Debbie J., MS, RD contributed this article –
Botanically called ‘salvia hispanica’, the chia plant native to Central and South America produces tiny unassuming seeds that pack great nutritional value. The small (1/2 size of sesame seed) dark powerhouses offer a bunch of omega-3 fats and micronutrients relative to other sources.
Here are the facts according to the USDA national nutrient database, for 1 ounce [that’s about 2 Tablespoons]:
Chia seeds provide 12 gm carbohydrate (of which 10 gm is fiber), 9 gm fat, and nearly 5 gm protein in 138 calories. The fat is mainly polyunsaturated – 7 gm worth, whereas saturated is 1 gm and monounsaturated nearly 1 gm. They contain 179 mg Calcium, 95 mg Magnesium, 244 mg Phosphorus, 2.9 mg Iron and 1.3 mg Zinc. For vitamins they boast 0.176 mg Thiamin and 2.503 mg Niacin to boot.
Using the equivalent % RDA for adults obtained from latest Dietary Reference Intakes, chia seeds are an excellent source of magnesium – 25% men/29% women, and phosphorus – 35% for both, and are a good source of iron – 27% men/12% women, calcium – 18% for both, zinc – 12% men/16% women, thiamin – 15% men/16% women, and niacin – 16% men/18% women.
The real benefits of chia seeds are numerous and extend beyond what the Nutrition Facts panel can offer.
The importance lies within those polyunsaturated fatty acids, as they are 64% alpha linolenic acid (ALA), a type of omega-3 fat. This tops the 53% ALA content of flax oil. Diets higher in omega-3 fatty acids are cardio protective, helping maintain healthy serum lipid levels, improving blood pressure and reducing heart-related disease. Omega-3 fats are also have anti-inflammatory, antidiabetic and cancer preventive action.
The high fiber content leaves only 1 gram digestible carbohydrate per ounce, suitable for reduced carb diets. Chia’s fiber is roughly 7:5 insoluble to soluble. Seeds absorb up to 10x their weight in water, forming a gel consistency, and expand in your stomach. This effect should satisfy your appetite, helping you to feel fuller and eat less.
There are also several phytonutrients that labels don’t mention. Chia contains lignin compounds which are liked to many health benefits including breast cancer prevention. Chia’s flavonols possess strong antioxidant properties, combatting free radicals to protect cells.
Chia’s protein is naturally gluten-free and contains mucin which helps reduce intestinal inflammation.
Though there is a body of research evidence supporting the bioactivity of chia’s compounds, it is important to note that there are few direct studies on chia seed consumption and human outcomes. Those looking to take advantage of chia’s many benefits should do so, not just by adding this single food, but as part of a more plant-based diet focused on whole foods, high fiber and healthy fats.
Below are some ways to incorporate chia into your menu. Try a teaspoon at a time to start until you get used to the gelatinous consistency.
- Sprinkle on yogurt, cold cereal, or oatmeal.
- Add to soup and sauces as a thickener.
- Mix with ground beef to bind meatloaf or meatballs.
- Blend into a smoothie and drink right away.
- Mix with an equal part whole milk or substitute and let sit overnight for a sour cream substitute in recipes. Add a touch of sugar and diced ripe fruit or cocoa and enjoy as a pudding.
- Brush breads or rolls with an egg wash and sprinkle seeds on top before browning in the oven.
- Include in homemade granola and strawberry jam.
- Add to rice dishes or pilafs.
- Use as a garnish in place of black sesame seeds for Asian-inspired dishes like miso salmon, Thai coleslaw and stir fried vegetables.
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