Ask the Herbalist: Are Chia Seeds a True Superfood?
Q: I keep hearing that chia seeds are a “superfood.” What are the health benefits of chia seeds?
A: Chia seeds are quite interesting in that they were first introduced to the American population in the 1980s via the Chia Pet, an animal-shaped clay pot that is coated with chia seeds and watered regularly in order to make it grow grass “fur.” Chia has made something of a comeback in the recent years, as research has shown that the amazing, well-rounded health benefits of chia seeds qualify it as a superfood!
The Mayan word for strength is chia.
Chia has been used for centuries as food. Its use by the Aztecs and Mayans dates as far back as 3500 B.C. — it was one of the main staple foods they subsisted on. Chia seeds were eaten alone as the main grain of choice or combined with other grains or food crops. It was also used to make a beverage (chia seeds were dissolved in water, creating a slurry), ground into flour, used as medicine, or pressed into oil and used as a base for face and body paints. Chia seeds were also used as a cash crop in central Mexico between 1500 and 900 B.C.
The chia plant (Salvia hispanica) belongs to the Lamiaceae (mint) family. Its seeds are known as a superfood because of how packed with nutrients they are. Chia seeds are one of a few vegetarian sources that contain all of the amino acids that make up a complete protein. In fact, chia seeds are made up of approximately 20% protein that is readily digestible. They also contain omega-3 oils, particularly alpha linolenic (ALA) and linoleic acids (LA), which provide anti-inflammatory benefits. ALA and LA are the precursors to the essential fatty acids, EPA and DHA, found in cold water fish. ALA is converted to EPA and DHA in the body when sufficient amounts are consumed.
It doesn’t stop there! Chia seeds are high in both soluble and insoluble fiber. If you allow chia seeds to sit in water for several hours, the seeds will bulk up in size and the water will become gelatinous. This is because the mucilaginous fiber they contain absorbs water. This fiber not only supports digestive health, but also provides health benefits related to cholesterol and blood sugar regulation. Because chia seeds are so mucilaginous, they are great for hydration prior to and after a strenuous workout.
A variety of vitamins and minerals such as calcium, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, zinc and niacin are also housed within each seed, not to mention antioxidants, which help to mitigate free radical damage in the body. Lastly, chia seeds are gluten free, making them a great choice for people with celiac or gluten sensitivity.
Many use chia seeds as a superfood supplement for many reasons, which is fine. However, in order to truly obtain most of the health benefits of chia’s omega-3s in particular, whole chia seeds should be incorporated into your diet. Without doing so, your body will not be able to convert sufficient amounts of ALA to EPA and DHA to be beneficial. Consider making a chia seed gel that can be incorporated into your daily diet regimen as well as using this amazing superfood in other recipes to boost the health benefits of dishes you eat.
Chia Seed Gel
1/3 cups raw chia seeds
2 cups water
Whisk chia seeds in water. Let mixture sit for about 10 – 15 minutes then whisk again. Place in fridge and let mixture turn into a gel, which can take several hours to overnight. Dosage for general health is 3 tablespoons 3 times a day.
Note: Taken alone, the texture of the gel is not too appealing. Consider mixing the chia seed gel in a smoothie, yogurt or any other food where it can be easily mixed in.
Lissa’s passion for educating people about the healing powers of herbs led her to obtain a Masters of Science in Herbal Medicine from the Tai Sophia School of the Healing Arts. She has also studied nutrition and women’s health extensively, and has trained as a doula.
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