Checking out Chia Seeds

Chia (Salvia hispanica) belongs to the Lamiaceae family, which includes basil, beebalm, giant hyssop, ground ivy, lavender, marjoram, oregano,  perilla, peppermint, rosemary, sage, savory, skullcap, spearmintthyme, and wild bergamot. The family also (surprisingly) includes coleus and teak.

Humans began using chia seeds around 3500 BC. They were domesticated in what is now Mexico by about 2600 BC. Chia seeds were a staple food for the native people of central America and what is now the southwestern United States, and were one of the main components of the Mayan diet. The Mexican State of Chiapas, located within the limits of ancient Mayan territory, derives its name from the Nahuatl word Chiapan that means “river of chia.”

Mayans, and later the Aztecs, consumed chia seeds regularly, grinding them into flour, pressing them for oil, and drinking them mixed with water. They considered chia seeds to be almost magical because of their ability to increase stamina and energy over long periods of time. Along with cornbeans, and amaranth, chia was one of the four main crops of the Mayan and Aztec people.

The Aztecs called chia seeds the “running food.” Aztec warriors could subsist on chia seeds because of their nutrients and their hydrating qualities. They were so highly prized that for a time they were used as currency.

After the Spanish conquest of Central America, the Spanish introduced their own foods and prohibited the farming of chia seeds because they played a role in Aztec religious ceremonies, and their seeds were a currency used by Aztec people to pay tributes and taxes to the Aztec priests and nobility. Knowledge of the value of chia seeds became obscured for centuries as a result.

Today, chia is still a traditional food of the Tarahumara and Chumash peoples of Chiuahua, in the southwestern part of Mexico. They roast, crush, and mix the seeds with water to make a gel, which they still call their “running food.”

Chia seeds have several of the same benefits as flax seed, but you don’t need to grind them to reap the health benefits. Chia can:

  1. Build strong bodies. Chia seeds are one of the most concentrated sources of omega-3 fatty acids in any food. They also contain high amounts of omega-6 fatty acids. You need to consume high amounts of these essential fatty acids (EFAs) in your diet, because these EFAs build new cells and regulate various processes in your body, but your body cannot make them internally. EFAs also support heart health and beautiful skin, hair and nails. Manganese in chia seeds activates enzymes for using several key nutrients, helps synthesize fatty acids and cholesterol, and facilitates protein and carbohydrate metabolism and formation of bone. Phosphorus in chia seeds helps in the formation of bones and teeth, utilization of carbohydrates and fats and synthesis of protein, energy storage, muscle contraction, kidney function, heartbeat, and nerve conduction. Magnesium in chia seeds helps maintain normal muscle and nerve function, supports a healthy immune system, keeps bones strong, and is involved in energy metabolism and protein synthesis. Calcium in chia seeds supports bone structure, vascular contraction and dilation, muscle function, nerve transmission, intracellular signaling, and hormonal secretion.
  2. Promote cardiovascular health. Chia seeds are packed with omega-3 fatty acids, which decrease abnormal heart rhythms, lower triglyceride levels, protect against cardiovascular disease, lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of heart attack, and reduce the risk of sudden cardiac death in people who already have heart disease. Magnesium in chia seeds keeps heart rhythm steady and promotes normal blood pressure.
  3. Make you happy. Chia seeds are an excellent source of tryptophan, an essential amino acid that helps your body produce serotonin.  Serotonin is popularly known as the “feel-good hormone,” or your body’s own natural tranquilizer, hence the happiness factor. This is the neurotransmitter that antidepressants target in order to boost overall happiness levels. Up to 90 percent of your body’s total serotonin is located in your gut, where it regulates intestinal movement. The remainder is synthesized in your central nervous system and helps regulate mood, appetite, sleep, muscle contraction, and some cognitive functions including memory and learning.
  4. Stabilize blood sugar. If you mix a spoon of chia seeds in a glass of liquid and leave it for 30 minutes or so, you will get a glass with almost solid gelatin. This gel-forming process is due to the soluble fiber, or mucilage, in the chia seeds. This gel also forms in your digestive tract when you eat chia seeds. The gel creates a physical barrier between carbohydrates and the digestive enzymes that break them down, slowing the conversion of carbohydrates into sugar. The high fiber content of chia seeds allows your body to slowly digest and absorb them, so they keep blood sugar levels stabilized, help you feel full longer, and keep your digestive system running smoothly. Magnesium in chia seeds also helps regulate blood sugar levels.
  5. Help you maintain a healthy weight. With nearly 11 grams of fiber per ounce, chia delivers 42% of your recommended daily value of fiber in a single serving. Fiber is vital for all aspects of health, and is especially key for weight loss and digestion. Fiber helps slow digestion and makes you feel fuller by soaking up fluid and expanding in your digestive tract. Chia absorbs up to 12 times its own weight and expands to curb your appetite, so adding just an ounce or so of chia seeds to your diet can reduce caloric intake and help lower the caloric density of foods, plus double the amount of fiber you receive. Chia seeds are also a good source of protein, which helps build lean muscle and boost metabolism.
  6. Fight free radicals. Chia seeds also have a large number of antioxidants, which protect your body from free radicals, and can help prevent cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and other attacks on your body. Manganese in chia seeds is a co-factor for the antioxidant enzyme, superoxide dismutase, which disarms free radicals produced within the mitochondria (the energy production factories within your cells). Selenium in chia seeds is incorporated into antioxidant enzymes that help prevent cellular damage from free radicals. These antioxidants also allow chia seeds to be stored for years without deterioration in flavor, aroma, or nutritional value.
  7. Support your immune systemMagnesium and selenium in chia seeds promote a healthy immune system.
  8. Keep you hydrated. Chia seeds absorb more than 12 times their weight in water. This allows them to help balance electrolytes in your body and keep you hydrated.

