CHIA SEEDS – Health Benefits*
Salvia hispanica, commonly known as CHIA, is a species of flowering plant in the mint family. It originated in the central valley of Mexico.
The word chia is derived from the Aztec word chian, meaning ‘oily’. Records indicate that chia seeds were used as a food source as far back as 2500BC. It is recognised as a ‘superfood’ by the Aztecs.
Chia is grown commercially for its seed, a food that is very rich in omega-3 fatty acids, since the seeds have a high yield of extractable oil, mostly alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).
Recently in Australia, chia has become popular, and is highly recommended as an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids. For example, some bread manufacturers are adding the seeds to selected products, with heavy promotion.
Chia seeds are typically small, with a diameter of about 1mm, a little larger than poppy seeds.
Chia seeds come in two colours, black and greyish white. Some distributors of chia seeds claim that only the white seeds are the nutritious ones. However, studies are showing that the difference is not so much the seed colour, but is more related to where the seed is grown and the soil nutrition of the area.
Chia seeds on average contain 20% protein, 34% oil, at least 25% dietary fibre (mostly soluble) and significant levels of antioxidants. They are gluten free.
The oil from the chia seeds contains a very high concentration of omega-3 fatty acids, up to 65%, variable, as mentioned above, depending on the soil and other environmental factors.
One typical analysis of white chia shows the following re fat content per 100gm of seed (averages): total fat 34.0gm, made up of saturated 4.0gm, polyunsaturated 26.4gm, monounsaturated 3.3gm, trans 0.3gm. Included are the essential fatty acids omega3 ALA 19.3gm and omega6 7.1gm.
Chia seeds are highly stable, due to their powerful naturally occurring antioxidants.
Chia seeds can be eaten raw as a dietary fibre and omega-3 supplement. They can be used as a snack, perhaps mixed with nuts.
The seeds can be blended or ground and added to baked goods including breads, cakes and biscuits.
When soaked in water or fruit juice, the seeds become gelatinous in texture within half an hour, and as such can be used in porridges and puddings.
Chia seeds can be sprouted and can be used in a similar manner to alfalfa sprouts in salads, sandwiches and other dishes.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids – Why we Need Them
Omega-3 fatty acids are healthy fats that reduce inflammation, inhibit cancer development and protect our blood vessels. The basic building block of omega-3 fat is alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). ALA can be found in most nuts and seeds, but flaxseeds, walnuts and leafy green vegetables are particularly rich in ALA. Most people do not get enough of these ALA-rich foods in their diet. The ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids in the typical Australian or American diet is in the region of 1:30. Ideally, the ratio for health should be much lower, less than 1:5, and as close to 1:1 as possible.
Our bodies are capable of only converting a small amount of these short chain fats (ALA) to long chain omega-3 fats, called docoshexanoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Apparently we have varying abilities to do so: some people eating sufficient ALA from greens, seeds and walnuts achieve adequate levels, while others cannot. Conversion of ALA by the body to these longer-chain fatty acids is less than 5-10% for EPA and only 2-5% for DHA (Dr. J. Fuhrman, 2010).
DHA is one of the crucial building blocks of human brain tissue. Adequate amounts of DHA have been shown to protect against dementia, depression, inflammatory diseases, attention deficit disorder (ADD) and allergies and to offer significant benefits for overall cardiovascular health. DHA improves memory.
Fish as a Source of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
The long chain omega-3 fatty acids are also produced by marine algae which serve as a source of DHA and EPA in fish. Deep sea coldwater fish are a good source of EPA and DHA. Unfortunately, some fish oils have been shown to contain fat soluble petrochemicals such as PCBs and dioxins, as the result of the dumping of toxic waste and raw sewage into our oceans. Fish may also contain mercury, a neurotoxin. It has been shown, in multiple studies, that most of the body’s mercury load comes from the consumption of fish. Can fish, therefore, be considered as a safe source of these healthy fats? It is true that there are some highly purified fish oils that are not contaminated, but many are. If you elect to eat fish or take a fish oil supplement for your omega-3 needs, do your own research as to purity. A large percentage of people who do not eat fish regularly do not have optimal levels of DHA and EPA. Signs of DHA deficiency include dry itchy skin and seborrhoeic dermatitis.
