In at least one Mayan language, ‘chia’ means ‘strength’, and seems reasonable to conclude that this probably derives from the huge amounts of energy stored within the tiny seeds body. In the past, the chia seed held a supernatural aura. Today the acclaim and prestige they carry acts as a kind of twenty-first-century version of this.June 01, 2020 7:26 pm
First recorded by the Aztecs around the middle of the third millennia BC, chia has been a staple of the 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 numerous 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 squeezed lemon, 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. This result of this – runners of the Tarahumara have little to no protection around their feet.
Could diet be the answer?
Much research has gone into the physical and cultural elements which distinguish these people from their non-traditional Mexican neighbors. It is believed 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 cater for this. Other research looking at their diet forwards an idea more closely resembling that of their ancient ancestors. That it is, in fact, chia which accounts for the superhuman endurance they enjoy.
Another side of the debate grows out of the question of whether this endurance is based in our evolutionary history as hunters? Hundreds of thousands of years ago early hunter-gatherers pursued pray over extremely long distances. Chasing animals until they died of heat exhaustion is a very specific form of hunting termed 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. The way mammals cool down is by sweating combined with panting and when quadrupeds gallop they are unable to pant which leads to their overheating.
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 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."
What is chia?
Chia seeds come from the plant called Salvia hispanica, which originates in Central America, or Salvia columbariae that grows in Mexico and south-western US. Chia are a tiny oval seed with an impressive nutritional profile. The plethora of health benefits may be new to you, but this ingredient has built a name for itself since the times of the Aztecs. In the plant world, chia seeds are quite a fierce competitor.
Chia 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, chia seeds are a great source of protein, fiber and omega-3 fatty acids. For instance, they have been studied for their benefits on heart health and 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 seeds are a great source of soluble fiber.
Less than two tablespoons (about one ounce) of chia boast over 10 grams of fiber (out of 12g of carbs).(1) If you found yourself alarmed by the amount of carbs, this just goes to show that not all carbs are created equal. Fiber is a type of non-digestible carbohydrate that promotes gut health. Moreover, the high fiber content makes chia, along with flax and hemp, a natural blood balancer.
Chia seeds are unique in that they absorb up to fifteen times their weight in water. In our stomach, these seeds expand and become a gel-like substance. This expansion can make us feel fuller, slow absorption and aid with weight loss.(2)
Chia are one of the best plant-based sources of omega-3s.
The same two tablespoon serving of chia contains 9 grams of fat, 5 of those coming 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) For instance, 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 bear in mind that 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.
Chia seeds are rich in minerals.
Chia seeds boast an impressive amount of minerals, which are essential for your wellbeing. A two tablespoon serving of chia seeds provides nearly a third of the recommended daily amount (RDA) of manganese and magnesium, more than a quarter RDA phosphorus and nearly a fifth RDA calcium.(1)
Chia is a good source of protein.
A two tablespoon serving of chia provides 4.4 grams of protein.(1) With all nine essential amino acids, chia is considered a complete plant-based source of protein. Nevertheless, overall chia seeds rank relatively low in protein compared to other plants. Also, chia seeds only contain traces of lysine, an essential amino acid for the production of carnitine.(3) Carnitine is a compound responsible for converting fatty acids into energy and helping your body to lower cholesterol.(4)
In general, a good rule of thumb when partaking in a plant-based diet is to combine complementary sources of protein. A lot of times these are incomplete on their own, but when combined they can provide all the amino acids. Eating rice and beans in combination is a common example of complementary protein sources.(5) Amaranth is also an excellent source of protein. Learn more about amaranth here.
Key chia seed benefits
- Promotes digestion
- Helps boost energy
- Promotes healthy brain activity
- Promotes healthy heart function
- Supports healthy hair and skin
Try these wholesome foods made with chia seeds
This granola is 100% organic, raw, gluten-free and vegan. Alongside chia seeds, this wholesome breakfast snack is made with other impressive ingredients, such as tigernut tubers, nopales, and sprouted buckwheat, all excellent for gut health. Sweetened with apples and raisins, this granola does not contain any processed sugar.
Cold-pressed from organically grown chia seeds, this oil is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin E. Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant helps to protect your body cells from the damaging effects of the free radicals. Chia seed oil is a perfect addition to soups and pastas.
Pulverized from organic chia seeds, raw chia powder is easier digested by the stomach that whole chia seeds. Chia powder is ideal to add to smoothies, porridge and baked goods.
Recipes with chia you can’t resist
Start your morning with this wholesome Porridge with chia and sea buckthorn oil recipe. It will will keep you full for longer and fuel your body with nutrients and energy.
If you love baking, make this delicious Gluten-free nut bread with hemp and chia recipe. The combination of hazelnuts, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, as well as raw hemp and chia powders creates a beautiful earthy flavor that goes perfectly with this Velvet beetroot and aronia soup or Spiced carrot and ginger bisque. This is an excellent option for someone with gluten intolerance. Moreover, this bread also aids digestion and nourishes your body with valuable minerals and plant-based protein.
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(1) “Seeds, chia seeds, dried". Self Nutrition Data
(2) Ullah, Rahman, et al. “Nutritional and Therapeutic Perspectives of Chia (Salvia Hispanica L.): a Review”. Journal of Food Science and Technology, Springer India, 2016
(3) “Thermal and Physicochemical Properties and Nutritional Value of the Protein Fraction of Mexican Chia Seed (Salvia Hispanica L.)”. Food Science and Technology International
(4) “L-Lysine”. Amino Acid Studies
(5) K., Nina. “How Often Should Vegetarians Eat Beans & Rice?”. Healthy Eating | SF Gate, 2016
(6) Taga, M. Silvia, et al. “Chia Seeds as a Source of Natural Lipid Antioxidants”. SpringerLink, Springer-Verlag, 1983
(7) Ciftci, Ozan Nazim, et al. “Lipid Components of Flax, Perilla, and Chia Seeds”. European Journal of Lipid Science and Technology, Wiley-Blackwell, 2012
(8) Gerster, H. “Can Adults Adequately Convert Alpha-Linolenic Acid...”. International Journal for Vitamin and Nutrition Research, U.S. National Library of Medicine
(9) Nazemi, Mina. “EPA vs DHA - Understand the Difference”. Igennus Healthcare Nutrition
(10) Singh, M. “Essential Fatty Acids, DHA and Human Brain”, Indian Journal of Paediatrics, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2005