Chia seeds are one of the most popular foods in the health and wellness community but do really know what they are, what health benefits they have, and how to use them. Learn everything you've ever wanted to know about chia seeds and find some great recipes for how to use them.
Chia seeds are one of the most versatile superfoods and the easiest to add to your diet. Learn all about the benefits of chia seeds, nutritional content, side effects, and find delicious recipes for using chia seeds at home.
Once upon a time, not so long ago, the only time you may have heard about chia seeds was for novelty purposes. The seeds were sown and watered and used to grow “hair” on ceramic puppies, kittens, cartoon characters, and other goofy-grinned sculpted heads. No one thought about the health benefits of eating the seeds at the time, that is not until recently.
That wasn’t the case hundreds of years ago. The ancient Mayans and Aztec cultures were said to have regularly used the seed for its supposed “super powers.” It was believed to fuel warriors when they had to run very long distances and also was used in religious sacrifices.
Turns out, these cultures were onto something. The chia seed is a great source of energy, helps with weight loss, is full of nutrients, and can be used in lots of recipes – from puddings to its use as a substitute for eggs.
Are Chia Seeds Good for You?
In a nutshell, yes! Chia seeds are a great way to get your fill of omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, iron, calcium, and a host of antioxidants. They are also great for those of you trying to lose or maintain your weight, as they contain lots of fiber to help fill you up. The seeds will also expand in your stomach (they can absorb more than ten times their weight in liquid) which not only slows down your digestion but can also slow the conversion of carbs into sugar.
The Nutritional Makeup of Chia Seeds
Chia seeds are not only great for weight loss but also contain a slew of other good-for-you vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. According to the USDA, one tablespoon of chia seeds contains:
- 60 calories
- 3 grams protein
- 4 grams fat
- 4 grams carbs
- 4 grams fiber
- 0 grams sugar
- Also contain a healthy dose of calcium, iron, phosphorus, and magnesium.
The Health Benefits of Chia Seeds
They are filling. As a general rule, men and women between the ages of 18 and 50 should aim to get between 30 to 38 grams of fiber a day (men) and 25 grams a day (women). The fiber recommendation goes down to 21 grams a day if you are a woman 51 years old or older. Since chia seeds contain 4 grams of fiber per tablespoon, that means you could be getting a quarter of your daily fiber needs met by sprinkling on a couple of tablespoons of chia seeds onto your cereal or in your favorite breakfast smoothie.
Adequate fiber intake is important for your body as it helps to prevent and relieve constipation. Fiber also helps to keep your body weight within a healthy range and also lowers your risk of heart disease and diabetes.
They pack a protein punch. Protein is a necessary component of every cell in your body. From tissue growth and repair to our nails, skin, and hair, we need to make sure we are getting adequate protein to function properly. It’s also important that we get the right kind of protein--a complete one. Complete proteins contain all of the amino acids our body needs. Typically, complete proteins are found in animal products. Chia seeds, however, are the only plant to contain complete protein. This is great news for vegetarians and vegans.
They are low-calorie. Chia seeds are a low-calorie food that helps fill you up – that’s why it’s a great food to keep in your weight-loss arsenal. When added to water or other liquids, the seeds expand to take up more room. Think about what that means for your favorite cereal. Sprinkling just one tablespoon of chia seeds into your morning bowl of cereal adds only 60 calories but can keep you full through lunch! No more hitting the vending machine for that 10 a.m. snack.
They contain omega-3 fatty acids. Hallelujah for good fats! Chia seeds contain the most Omega-3s of any plant sources. Omega-3s come in several forms. There’s the DHA and EPA found in fish and ALAs found in nuts, seeds, dark leafy vegetables, and other plants. Omega-3s found in chia seeds can help lower your risk of dementia, heart disease, depression, and arthritis. It can also help to quell inflammation in your body and can slow down the buildup of plaque inside your arteries and veins. Although your body can convert some ALA into DHA, it’s best to get your omega-3s from a combination of fish and plant sources.
They contain iron. Chia seeds are also a good source of iron. Iron is an essential mineral that is needed to create hemoglobin, which your body uses to transport oxygen. If you’re feeling sluggish, maybe a lack of iron is the culprit.
They make strong bones. Building up strong bones is as easy as consuming a daily dose of chia seeds. Three tablespoons of chia seeds contain nearly the same amount of calcium as one cup of milk. This is important to keep in mind if you are vegan or lactose intolerant.
They are low in fat. Chia seeds contain only 4 grams of fat per tablespoon, none of which is saturated or trans fat. Instead, the fat is polyunsaturated and monounsaturated. Plus, the seeds are full of Omega-3 fatty acids--all good things.