Nutrients in 1 Ounce of Chia Seeds

Nutrient

Amount

Daily Value

omega-3 fatty acids

5.055 g

211%

tryptophan

202 mg

90%

fiber

10.6 g

42%

manganese

0.6 mg

30%

phosphorus

265 mg

27%

magnesium

95 mg

24%

selenium

15.6 mg

22%

calcium

177 mg

18%

fat

8.6 g

13%

niacin

2.503 mg

13%

iron

2.19 mg

12%

thiamine

0.176 mg

12%

protein

4.4 g

9%

vitamin C

0.5 mg

8%

Calories

137

7%

zinc

0.61 mg

7%

carbohydrates

12.3 g

4%

folate

14 µg

4%

copper

0.1 mg

3%

potassium

44.8 mg

1%

vitamin E

0.14 mg

0.5%

sodium

5.3 mg

0.2%

cholesterol

0 mg

0%

You can purchase chia seeds at your local health food store or at Whole Foods, either in the bulk section or the supplement section. If you can’t find them locally, you can buy them online.

Grinding chia produces a meal called pinole, which can be made into porridge, cakes, breads, and biscuits.  Chia sprouts are sometimes grown on porous clay figurines which has led to the “chia pet.” Chia’s hydrophilic structure holds water, so when mixed with sauces, drinks, salad, dressings, jellies, preserves, salsa, cereal, dips, puddings, gruels, porridges, and soups, it displaces calories and fat without diluting flavor.

Here are some ways to add chia to your diet:

  • Toss a couple of tablespoons into a smoothie
  • Mix it into pesto
  • Soak 3 tablespoons of chia seeds in 1 cup soy milk, almond milk, or fruit juice for about an hour to make a healthy pudding
  • Mix 2 teaspoons of chia seeds into 8 to 10 ounces of lemonade, limeade, or fruit juice to make chia fresca, a popular drink in Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Arizona, and California
  • Sprinkle chia seeds onto sauteed zucchini
  • Add a few tablespoons to a muffin or bread recipe
  • Sprinkle them into your oatmeal
  • Make banana chia seed pancakes
  • Mix your favorite tea with a little bit of fruit juice, and stir in a tablespoon of chia seeds, let them soak to plump them up, and enjoy your chia boba (bubble tea)
  • Make granola with chia seeds

This blog uses the latest nutritional data available from the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), and the FDA (United States Food and Drug Administration), as well as nutritional data provided by food growers and manufacturers about their products. We believe the information on this blog to be accurate. However, we are not responsible for typographical or other errors. Nutrition information for recipes is calculated by Living Cookbook based on the ingredients in each recipe based on statistical averages. Nutrition may vary based on methods of preparation, origin and freshness of ingredients, and other factors.

This blog is not a substitute for the services of a trained health professional. Although we provide nutritional information, the information on this blog is for informational purposes only. No information offered by or through this blog shall be construed as or understood to be medical advice or care. None of the information on this blog should be used to diagnose or treat any health problem or disease. Consult with a health care provider before taking any product or using any information on this blog. Please discuss any concerns with your health care provider.

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