If you hear people talking about “chia seeds” these days, the name is more likely to conjure images of skinny celebrities than those eponymous “hair”-growing toys. But what are chia seeds, and what should you think about them?
There are all manner of “facts” about chia seeds out there—from their ancient history, to their nutritional benefits, to their role as magic weight-loss bullet. In this article, I’ll discuss the things you should know about chia seeds: from which claims about them are myths, to how they can help as part of a successful weight-loss strategy.
1. What are Chia Seeds?
Chia seeds are the edible seeds of a desert plant (Salvia hispanica) that’s currently grown in Mexico and dates back centuries. Used by the ancient Mayans and Aztecs as an energy boost on long journeys, the word chia means “strength.” And this isn’t surprising, considering the myriad health benefits packed into these tiny seeds: chia seeds are a superfood, and the complete list of their health benefits could take up the entirely of this article. Instead, I’ll discuss a compressed version in the next section.
2. What are The Health Benefits of Chia Seeds?
The health benefits of chia seeds are numerous: gram for gram, chia seeds contain eight times more omega-3 fatty acids than wild salmon, contributing to heart and brain health; six times more calcium than milk, contributing to strong bones and teeth; six times more protein than kidney beans, improving joint mobility and making you feel fuller, longer; four times more selenium than flax seed, maintaining “good” (HDL) cholesterol levels while lowering “bad” (LDL) cholesterol levels; three times more iron than spinach, preventing fatigue (especially important for vegetarians and vegans); and 15 times more magnesium than broccoli, helping to build lean muscle and strengthen bones. Chia seeds also contain more antioxidants than blueberries and more fiber than bran flakes—in fact, 11 of the 12 total grams of carbohydrates in an ounce of seeds are soluble fiber. (Soluble fiber is important for stabilizing your blood sugar, warding off “sugar spikes” and crashes; in addition, their fiber percentage means that they technically are a “low-carb” food, since they contain only one gram per serving of non-fiber carbs.)
What does this lengthy (and still incomplete) list mean? Well, in addition to the benefits listed, they also have been proven to actually treat type-2 diabetes by preventing sugar-spikes. In one study, diabetic patients who were given chia seeds for 12 weeks had on average decreased blood pressure, decreased presence of an inflammatory marker called hs-CRP, decreased vWF (a diabetes risk factor), and a small drop in blood sugar. (Control patients who had been given wheat bran instead did not display any changes.)
Finally, unlike flax seeds (which also contain numerous nutrients, though many of them are impossible for your body to digest), chia seeds can be fully digested whole as well as ground: this means you can easily sprinkle them on top of smoothies, salads, oatmeal, and more; and immediately start reaping their nutritious reward.
3. Can Chia Seeds Be Used For Weight Loss?
The contributions of chia seeds to weight loss is an extremely controversial topic; however, the reason for this is probably due to hyped up advertising and impossible promises. In this section I’ll discuss the reason for the debate, as well as the current stance on chia seeds for weight loss.
Because of their many health benefits, chia seeds have been lauded as a weight loss magic bullet. Many “chia seed diet” plans involve just adding chia seeds to your diet: at least two tablespoons twice a day. However, there are no studies indicating that this means of “dieting” is successful. Though study participants who did add the recommended portions of chia to their meals gained many of the health benefits listed above—better cholesterol levels, stronger bones, etc.—there was no evidence of weight loss and no difference in weight loss from control participants who did not add chia to their diets.
Does this mean that chia seeds are useless for weight loss? NO: it just means that, like so many other “magic bullet” foods, chia seeds alone won’t make you lose weight. However, if you use chia seeds properly in combination with exercise and other healthy food choices, then there’s good reason to believe that they can help you lose weight faster than diet and exercise alone. In the next section, I’ll discuss how you can use chia seeds as part of a successful, healthy weight-loss plan.