They contain antioxidants. Although your body can make some antioxidants on its own, it needs some help. Your body produces things called free radicals as a byproduct of creating energy from the oxygen we breathe. Free radicals can mess with our bodies at a molecular level within our cells and can cause oxidative damage to our cells’ proteins, genes, and membranes. Luckily, there are a myriad of foods you can eat to combat these free radicals, chief among them is the almighty chia seed. Chia seeds contain some of the highest antioxidant levels in the plant world.
They keep you hydrated. One of the reasons ancient civilizations believed fueling up on chia seeds gave them super endurance might be because they also kept the warriors hydrated. Since a tablespoon of chia seeds can hold up to ten times its weight in moisture, ingesting a drink containing chia seeds can help keep you hydrated – whether that’s for a 5K or weeding your garden.
They can help you sleep better. Chia seeds also contain tryptophan, an amino acid that can help put you in a good mood, help you sleep better, and make you feel calmer overall. Have a serving of chia seed pudding after dinner and drift off to sleep faster.
How to Pick Chia Seeds
Chia seeds are a member of the flowering mint family, Salvia hispanica. Although they are harvested mainly in Central and South America, you need only go as far as your local grocery or health foods store to purchase them. Chia seeds are naturally black or white. Avoid purchasing any that are completely brown.
All chia seeds are gluten free and vegan, but not all are GMO-free so check the packaging if you are looking for GMO-free foods.
How to Store Chia Seeds
Chia seeds can be stored for several years in an airtight container and in a cool, dry place.
Can Chia Seeds Be Bad for You?
Although you can eat chia seeds raw, they also form a “gel” of sorts when mixed with water. These could lead to a choking hazard if not eaten carefully and slowly. It’s best to mix them into recipes or to sprinkle them on top of salads, smoothies, cereals, or other grains.
Because of this hazard, you should also abstain from giving chia seeds to small children.
A diet that’s high in fiber, including the fiber found in chia seeds, has been known to lead to problems with your digestive systems. Issues can include bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhea, constipation, and gas if you overeat chia seeds. Even healthy foods should be eaten in moderation.
Like any other foods, chia seeds should be only one component of a healthy diet and not the only component. It’s good to mix up your healthy foods and to eat the rainbow.
How to Eat Chia Seeds
- In a pudding. One of the most common ways to eat chia seeds is in a pudding. When the chia seeds absorb a liquid, they take on a tapioca-like consistency. You can add any milk – regular, or plant-based, or just about any liquid you love to the seeds and wait. Fancy it up a bit by adding in some fruit, cinnamon or other spices, like I did in this Banana Coconut Chia Seed Pudding.
- As an egg substitute. Egg allergy? On a vegan diet? Simply run out of eggs? Fear not, a fabulous egg substitute is as close as your pantry. Grind up 1 tablespoon of chia seeds in your food processor. Add the ground chia seeds to 3 tablespoons of water and let the mixture sit for five minutes or it takes on the look and feel of a raw egg yolk. This recipe makes one egg replacement.
- Overnight oats. Because I am a big fan of any recipe that is both healthy and time-saving, I love putting together these Blueberry Chia Overnight Oats. Add the chia seeds to oats along with almond milk, fruit, and a natural sweetener, if desired. Pop these babies in the fridge and voila – your healthy breakfast is ready when you are in the morning.
- As a topping. Made the meal, then remembered you had chia seeds in your pantry? No worries – just sprinkle a tablespoon or two on top of just about anything. Add 1 tablespoon of chia seeds to your smoothie bowl, salad, cereal, or favorite juice blend. Just remember they absorb liquid so don’t go overboard.
- Add them to pancakes. I love pancakes. Easy to make, easy to add in healthy ingredients, and easy to mix up, I’d say pancakes are almost a perfect breakfast food. If you have just 20 minutes, then you can have Lemon Blueberry Chia Seed Pancakes ready to fill your belly or your family’s.
- Bake with chia seeds. Is there such a thing as a healthy muffin? I say heck yes. Packed full of good-for-you ingredients, these Banana Quinoa Chia Seed Muffins combine quinoa, whole wheat flour, banana, almond milk, and chia seeds for a make-ahead muffin you’ll love to grab on the go or sit and savor with a hot cup of coffee and a good book.
- In a spreadable jam. My Berry Chia Seed Jam recipe is worth the extra time in the kitchen. At just 36 calories per 2 tablespoon serving, you’ll want to spread this mixture of blueberries, strawberries, chia seeds, and vanilla on every baked good you can find.
- Layer into parfaits. If you like chia seed pudding but want to spice it up a bit, consider layering the pudding with other good-for-you ingredients. In my Make Ahead Fruit, Chia, and Flax Parfait I share with you how to do just that.
- Blend into bars. I love bars in all forms. But a lot of the ones you’ll find in the grocery store labeled “energy” are actually full of sugar. They are easier and healthier to make right in your own kitchen than you might think. Plus, they’re portable and kids love them too. I incorporated chia seeds into my favorite No Bake Peanut Butter Banana Oat Bars for a daily dose of fiber and Omega-3s.