Flaxseed as a Source of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
For a long time, flaxseed oil has been promoted as an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, in particular DHA. Flaxseeds have to be crushed, or the oil extracted, for the omega-3 to be nutritionally available. Once extracted, the flaxseed oil is highly prone to oxidation.
Flaxseed oil is an empty calorie food with little or no vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and flavonoids left after the extraction process (like most processed foods!). Furthermore, there is data to support that the consumption of high doses of DHA from flaxseed oil may increase, not decrease, the risk of prostate cancer.
If flaxseed is taken as a supplement, it should be in the form of whole seeds, and not as flaxseed oil. The consumption of the whole flaxseed has been shown in multiple studies to lower the risk of both breast and prostate cancer.
Chia Seeds as a Source of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Since the ability to self-convert short chain ALA into long chain DHA is so variable from person to person, to assure omega-3 optimisation, it is recommended to obtain extra omega-3 fats by consuming the cleaner plant sources such as chia seeds, flaxseeds (not oil), walnuts and other nuts and seeds, and leafy green vegetables.
The Health Benefits of Chia Seeds
Chia seeds can be consumed whole as they are relatively easy to digest. They have no discernable taste. They can be added whole to other foods such as breads. They do not have to be crushed for health benefits and the oil does not have to be extracted.
Chia seeds are said to have the highest level of healthy omega-3 fatty acids of any plant, including flaxseeds. This is in the form of ALA.
The chia seeds contain important nutrients, including protein, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, iron, manganese, copper, niacin and zinc.
Chia seeds have antioxidants such as quercetin and flavonoids.
The fibre content of chia seeds is also very high. Much of this is water soluble fibre. This is why chia seeds form a gel when they become wet. This happens in our digestive systems, giving a feeling of fullness, and so can assist in dieting for weight loss, since there will be less hunger. The gel formed by the water soluble fibre in the chia seeds will slow down digestion, so is beneficial in those with hypoglycaemia and will also reduce blood sugar spikes in diabetic people.
With the above properties, chia seeds can be an excellent addition to detoxification programmes.
Researchers are now calling chia seeds “superfood”. Research has found that chia seeds have one of the broadest ranging profiles of scientific benefit of any known food, as the result of the superior nutritional content. For example, chia seeds have been shown to have: 6 times more calcium than whole milk, 15 times more magnesium than broccoli, 3 times more antioxidant capacity than fresh blueberries, 3 times more iron than spinach, 2 times more potassium than bananas, and more protein than beans, soy or peas.
While chia seeds have been around for centuries, they have recently been rediscovered and are being popularised. Historically, it has been shown that a handful of chia seeds could sustain Aztec warriors for a full day.
A published study carried out by Professor Vladimir Vukasan (University of Toronto) has shown that chia seeds (3 tablespoons daily) given to a group of type 2 (adult onset) diabetic patients resulted in a doubling of ALA blood levels, gave better control of blood sugar levels, reduced blood pressure, reduced C-reactive protein (a key measure of inflammation and an important marker in cardiovascular disease), and reduced clotting factors (protection against heart disease).
A suggested amount of chia seeds as a supplement would be two tablespoons daily.
At present, chia seeds are more expensive than flaxseeds. A kilogram of flaxseed costs in the region of A$5, whereas a kilogram of chia seeds is at least A$20. The health benefits of chia seeds, as set out above, speak for themselves, but it is unfortunate that, at the present, they are expensive.
Chia seed supplement would be a positive way forward to obtain better health.
It should, however, be remembered that a correct diet is essential for health. My book How to Live to 100+ Years Free from Symptoms & Disease (see home page) sets out the dietary guidelines for health and longevity. A key to this is the correct alkali/acid balance, which is covered in detail in my September 2005 newsletter Acid/alkali Balance- The Ideal Diet.
*Copyright 2010: The Huntly Centre.
Disclaimer: All material in the Huntlycentre.com.au website is provided for informational or educational purposes only. Consult a health professional regarding the applicability of any opinions or recommendations expressed herein, with respect to your symptoms or medical condition.
Back to the list Print friendly version