By Sam Armstrong, BENS MDietSt (UQ)
Chia seeds are everywhere; well, not literally everywhere but they seem to be in every stylish breakfast on Instagram, in every new ‘healthy’ smoothie and in everyone’s social media news feed.
But what are chia seeds and why is everyone suddenly obsessed with eating them?
Chia seeds first started becoming popular after being mentioned in the book, “Born to Run”. This book mentioned the Tarahumara people from Mexico who were renowned for their long-distance running. The book goes on to say that the Tarahumara people would ingest a drink called “Iskaite” before going for these runs. “Iskaite” turns out to be water mixed with chia seeds, which would apparently give them the right amount of stamina and hydration required for long-distance running.
What is in a chia seed?
According to this research article from Mexico they contain:
- 15-25% protein
- 30-33% fats
- 26-41% carbohydrates
- 18-30% dietary fibre
- 4-5% ash
What really draws in health gurus to chia seeds is the fat content. More specifically, that up to 68% of these fats are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and to answer your question of what is ALA, it is a type of omega 3 fatty acid.
Chia seeds have also been touted to be full of anti-oxidants and essential vitamins and minerals – in fact, in that same article they claim that chia seeds contain, “high amounts of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.” However, when looking at the study cited for this claim, it leads you to this study, which only describes the size and shape of the chia seed, not its chemical properties. Most studies examining the chemical properties of chia seeds only talk about the high content of omega 3’s and moderate amount of fibre. They do not back the amazing claims of chia seeds being full of anti-oxidants, vitamins and minerals. And before it starts to be claimed as a promoter of weight-loss or alters disease risk factors- according to this study, no, chia seeds do none of those things.
What does this have to do with the Tarahumara runners?
Well, potentially, a drink high in omega-3s and dietary fibre could provide long sustained energy and help runners feel more full and hydrated.
This is already a concept used by some ultra-marathon runners, who opt for high-fat, low-carbohydrate diets in order to not ‘hit the wall’ during their 100km+ races. However, just because something sounds good in theory does not mean necessarily mean it is true. This article, “No Positive Influence of Ingesting Chia Seed Oil on Human Running Performance”, unfortunately found what it describes in the title.
But does that mean “Born to Run” was wrong?
No, just misinterpreted. As far as historians know, the Tarahumara people did have the Iskaite drink before runs and they were renowned long-distance runners. However, this prowess in running is far more likely to be attributable to their whole lifestyle and anthropometrics rather than their version of a pre-workout supplement. In fact, even though “Born to Run”, mentions the Iskaite drink, it is never pushed at the reason why they were good at running. Instead, the whole book is about how homo-sapiens as a species are designed to run, not just this group because they’d found a magic seed.
If it doesn’t super charge my running or vitamin levels, does it have any benefits?
As mentioned before chia seeds do contain a high ratio of omega 3 fatty acids. If you forget about the claims on running performance, omega 3’s may be associated with lowering blood pressure, improving symptoms of depression and reducing inflammation . However, there is a catch, unlike omega 3’s found in fish, omega 3’s from chia seeds need to be converted in the body to become active. This is a very inefficient process, with only about 5-10% being converted. This is why it is recommended for the general population to have 2-3 serves a fish a week alongside a small portion of plant based omega 3’s equivalent to 2 teaspoons of chia seeds every day. If you were to have chia seeds as your sole source of omega 3 you would need to have around 10-20 teaspoons each day.
On a different note, 2 teaspoons of chia seeds sprinkled on your cereal or added to your lunch can also be included as part of your fibre intake with it containing about the same amount as a piece of fruit.
So, are chia seeds the king of foods?
No. Are they a magic pill for running performance, weight loss or reducing disease risk factors? No. Are they bad for you? Of course not, and if you are not eating many sources of omega-3s then they could definitely help to reach your recommended values. It’s just up to you if it is worth paying around $30/kg for them.