People eat chia seeds

Remember the catchy jingle for those clay pot animals that grow a layer of green “fur” after having chia seeds rubbed all over? Well, apparently chia seeds are not just novelty anymore. As a matter of fact, many suggest that those little seeds are a super-food that should be gracing your dinner plate, not your windowsill. There are numerous health benefits claimed by chia supporters, ranging from weight loss miracle to heart health savior. Research is limited on chia. The truth is that there are some health benefits, and a lot more study is needed to see if chia can live up to all the hype.
The seeds come from a plant that thrives in the desert areas of Mexico and Guatemala. It is part of the mint family, known as salvia hispanica, chia seeds were a mainstay for Mayans and Aztecs. Chia was used by these ancient cultures regularly, believing that the seeds gave them strength and energy.
Research has shown that that is not far from the truth. Nutritionally, chia is a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids (a heart healthy fat) as well as protein, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, manganese, copper, iron, boron, tryptophan and zinc. Chia is also a low carbohydrate food which is mostly fiber based. When combined with liquids, chia makes a gel, which makes you feel full longer. It is also is a form of protein that can be very easily broken down and absorbed. A closer inspection of chia seeds show a food that is nutrient dense in a small package; 2 tbsp. of the seeds provide only 138 calories but offer a whopping 8 grams heart healthy fat, 10 grams of fiber, and 5 grams of protein.
The seeds come in different colors. Black-, gray- and brown-colored seeds are the actual chia seeds, and the white seeds are known as Salba seeds. The Salba tend to be more highly regulated and have a somewhat higher nutritional content than the dark chia seeds. When offered for sale, chia and Salba seeds are combined and listed as “chia seeds”. Red or other colored seeds sold under the chia name are immature seeds and do not offer as much of a nutritional punch.
Chia is linked with many health claims. Truth be told, many claims are unsubstantiated. What we do know:
Weight loss: chia seeds may be beneficial in weight loss since it can make you feel full longer. This is due in part to the high fiber content and in part to the creation of a gel in the digestive tract formed when the seeds are exposed to the liquid acids in the body. The tryptophan in the seeds also helps to regulate appetite.
Diabetes: chia seeds may also help with blood sugar control in diabetes. The gel formed in the digestive tract may slow down the absorption of sugar. There have also been preliminary studies supporting the lowering of blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides and LDL in people with diabetes.
Chia seeds are also linked to stronger bones and teeth due to the calcium level (and the boron that helps absorb the calcium), brain health (from the omega-3s), improved exercise performance (from the protein), lower belly fat helping combat metabolic syndrome (from the heart healthy fat and blood sugar control). With so many potential benefits, clearly more research needs to be done.
Chia seeds can be eaten whole or ground, cooked or raw. The seeds have such a mild taste, that you don’t need to worry about ruining any recipe. The easiest way to start having chia seeds is to just sprinkle a small amount on top of any food, such as oatmeal, applesauce, soup and salad. When blending smoothies or juicing, add a tbsp. or two of seeds to the concoction. Bakers can top bread dough and muffins with the seeds or stir a few tablespoons into cookie, cake, pancake or waffle batters. Two to three tbsp. of chia seeds can replace a roux as the thickener for soups and be used in jams/jellies in place of pectin. For those allergic to eggs, combine a tablespoon of ground chia seeds with 3 tbsp. of water (allow it to gel) and use in place of one whole egg. And ½ cup of chia seeds can easily replace breadcrumbs in meatballs, meatloaf and as a coating on meats/poultry/fish.
Chia seeds are not for everyone. If you have a allergy or sensitivity to mint, mustard, sesame seeds, oregano or thyme you need to avoid chia seeds. Additionally, those on medications to thin blood or control blood pressure need to consult with a PCP before adding chia seeds to the menu. Chia has not been tested for safety in pregnancy or breast feeding, so it needs to be avoided. The high level of alpha-linolenic acid in chia may be a problematic in prostate cancer, so speak with your oncologist if you have a history of prostate cancer or are at high risk. There is one reported case of someone having a choking issue with dry chia seeds, so it is recommended that those people with swallowing problems and esophageal restrictions be very careful about use. Finally, although not common, some people may experience side effects from chia seeds such as nausea, stomach discomfort, diarrhea (because of the high fiber content), low blood pressure and low blood sugar.
So, are chia seeds for you? The potential for better health is there, but as with any nutritional supplement, there can be a downside. Consider the pros and cons, and make an informed decision. If you are not sure if the benefits outweigh the potential side effects, check with your PCP before adding Chia to the menu.
Jennifer Giffune, R.D., L.D.N. is a freelance author, professional speaker and nutrition counselor. On the last Wednesday of each month, Jennifer can be heard on 89.5 WSKB radio on the “Wake up Wednesday Morning” Show. To make an appointment with Jennifer at Mercy Medical Group, call 786-1500.

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