Here we go, another ‘superfood’. OK, chia seeds are by no means the latest. But it’s hard to keep up, even when you’re in the business.
You have to respect a food that manages to achieve superstar status whilst tasting of, well, nothing in particular. Milled gravel, perhaps. A food that you’d be unlikely to crave even in the throes of intermittent fasting.
Healthniks enthuse that chia seeds are “packed” with nutrients. So let’s unpack those big guns: omega-3 fatty acids, protein, calcium, and zinc are the main claims. Then there’s the fibre. They are “packed” with fibre too. These unprepossessing seeds are a veritable “powerhouse”. Some extraordinary claims are made: lower blood pressure, weight loss, reduced cravings, stabilised blood sugar, improved cardiovascular function.
You have now been well and truly inducted into the post-truth world of barstool nutribabble.
What have chia seeds got?
Chia seeds do have an impressive level of (the much sought-after) omega-3 fatty acids, which is quite rare in seed world. This puts them on a par with oily fish, right? Wrong. The reason you eat oily fish is to get those ready-made, ultra-healthy fatty acids EPA and DHA. Seeds don’t give you those – they only provide the precursors to these fatty acids. Contrary to popular belief, the body cannot make any meaningful amount of EPA and DHA from these precursors.
Chia seeds can rightly claim to be a rare plant source of a complete protein, that is, a protein containing all the essential amino acids the body needs. They also contain 17g protein per 100g serving which is not high, but still a decent amount of protein, if you can eat that much chia. Have you seen that much chia?
Good luck getting that lot down your throat. Realistically, you will only consume a small amount of chia at any given time – a teaspoon or two with your porridge, or power smoothie, or whatever medium you choose to disguise the blandness. That really isn’t a significant amount of protein by any stretch.
Oh, you cry, what about all those minerals? Calcium! Zinc! One or two others! They’re all there, alright, but it’s just so unfair. You just can’t get at them, thanks to two dietary knaves: phytate and lectin. Phytates are chemicals that bind to minerals and whisk them through your gut and out, so they barely touch the sides. Lectins are proteins that irritate the gut lining, and are found in abundance in seeds. This irritation further inhibits any chances of mineral absorption. Most lectins are resistant to heat and the digestive process, so cannot be avoided.
Bioavailability – the amount you absorb – can be improved by soaking chia seeds in water for a few hours, preferably overnight. Or you could just suck them out of the gaps between your teeth once they have been lodged there for a few hours.
Chia Seed Research
So what about those aforementioned health claims? There’s only one way to find out what the truth of these claims is, which is to turn to the research. In 2009 Nutrition Research published a study that assessed the effectiveness of chia seeds in promoting weight loss and reducing risk of disease in overweight adults. Subjects either consumed 25g of seeds mixed in water twice daily for 12 weeks or consumed a placebo. The conclusion? Daily ingestion of 50g of chia seeds compared to a placebo by overweight men and women “had no influence on body mass or composition, or various disease risk factors.”
Perhaps they should have milled those seeds first, to make them more make bioavailable. So researchers gave that a go, this time with over 60 post-menopausal, overweight women. The effect?
“Pre-to-post measures of body composition, inflammation, blood pressure, augmentation index, and lipoproteins did not differ between chia seed (whole or milled) and placebo groups”
Dang! One more try, this time with the claim that these little powerhouses do something for the cardiovascular system. A review of seven studies into the subject concluded that:
“The evidence regarding the relationship between chia seed consumption and cardiovascular risk factors is insufficient.”
The evidence suggests that chia seeds do not live up to the hype. On the plus side, at least you can stop thinking you should eat this overpriced, tasteless grit!
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