it sit for 30 minutes.
You can get creative and use any type of milk or plant-based milk for the base and any sweetener of your choice from honey to dates or maple syrup. If you're craving something more decadent, throw in some cacao. Something more breakfast-y? Add some fresh fruit. And If you're over the top in love with chia, you can even layer your chia pudding into a parfait with a fruit chia jam, like the one below.
Chia Seed Jam:
Chia jam simulates the gelled texture of a fruit jam, but it doesn't need as much time or effort to make. To make your own berry-based chia seed jam, add a fresh or frozen berry of your choice to a small pot on the stove and cook over medium heat. Keep stirring and break apart the fruit, then add your chia seeds. A good rule of thumb is to use a cup of berries and 1 to 2 teaspoons of chia seeds. Grate in a hit of orange or lemon to brighten up your easy jam.
Also known as bliss balls or power bites, these little snacks that combine oats and nut butter are the perfect place for a hit of chia seeds. The seeds will help hold the other ingredients together with their gel power. To make your own bites, play with ingredients like oats, nuts, nut butter, and dates as well as adaptogen powders, chia seeds, or even coconut. Use a food processor to blend everything together, roll the batter between your hands into a ball, and store in the fridge or freezer. If you're looking for inspiration, check out mbg's recipes for bliss balls for glowing skin and a quick immunity boost.
To store your chia seeds, place them in a cool, dry space. Remember, any liquid will cause them to gel, so keep 'em dry until you get cooking! You should be able to find them in most groceries or health food stores, or online. If you're buying in bulk, you're in the clear! Many resources say chia seeds don't start to expire for at least two years.
Cooking with chia seeds can be really fun once you get the hang of it (so. many. combinations!). Are they a cure-all for every health issue? No. We can still use some more studies on their benefits, but that shouldn't keep you from enjoying them.