4. How Should You Ingest Chia Seeds for Weight Loss?
It’s true that, thanks to their fiber load and the gel-like substance that forms around the seeds when ingested, chia seeds can reduce your appetite and food cravings; they also stabilize your blood sugar so that you don’t find yourself in the middle of the day desperately wanting whatever food is closest (probably something incredible unhealthy from the vending machine) because your blood sugar has dropped. However, these craving- and appetite-reducing properties don’t kick in until after you’ve ingested the chia seeds: so if you’ve just added them to a giant hamburger and eaten it, chia seeds can’t undo the harm (both weight-wise and health-wise) that hamburger just caused.
Instead, be smart about how you ingest your chia seeds. Don’t just add them to your regular meals; instead, eat different meals that might not have kept you full before but now, thanks to the magic of chia seeds, will keep you going as long or longer than that hamburger.
Adding chia seeds to oatmeal is a great way to start the day. First of all, oatmeal is a healthy food on its own. With the added power of chia, though, that bowl of oatmeal can keep you full until lunchtime. If you put two tablespoons of chia in your morning oats, you’ll have to add much more water to the oatmeal than you normally do, since chia seeds absorb an incredible amount of water. This won’t make the oatmeal taste watery, though, because the chia seeds develop a gel-like coating (kind of like tapioca).
Your chia oatmeal will seem and feel like a bigger meal than it is because of the excess water, and the protein and fiber of the added chia seeds will ward off your appetite and food cravings for hours. Similarly, you can soak chia in water, almond milk, (pure fruit) juice, etc. to make a tasty, filling pudding with lots of nutrients and very few calories for an afternoon snack or dessert. (I like almond milk best; especially with some cinnamon for sweetness—and, if necessary, a touch of maple syrup or a few drops of stevia.)
Another way that they can help you lose weight is as a pre-exercise boost: the name doesn’t mean “strength” for nothing! Studies have shown that water full of chia seeds is just as (if not more) effective as energy drinks for boosting athletes’ stamina and endurance than water alone. Drink a bottle of water with two tablespoons of seeds soaked inside it before your workouts. The texture takes some getting used to, but the increased strength and energy you’ll get from the seeds will make your workouts much more effective: you’ll be able to workout longer and harder, and thus burn far more calories than you would otherwise. You’ll also suffer less from post-workout cramps and hunger pangs thanks to the sustaining power of chia.
These are just a few examples, but this general idea—they can help you get more from both your meals and your workouts—will help you lose weight with chia. No, they’re not a weight-loss magic bullet; but when used cleverly and correctly, they can be an incredible weight-loss aid.
Alfredo, V. et al. (2009). Physicochemical properties of a fibrous fraction from chia (Salvia hispanica L.), 42 (1): 168-173.
- Authority Nutrition. “11 proven benefits of chia seeds (no. 3 is best),” K. Gunnars. Available: <http://authoritynutrition.com/11-proven-health-benefits-of-chia-seeds/>.
- Huffington Post Canada. “Chia seed benefits: 10 reasons to add chia to your diet,” T. Coles. Available: <http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/06/03/chia-seed-benefits-_n_3379831.html>.
- Illian T. et al. (2011). Omega 3 Chia seed loading as a means of carbohydrate loading. J Strength Cond Res. 25 (1): 61-65.
- Martinez-Cruz, O. & O. Paredes-Lopez. (2014). Phytochemical profile and nutraceutical potential of chia seeds (Salvia hispanica L.) by ultra high performance liquid chromatography. J Chromatogr A. 1346: 43-48.
- Niemen, D.C., et al. (2012). Chia seed supplementation and disease risk factors in overweight women: a metabolomics investigation. J Altern Complement Med. 18 (7): 700-708.
- SELF Nutrition Data. “Nutrition facts and analysis for seeds, chia seeds, dried.” Available: <http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/nut-and-seed-products/3061/2>.
- SF Gate: Healthy Eating. “Chia seed nutrition.” S. Styles. Available: <http://healthyeating.sfgate.com/chia-seed-nutrition-4581.html>.
- WebMD. “The truth about chia: can chia seeds really help you lose weight?” K. Zelman. Available: <http://www.webmd.com/diet/features/truth-about-chia>.
- Weigle, D. et al. (2005). A high-protein diet indices sustained reductions in appetite, ad libitum caloric intake, and body weight despite compensatory changes in diurnal plasma leptin and ghrelin concentrations. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 82 (1): 41-48.