Chia seeds have been cultivated as a food source as early as 5500 BC in Central America.1 Recognition of the chia seed’s nutritional benefits can be traced back to the Mayans and Aztecs, when the seeds were used in the preparation of folk medicines, food, and even as offerings to the gods.2 While chia seeds may not be used as broadly as they once were, chia seeds are widely recognized as a nutrient-dense food and can be found in most grocery stores.
Chia seeds come from the desert plant Salvia hispanica, a member of the mint family.3 These small-but-mighty seeds can be absorbed by the body in their whole form.4 This is different from other seeds, such as flaxseeds, which, when consumed in their whole form, can go through the entire digestive tract without being broken down, preventing the seed’s nutrients from being absorbed. Chia seeds are also very versatile. Their mild taste takes on the flavor of whatever fare into which they are mixed, making them an easy addition to a wide assortment of dishes, drinks, and cuisines. They can also be added to water and made into a gel or pudding5 or sprinkled on cereals, breakfast bowls, yogurt, and smoothies.
If you think the chia seed’s culinary versatility is impressive, wait until you hear about its health benefits.
High Fiber Content
Chia seeds are loaded with fiber. Just one tablespoon packs five grams of soluble fiber—nearly 20 percent of the recommended daily intake.5 Fiber boasts many health benefits, such as promoting regular bowel movements and providing energy to gut microbiome. At the same time, chia seeds can promote fullness. In fact, the seeds can absorb more than 10 times their weight in water!1 The added bulk may help you feel fuller sooner so that you eat less. However, there is no concrete evidence that chia seeds can help with weight loss.6 Emerging research also suggests that chia seeds may help lower cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood pressure, but there are few published, peer-reviewed studies on their cardiovascular and digestive benefits.3
Packed with Essential Minerals and Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Chia seeds pack a powerful punch of essential minerals, including calcium, manganese, magnesium, selenium, copper, iron, and phosphorus,1,6,7 and are a good source of omega-3 fatty acids such as alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). ALA has been shown to reduce inflammation and may help prevent chronic diseases, such as heart disease and arthritis. Fatty acids are also important for brain growth and development and overall brain health.5,7
Loaded with Antioxidants
Chia seeds are an excellent source of antioxidants. These antioxidants protect the fats in chia seeds from going rancid (this means chia seeds have an extended shelf life) and they neutralize free radicals in the body.1,8 A build-up of free radicals in the body will damage cells, contributing to a myriad of chronic ailments, including cancer, asthma, diabetes, dementia, and degenerative eye disease. Too many free radicals can also catalyze the effects of aging. 9
Source of Complete Protein
Despite being a grain, chia seeds are an impressive source of complete protein, meaning they contain all nine essential amino acids that cannot be made by the body.2 While the protein content of chia seeds varies based on factors related to their growth environment, they have strong potential to correct and prevent protein energy malnutrition.10 Notably, because chia seeds are gluten-free, they are an invaluable grain source of protein for people with celiac disease.
Because of their high fiber content, eating too many chia seeds may disrupt the digestive system and cause diarrhea, bloating, and gas.10 People with irritable bowel syndrome or other digestive conditions should be especially wary of the potential gastrointestinal effects of chia seeds. Although rare, chia seed allergies may occur,12 symptoms of which include vomiting, diarrhea, and itchy tongue and/or lips. Severe allergies can lead to anaphylaxis.11
The chia seed’s high water absorption capacity causes it to swell up and become gelatinous when exposed to liquid. if consuming chia seeds in their dry form alone, there is a risk of them becoming stuck in the throat, if you don’t fully swallow them, where they may swell, solidify, and block the airway passages.14,15 Thus consuming dry chia seeds alone (i.e., without any other food or liquid) is not recommended.
Chia seeds can be eaten raw but preparation is key. Though chia seeds can be broken down in their whole form in the digestive tract,12,13 soaking them in water for 5 to 10 minutes before consuming them enhances nutrient absorption. Grinding them into a powder is also a suitable option.10 Both tactics also prevent choking.
While there is no recommended daily allowance for chia seeds, a widely accepted standard is consuming no more than 50 grams, or about five tablespoons, daily.1,5,9,17 Be sure to closely follow directions and heed medical advice when consuming chia seeds.
