Shortly after sharing my recent post about why flax seeds actually aren’t all that healthy and you probably shouldn’t go out of your way to eat them, I was asked by several readers if chia seeds are any better.
Oh, funny story though, first. I may be a little biased against chia seeds because way back when my mother first started trying to convert me to the whole “real food” thing, she would eat chia seeds every day at the advice of her nutritionist, but in the most disgusting way possible. She’d pour a bunch of them into a glass of perfectly good orange juice, let the seeds coagulate into these gooey globs of crunchy, goobery nastiness, and sip/chew the sloppy mess down every morning. It looked like some bad oranges had a rough night out and pooped into a cup the next day. I was offered a glass of the orange-a-rhea only once before I made it clear that I couldn’t stomach it.
Mama Butter, this post is for you!
Why do people eat chia seeds?
Why would you want to eat chia seeds to begin with? A few reasons from the chia lovers.
Chia is a traditional food
It’s true that before they became trendy, chia seeds were eaten in traditional cultures, such as the Aztec and the Mayan, for thousands of years. And that’s always a good sign.
But I wouldn’t say that it’s really a great indication that we should all be gorging on the stuff. Chia seeds are found in the geological areas those cultures lived in. It’s edible. But, it wasn’t a huge staple of their diet, as far as I can tell. It definitely doesn’t need to be a big staple in ours. But the fact that they are a food which has been eaten for a very long time does at least give chia seeds some credibility, in my mind.
The deal with the omega-3 content of chia seeds is the same one we saw with flax — it’s ALA, which is a form of omega-3 humans are terrible at converting into the usable forms of omega-3, EPA and DHA. So the omega-3 you get from chia seeds is almost completely wasted in your body. Well, I actually wouldn’t say it’s wasted so much as it’s potentially causing harm, since any omega-3 fatty acid is an easily oxidized PUFA, which will go flying around in there like a bat out of hell causing your cells all sorts of free radical damage and messing up your metabolism. Fun!
If you’re trying to supplement your diet with omega-3, chia seeds are a pretty poor choice. As I mentioned in the flax post, if you want omega-3s (and a whole lot of other beneficial nutrients), my vote is for fermented cod liver oil. You can find that here.
Fiber is so controversial these days. A lot of voices in the alternative health community are saying we’re getting way too much of it which could be very dangerous. Industry-supported mainstream nutrition advice is, unsurprisingly, still pushing Metamucil and Fiber One bars at us, claiming benefits of heart health, weight loss, and colon “cleansing.”
I think it’s important to understand that not all fiber is the same. First, there’s insoluble fiber. This is fiber that does not dissolve in water, and so it passes through your digestive tract relatively intact. It’s found in natural foods like vegetables, grains, and seeds. A normal amount of insoluble fiber that makes its way into your diet naturally in the foods you eat is generally considered to be beneficial.
But when too much insoluble fiber is added to the diet, or processed insoluble fiber is added to “fortify” the foods you eat, it can cause more harm than good. Excess insoluble fiber can actually bind onto minerals available in your body as it makes its way through your digestive system, taking the nutrients along with it to be expelled as waste. Not good.
Then there’s soluble fiber. Unlike insoluble fiber, it is digestible. When soluble fiber ferments in your gut, it does some pretty good things for you. First, it helps to “feed” the beneficial microbes, or probiotic bacteria, in your digestive system. This keeps the good bugs doing their thing and helps maintain a healthy gut. Soluble fiber is also converted into a very beneficial substance known as butyric acid, a super-good-for-you short-chain saturated fatty acid.
So where do chia seeds stand with the whole fiber thing? The fiber in chia seeds is 3/4 insoluble and only 1/4 soluble. There are much better and much tastier sources of soluble fiber out there, like legumes, certain fruits (bananas, berries, apples) and vegetables (sweet potatoes, carrots, broccoli, onions), and certain grains like oats and barley.
Oh and for more butyric acid, there’s always, you know… butter.
One of the reasons people think the fiber in chia seeds is so beneficial is to keep things, uh, flowing, in the bowel department. But honestly, if you’re needing to supplement something like that just to be able to poop regularly, you’ve got a bigger issue that isn’t being addressed. Usually digestive problems like that are related to poor metabolism. Read 180 Degree Digestion for more on that.
Chia cheerleaders tend to make all kinds of claims that their beloved seed has “3 times the antioxidants of blueberries!” in the form of polyphenols. Well, guess what has whole heck of a lot more of those polyphenol antioxidants, without all the downsides of chia?
Chia seeds are relatively high in calcium, potassium, iron, and protein, for being seeds. But again, too much insoluble fiber (and phytic acid — just like with flax, chia is loaded with it), and those minerals are going to be stripped right out of you. And I think we all know there are better sources of protein out there. (Grass-fed meat, eggs, or dairy, anyone?)
Chia seeds absorb ten times their weight in water which could help maintain proper hydration levels during athletic activity. It’s said that those Aztecs used chia seeds for their warriors during combat, or for traveling long distances, because they could stay hydrated longer without water. Some modern athletes are copying this idea and using chia seeds to aid them in endurance.
But, um… I’m pretty sure athletes today aren’t stuck without access to water for long periods of time like ancient warriors traveling through mesoamerica might have been. It’s called a water bottle, people.
Some people with egg allergies or those who are v*gans have discovered that the gooey gel chia seeds make when they’re soaked in water (or, buhhh….orange juice) acts kind of like eggs. So, chia seed solutions are sometimes used as a substitute for eggs in baking recipes.
Now, if you ask me, that ain’t no substitute for one of nature’s most perfect foods. The two are hardly comparable. But if you really can’t eat eggs, well, I guess this could be a workable alternative, texture-wise (definitely not nutrition-wise), for baking purposes.
They’re involved in multi-level marketing schemes
Have you heard of the miraculous superfood that you absolutely need to buy a lifetime supply of to give yourself a mystical LifeMax force that will protect you from any and all forms of illness for the rest of your 200 year lifespan and give you and your children magic powers?!
Then, you seriously need to find yourself a Mila LifeMax Miracle Seed salesperson!
Yes, for the low, low price of just $55 for a one-pound pouch, you, too can experience the life-changing effects of pouring your hard-earned money into a MLM scam, and gross out your family by pouring weird little tasteless seeds all over everything they eat!
“If it sounds too good to be true…”
“Mila LifeMax Miracle Seeds” = chia seeds, which shouldn’t cost anywhere near that price, and — sorry — aren’t any more “miraculous” than… oh, say, a ShamWow.
While chia seeds certainly aren’t a magical life-altering miracle food, they probably are okay to consume in moderate amounts and do have some redeeming nutritional value.
If you’re still gonna stick with chia though, go easy on it. Studies have shown that high levels of chia consumption can lead to some pretty significant inflammatory and allergenic effects.
Personally, I won’t be bothering with them anytime soon.
But I’d gladly be the proud owner of one of these bad boys!
[photo credit: modified from this photo by little blue hen on Flickr]