Chia seeds: health benefits and recipes

Chia seeds: health benefits and recipes

Team ErbologyErbology

In at least one Mayan language, ‘chia’ means ‘strength’, perhaps because of the huge amounts of energy stored within these tiny seeds. In the past, the chia seeds were thought to grant almost supernatural talents. Today, they rank among some of the world's most nutritious foods. Discover the health benefits of chia seeds. Discover the health benefits of chia seeds.

June 20, 2022 3:12 pm

What are chia seeds?

Chia seeds come from a plant called Salvia hispanica, which originates in Central America, or Salvia columbariae which grows in Mexico and south-western US. Chia are tiny oval seeds with an impressive nutritional profile and benefits for your health.

The plethora of chia seed health benefits may be new to us, but this ingredient has built a name for itself since the times of the Aztecs.

First recorded by the Aztecs around the middle of the third millennia BC, chia seeds have been a staple food for people occupying the territory we today call Mexico. Between the years 1500 – 900 BC, chia was cultivated intensely and on a mass scale in Teotihuacan and by the people of Toltec culture. It would be consumed in either its full form, ground into a flour and used in baking, or used as a medicinal rub.

Some historians believe that chia also played a role in human sacrifice. However, the idea of widespread human sacrifice is today adamantly contested by many archaeologists leading the Mesoamerican field (see the work of Elizabeth Graham).

The Tarahumara runner

Living in the rugged and hot Sierra Madre’s copper canyon, Mexico’s Tarahumara tribe is world renowned for their long-distance runners. They incorporate chia into the diet through a drink made up of lemon juice, water and chia, which they call Iskiate. Legend has it that only after drinking Iskiate are the Tarahumara able to run for such great lengths.

The longest record the tribe holds for running without pause is a staggering 435 miles, equivalent to 16 back to back marathons. And, what’s even more impressive is this jaw-dropping feat took place in just over 48 hours!

The Tarahumara have lived in this hardy territory for around 500 years and their name comes from their ability to run further than almost any other population on earth, without shoes. Those opting to don footwear choose a minimal sandal made of either deerskin or discarded tire rubber. As a result, runners of the Tarahumara have little to no protection around their feet.

chia seeds

Could chia be the Tarahumara’s secret?

Much research has gone into the physical and cultural elements which set the Tarahumara apart from their neighbours. Researchers believe that because running is such an integral part of inter-village communication, and the only cultural form of athletic expression available to them, the Tarahumara have undergone physiological adaptations to allow them to run so far.

Others think that that the Tarahumara’s incredible endurance is based in their evolutionary history as hunters. Hundreds of thousands of years ago early hunter-gatherers pursued prey over extremely long distances.

Chasing animals until they died of heat exhaustion is a very specific form of hunting, called ‘persistence hunting’. The Tarahumara still practice it today. By chasing animals in a way that makes them gallop, you force their body temperature to spike. Mammals cool down by sweating and panting, but when quadrupeds gallop they are unable to pant. This leads to them overheating and slowing down, making them an easy catch for the hunter.

Other research has suggested that the Tarahumara’s diet might play a role. In particular, chia seeds!.

It may be just one or it may be a combination of all three of these reason, but it remains true that the Tarahumara possess extraordinary endurance. Whether this is down to chia seeds benefits is yet to be fully confirmed, but this magical little seed still holds an important role in the lives of these world-class athletes.

"The longest record the tribe holds for running without pause is a staggering 435 miles, equivalent to 16 back-to-back marathons."

Chia seed health benefits

It is no wonder that chia seeds have long been a food staple. They pack a large amount of nutrients into their small size.

Most notably, these seeds are a great source of protein, fibre and omega-3 fatty acids. Chia seeds have been studied for their benefits on heart health and the digestive system, as well as their ability to help build stronger bones and muscles. They may also promote skin health and reduce signs of ageing.

chia seed powder

Chia seed benefits for gut health

Chia seeds are a great source of soluble fibre. Less than two tablespoons (about one ounce) of chia boast over 10 grams of fibre (out of 12g of carbs).(1) If you found yourself alarmed by the amount of carbs – firstly read our article about common health myths – and secondly remember that not all carbs are created equal!

Fibre is a type of non-digestible carbohydrate that promotes gut health. Moreover, the high fibre content makes chia, along with flax and hemp, a natural blood sugar balancer.

Chia seeds are unique in that they absorb up to fifteen times their weight in water. In our stomach, the seeds expand and become a gel-like substance. This expansion can help us feel fuller, slow the passage of food through your system so nutrients can be better absorbed, and help with weight loss.(2)

Chia seeds are one of the best plant-based sources of omega-3s.

The same two tablespoon serving of chia contains 9 grams of fat. Five of those come from omega-3 unsaturated fatty acids. If we are simply looking gram for gram, chia appears to be a better source of omega-3s than salmon! However, it is important to distinguish the two as animal versus plant omega-3s are different. With chia seeds, we are getting alpha linolenic acid (ALA), which our body must convert into active forms to be useful.(8)

Active omega-3 fatty acids are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).(9) Salmon contains DHA, which is a long-chain omega-3 fatty acid. DHA is a component of every cell in your body and a vital structural component of your skin, eyes and brain. ALA can be converted into DHA, but the process is not very efficient.(10) So, while chia seeds do provide a lot of ALA, it is also important to consume other sources of omega-3 fatty acids.