Chia Seed Pro Tip
In addition to being a complete, plant-based protein, chia seeds are a handy cooking tool for individuals who avoid eating animal-based foods. Given their ability to absorb water and fat, chia seeds can be used as a binding agent to thicken sauces and as an egg or oil substitute in baking.2,15 For one whole egg, mix one tablespoon of whole chia seeds or two teaspoons ground seeds with three tablespoons water.2 Allow to sit for at least five minutes or until the mixture thickens to the consistency of a raw scrambled egg.
Chia seed consumption can be traced back thousands of years,. They are versatile and nourishing. They can be consumed raw or cooked and are a handy addition to many recipes. They are a rich source of fiber, essential minerals, antioxidants, and complete protein. Like any type of food, chia seed consumption does come with potential risks. Soaking or grinding chia seeds prior to consumption may enhance absorption of their nutrients and reduce risk of choking.
Editor’s note: Please consult with a qualified healthcare professional to see if incorporating chia seeds into your diet is right.
1. Ullah R, Nadeem M, Khalique A, et al. Nutritional and therapeutic perspectives of Chia (Salvia hispanica L.): a review. J Food Sci Technol. 2016;53(4):1750-1758.
2. Chia seeds. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health website. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/food-features/chia-seeds/. Accessed 11 Jan 2022.
3. Klemm S. Updated 25 Jan 2021. What are chia seeds? Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website. https://www.eatright.org/food/vitamins-and-supplements/nutrient-rich-foods/what-are-chia-seeds. Accessed 6 Jan 2022.
4. Zelman K. The truth about chia. Nourish by WebMD website. https://www.webmd.com/diet/features/truth-about-chia#1. Accessed 6 Jan 2022.
5. Masters M. Updated 28 Mar 2019. 6 proven health benefits of chia seeds. Prevention.com website. https://www.prevention.com/food-nutrition/healthy-eating/a19596889/health-benefits-of-chia-seeds/. Accessed 6 Jan 2022.
6. Bridges M. Updated 26 May 2020. Healthy food trends — chia seeds. MedlinePLUS website. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/patientinstructions/000727.htm. Accessed 6 Jan 2022.
7. Rajaram S. Health benefits of plant-derived α-linolenic acid. Am J Clin Nutr. 2014;100(1):443S–448S.
8. Gunnars K, Striet L. Updated 11 Nov 2021. 7 enticing health benefits of chia seeds. Healthline website. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/11-proven-health-benefits-of-chia-seeds. Accessed 11 Jan 2022.
9. Florence TM. The role of free radicals in disease. Aust N Z J Ophthalmol. 1995;23(1):3-7.
10. Brennan D. Updated 2 Sep 2020. Health benefits of chia seeds. Nourish by WebMD website. https://www.webmd.com/diet/health-benefits-chia-seeds#1. Accessed 6 Jan 2022.
11. Albunni BA, Wessels H, Paschke-Kratzin A, Fischer M. Antibody cross-reactivity between proteins of chia seed (Salvia hispanica L.) and other food allergens. J Agric Food Chem. 2019;67(26):7475-7484.
12. García Jiménez S, Pastor Vargas C, de las Heras M, et al. Allergen characterization of chia seeds (Salvia hispanica), a new allergenic food. J Investig Allergol Clin Immunol. 2015;25(1):55-82.
13. Calvo-Lerma J, Paz-Yépez C, Asensio-Grau A, et al. Impact of processing and intestinal conditions on in vitro digestion of chia (Salvia hispanica) seeds and derivatives. Foods. 2020;9(3):290.
14. Oaklander M. Updated 20 Oct 2014. You’ll never guess what chia seeds can do to your esophagus. TIME Magazine website. https://time.com/3524803/chia-seeds-superfood-stuck/. Accessed 11 Jan 2022.
15. Borneo R, Aguirre A, León AE. Chia (Salvia hispanica L) gel can be used as egg or oil replacer in cake formulations. J Am Diet Assoc. 2010;110(6):946-949.
16. Dallas ME. 14 Oct 2019. Use chia seeds with caution, researcher warns. Nourish by WebMD website. https://www.webmd.com/diet/news/20141021/use-chia-seeds-with-caution-researcher-warns. Accessed 11 Jan 2022.
17. Ratini M. Updated 23 Sep 2021. How much chia seeds should you eat a day? MedicineNet website. https://www.medicinenet.com/how_much_chia_seeds_should_you_eat_a_day/article.htm. Accessed 11 Jan 2022.