Chia seeds are the tiny black seeds of the chia plant (Salvia hispanica).
They are native to Mexico and Guatemala, and were a staple food for the ancient Aztecs and Mayans. In fact, "chia" is the ancient Mayan word for "strength" ().
Chia seeds contain large amounts of fiber and omega-3 fatty acids, plenty of high quality protein, and several essential minerals and antioxidants.
They may improve risk factors for heart disease and diabetes, lead to better digestive health and increase blood levels of heart-healthy omega-3 fats.
Chia seeds are small, flat and oval-shaped, with a shiny and smooth texture. The color can range from white to brown or black ().
Because of their relatively bland flavor, chia seeds can be added to pretty much everything.
They can be soaked in liquid and added to porridge, made into pudding, used in baked goods, smoothies or simply sprinkled on top of salads or yogurt.
Because of their ability to absorb liquid and form a gel, they can also be used to thicken sauces or as an egg replacement in recipes (, ).
Soaking chia seeds before eating is optimal, but not necessary.
Chia seeds contain 486 calories per 100 grams, or 138 calories per ounce.
By weight, they are 6% water, 46% carbohydrates (of which 83% is fiber), 34% fat and 19% protein.
The table below contains information on all the nutrients in chia seeds ().
|Trans fat||0.14 g|
Carbs and Fiber
Most of the carbohydrate content of chia seeds is in the form of fiber (more than 80%).
A single ounce (28 grams) of chia seeds actually contains 11 grams of fiber, which is a significant portion of the recommended daily intake for women and men (25 and 38 grams/day, respectively) ().
The fibers are mostly insoluble (95%). Insoluble fibers have been associated with reduced risk of diabetes (, , , ).
Some of the insoluble fibers may also be fermented in the gut like soluble fibers, promoting the formation of short-chain fatty acids and improving colon health (, ).
When chia seeds are placed in water or other liquids, the fibers absorb up to 10-12 times their own weight, and the seeds turn into a gel-like mass ().
Bottom line: Chia seeds contain a relatively high amount of carbohydrates, but the majority of them (over 80%) are in the form of insoluble fiber.
One of the unique characteristics of chia seeds is their high content of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
About 75% of the fats in chia seeds consist of the omega-3 fatty acid alpha linolenic acid (ALA), while about 20% consist of omega-6 fatty acids (, , ).
Chia seeds are actually the best known plant-based source of omega-3 fatty acids, even better than flaxseeds (, ).
Being a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, chia seeds promote a lower ratio of omega-6 to omega-3.
A ratio of 2.5-4/1 may cut the risk of various chronic diseases, such as heart diseases, cancer, inflammatory diseases and premature death (, ).
However, gram for gram, the omega-3 fatty acids in chia seeds (ALA) are not nearly as potent as those found in fish or fish oil (EPA and DHA).
ALA needs to be converted into the active forms, EPA and DHA, before it can be utilized by the body, and this process is often inefficient (, , , , ).
Bottom line: Chia seeds are among the best plant-based sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which have numerous benefits for health.
Chia seeds contain 19% protein, which is similar to other seeds, but more than most cereals and grains (, , , ).
A high protein intake has been associated with increased satiety after meals and reduced food intake (, ).
Chia seeds contain high-quality protein with all the essential amino acids, and are therefore a good plant-based protein source (). However, they are not recommended as the sole protein source for children ().
They are also gluten free, so they can be enjoyed by gluten-intolerant individuals.
Bottom line: Chia seeds contain more protein than most grains, similar to other seeds. They are a great plant-based and gluten-free protein source.
Vitamins and Minerals
Chia seeds provide high amounts of many minerals, but are a poor source of vitamins.
The most abundant minerals are listed below.
- Manganese: Whole grains and seeds are rich in manganese, which is essential for metabolism, growth and development ().
- Phosphorus: Usually found in protein-rich foods, phosphorus contributes to bone health and tissue maintenance ().
- Copper: A mineral that is often lacking in the diet, important for heart health ().
- Selenium: An important antioxidant mineral, involved in many processes in the body ().
- Iron: As a component of hemoglobin in red blood cells, iron is involved in the transport of oxygen throughout the body. It may be poorly absorbed from chia seeds due to their phytic acid content.
- Magnesium: Often insufficient in the Western diet, magnesium has important roles in many processes in the body ().
- Calcium: The most abundant mineral in the human body, essential for bones, muscles and nerves ().
