For years, the food industry has been touting the health benefits of chia seeds, chia leaves, and chia oil. But are the benefits of chia seeds real or just some myth blown out of proportion?
One of the big “selling points” behind dry chia seeds is that supposedly the Aztecs ate them for centuries and have considered them a fantastic plant-based healthy food. In fact, Dr. Gundry used to believe that too. He used to add chia seeds to water or to his smoothies. That is until he stumbled across some groundbreaking research regarding chia seeds and their negative effect on your health.
What Are Chia Seeds?
The chia plant is a flowering plant that’s part of the mint family. Commonly grown in Central Mexico, Southern Mexico, and Guatemala the chia plant was grown by the Aztecs for centuries.
Chia was thought to be a relatively important crop and a superfood. The seeds are tiny — only 2 millimeters in length. You can find them in various colors (grey, black, brown, and sometimes even white). And when you add water to them, they expand. How?
Well, it turns out one of the most interesting characteristics of the chia seed is its ability to absorb up to ten times its weight in water.1
Debunking The “Healthy Nutrients” In Chia Seeds
Now, chia seeds do contain omega-3 fatty acids which are probably part of why Dr. Gundry consumed them himself back in the day. The issue is that the primary fatty acid in chia seeds is alpha-linolenic acid (otherwise known as ALA). Alpha-linolenic acid can be among the more complicated types of fatty acids. Why?
Alpha-linolenic acid (again, it’s the main fatty acid in chia seeds) must be converted into either Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) or eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) in order to work well for your body. However, humans are quite inefficient when it comes to converting ALA to either EPA or DHA.2 Therefore, chia seeds just don’t do the trick (especially when you consider that the omega-3 fatty acids in oily fish already come in the form of EPA and DHA).3
To reiterate, in a study of the omega-3 fatty acids found in chia seeds, alpha-linolenic acid was absorbed by humans. But when scientists measured the marker c-reactive protein, they discovered an increase in swelling within the body.4
Chia seeds will lead to swelling, redness, and discomfort because — you guessed it — The mama chia plant doesn’t want you to eat her babies, so she protects them the only way she knows how: lectins.
As you’ve probably noticed, when it comes to human nutrition, the devil’s usually in the details. As you’ll often find with several plant-based foods like seeds, cereal grains, and legumes, chia seeds are full of antinutrients (like lectins) that can actually deplete their nutritional value.
And in the case of chia seeds, phytate concentration is high and can decrease mineral absorption when consumed. Furthermore, antinutrients like phytate (found in chia seeds) that bind minerals like calcium, iron, and zinc, can make those minerals nearly impossible to absorb.5
Additionally, there is a strange, translucent watery gel that surrounds each chia seed. When consumed, this icky, sticky watery substance creates a barrier that may impair digestion. That watery gel may also hinder fat absorption and lead to challenges when your body tries to digest protein.6
Human studies show that the antinutrients in chia seeds (combined with the gooey gel) might potentially lead to the following health concerns:
- Digestive issues
- Systemic swelling, redness, and irritation
- Allergic reactions7
Additionally, when chia seeds are consumed excessively, their high fiber content may lead to the following health concerns:
- Abdominal discomfort
But What About Chia Seeds For Weight Loss?
In another study, researchers measured the body composition, swelling, oxidative stress, blood pressure, and lipoprotein levels of both a group who consumed chia seeds and a group who didn’t. The measurements showed no difference between the two groups.
So, even though some participants ingested 50 grams a day of chia seeds, there was no influence on the participants’ body mass or body composition measurements.9
Chia Seeds: Superfood Or Super Overrated?
In the end, it turns out that most of the celebrated “benefits” of chia seeds are no more than a collection of myths. While there are certain vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants in chia seeds, they’re not easily absorbed. So, play it safe and remove chia seeds from your shopping list.
If you are fascinated by chia seeds, do yourself a favor: grab yourself a terra cotta dish, fill it with chia seeds, a little soil, and water — then watch the stalks grow up to 24 inches tall with various flower heads. They can become a fun plant to tend to, but not so fun to eat.