The absorption of some minerals, such as iron and zinc, may be reduced because of the phytic acid content of chia seeds.
Bottom line: Chia seeds are an excellent source of many essential minerals, but a poor source of vitamins. They are high in manganese, phosphorus, copper, selenium, iron, magnesium and calcium.
Other Plant Compounds
Chia seeds contain a number of beneficial plant compounds. The main ones are listed below (, , ).
- Chlorogenic acid: An antioxidant that may lower blood pressure (, ).
- Caffeic acid: This substance is abundant in many plant foods, and may help fight inflammation in the body ().
- Quercetin: A powerful antioxidant that may reduce the risk of heart disease, osteoporosis and certain forms of cancer (, , ).
- Kaempferol: An antioxidant that has been associated with decreased risk of cancer and other chronic diseases (, ).
Clean and dry chia seeds have a very long shelf life, as their antioxidants protect the fats in the seeds from damage (, ).
Bottom line: Chia seeds contain many powerful antioxidants that may reduce the risk of chronic diseases, such as heart disease and cancer.
Health Benefits of Chia Seeds
Chia seeds have become increasingly popular in recent years because of their high nutritional value and alleged health benefits.The main health benefits of chia seeds are listed below.
Increased Blood Levels of Omega-3
Omega-3 fatty acids are incredibly important for your body and brain, and chia seeds are an excellent source of the omega-3 fatty acid ALA.
However, ALA needs to be converted into the active forms, such as EPA, before it can be used by the body.
Studies in humans and animals have shown that chia seeds may raise blood levels of ALA up to 138%, and EPA up to 39% (, , , , , ).
Bottom line: Chia seeds are a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, and may raise blood levels of both ALA and EPA.
Improved Blood Sugar Control
Having healthy blood sugar levels is crucial for optimal health.
Studies in animals have shown that chia seeds reduce insulin resistance and improve blood sugar control, which are important risk factors metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes and heart disease (, , , ).
Human studies have shown that bread made with chia seeds causes a reduced blood sugar response compared to more traditional breads (, ).
Bottom line: Chia seeds may regulate blood sugar levels. Breads made with chia seeds cause smaller spikes in blood sugar than traditional breads.
Lower Blood Pressure
High blood pressure is a major risk factor for chronic diseases, such as heart disease.
Chia seeds and chia flour have both been shown to lower blood pressure in individuals with high blood pressure (, ).
Bottom line: Chia seeds and chia flour may lower blood pressure in individuals with high blood pressure.
Increased Fiber Intake
Most people are not eating enough fiber ().
A high fiber intake has been linked with improved gut health and a lower risk of numerous diseases (, ).
A single ounce (28 grams, 2 tablespoons) of chia seeds provides 11 grams of fiber, which is 29% of the recommended intake for men and 44% of the recommended intake for women.
Due to the extraordinary water-absorbing capabilities of chia seeds, they increase the volume of the foods in the digestive tract, leading to increased satiety and decreased food intake.
Chia seeds are particularly high in insoluble fibers, which have been linked to decreased risk of diabetes, increased stool bulk and reduced constipation (, , ).
Bottom line: Chia seeds are very high in fiber, which most people aren't getting enough of. They are particularly high in insoluble fiber.
Adverse Effects and Individual Concerns
No adverse effects have been reported from consuming chia seeds ().
However, to avoid possible digestive side effects, drinking plenty of water with chia seeds is generally advised, especially if they have not been soaked before eating.
Phytic Acid Content
Like all seeds, chia seeds contain phytic acid.
Phytic acid is a plant compound that binds with minerals, such as iron and zinc, and inhibits their uptake from foods ().
Blood Thinning Effect
Large doses of omega-3 fats, such as those from fish oils, may have blood thinning effects ().
If you are taking blood-thinning medications, then consult with your doctor before incorporating large amounts of chia seeds into the diet. The omega-3 fatty acids may affect the activity of the medication (, ).
Bottom line: Chia seeds generally do not cause any adverse effects. However, they may have blood-thinning effects in large doses, and they contain a plant compound that can reduce absorption of minerals.
Chia seeds are very rich in fiber, antioxidants, minerals, and heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
They have been linked to improvement in risk factors for heart disease and diabetes, as well as benefits for digestion and gut health.
Chia seeds are very easy to incorporate into a healthy diet, and are truly worthy of their reputation as a superfood.