Chia Seeds

This transition to a low-carb high-fat diet has been good – feeling less hungry and more energised (I’ll discuss benefits of LCHF diet soon…).

Only one problem, I’m not making it through my workouts. I get about half-way through and then just kinda die. It’s not fatigue/ lactate build up/ DOMS/ any of that stuff – I literally just instantaneously run out of steam and lie down on the floor. I am not joking. The other day it hit when I was running and I seriously considered catching a cab home. So lame.

So I tell my mate about this… and all he says is “chia seeds.”

I’m thinking he’s joking (and having flashbacks to my Ch-Ch-Ch-Chia pet) but he’s serious.

“Chia seeds” he says again, so knowingly.

Chia seeds

As a necessary part of research for this blog post I checked out how far Chia pets have come since my time. They are amazing, check it out:


Not exactly the infamy they had in mind…

But this one is undoubtedly the best…


OK, chia it is – here’s my chia yo.

Soaking my chia...

Chia seeds soaked overnight


Pseudo-neo-artistic shot from the top. Looks so cool and sciency…

It tastes like a slightly nutty slime. Mmm delish. According to the packet you can just add it to anything (although I’ve read that you should soak it first).

Why the weird mucous gelatinousness? Some dude who was really bored used a scanning electron microscope to look at the micromorphology and anatomy of nutlets of chia seeds, and specifically what happened when they were soaked in water.  It turns out that they have this mucilage inside the nutlet that gets extruded out.  The researchers conclude that chia nutlets have mucilaginous substances, with interesting functional properties from a technological and physiological point of view. I concur.

So what’s so good about chia seeds?

The chia seed is from Salvia hispanica and is a traditional food in Central and South America.

chia salvia hispanica

Salvia hispanica

This is a picture of Salvia hispanica running free in the wild. Which makes it paleo right?*

*Chia seeds are in the paleo ‘grey’ zone. Meaning whether they are paleo or not is really a matter of opinion. As in, if you really like them, then go for it 🙂

chia seeds

Chia seeds – each one is ~2mm long

Like cars and kid’s toys, not all chia seeds are created equal – depending on where they’re grown (eg. Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador), their protein and fatty acid contents are different.

Regardless of where they’re grown however they are great stuff – when broken down and assessed using a very technological-sounding process (ultra high performance liquid chromatography – UHPLC) they were found to have a very high antioxidant capacity.  Additional semi-long-word-science-processes (mass spectrometry) show chia seeds to contain compounds with high protein content. Chia seed protein shows homology to sesame seed proteins.

What about chia seeds & cooking/ food stuffs?

Chia seed flour is rich in omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid; bread made with it has a higher amount of protein (20%), insoluble dietary fibres (74%), ash (51%), and alpha-linolenic acid (67.4%). Chia seed flour bread also has lower energy (14%) and carbohydrate contents (24%) compared to common wheat bread.

The structure of chia seeds also makes them a good source of gel.

chia hair gel

Yes, gel.

Extracted chia seed gel has good water-holding capacity, oil-holding capacity, viscosity, emulsion activity, and freeze-thaw ability, giving it a potential application in food formulation as a thickening agent, emulsifying agent, and as a stabilizer in frozen food products. Fascinating.

One study cleverly combined the previous two points together, and found that when you add chia to something not so healthy and potentially crumbly (cookies), it ends up improving the nutritional value and physical properties of said cookies. A landmark study.

In terms of nutritional value, it is pretty awesome – the only thing it is really lacking is lysine (an essential amino acid) and therefore for this reason it cannot be ‘recommended as a sole protein source’.

Chia seeds & skin

Studies have looked at the effect of chia seed fatty acids on skin. Results have found that when they are formulated into topical products that they improve skin conditions such a lichen simplex chronicus, and prurigo nodularis. Additionally they help improve the symptoms dry itchy skin. Structure-wise chia seed fatty acids improve epidermal permeability barrier function and skin hydration by reducing trans-epidermal water loss.

Chia seed extract has also been shown to disrupt melanogenesis in epidermal melanocytes. People are therefore looking at it as a potential product for reducing the skin darkening and discolouration that occurs with sun exposure and age. Maybe it will take off in Asia as a method of skin whitening because let’s face it, bleach and mercury ain’t that great for your health and all.


Clearly a case of too much chia…

Metabolic effects of chia seeds

If you get a bunch of rats who are on a high-carb/sugar diet (I could make jokes here about work colleagues but won’t) they get high lipid levels, fatty liver and insulin-resistance. If you then feed these fatty rats chia seed for a couple of months they undergo a normalising/ improving of these processes.

Enough of fat rats. What about fat people? A group of overweight post-menopausal women were given 25g of chia seeds daily for 10 weeks. They ended up having increased plasma ‘good’ fatty acids (only for the milled chia seed; not for the whole chia seed) however there were no improvements in inflammatory or disease risk factors, including body weight and fat composition. Damn you chia seed for not giving me a quick fix; I will have to console myself with biscuits on the sofa. Sob.

Other studies have found the same thing – that intake of chia seeds won’t improve your body mass, composition or various disease risk factors (such as inflammatory markers, blood pressure, serum lipids) however in general they do result in improved fatty acid ratios in the blood.

Additionally, studies have shown that when you take chia seeds regularly, the fat in your body actually gets redistributed away from your internal organs, thereby resulting in cardio- and hepatoprotection.

Chia seeds & athletic performance

I know. The important bit.

You know ‘carbo-loading’ (the process by which high dietary carbohydrate intake prior to competition improves muscle glycogen stores and therefore results in improved performance in events >90 minutes)? Well, someone thought up ‘omega-3-loading’ using chia seeds.  The study essentially substituted a component of the pre-event carbohydrate with chia seeds and found that performance remains just as good.  This allows athletes to keep the benefits of carbo-loading but without increasing their dietary intake of sugar (because that’s what carbs get broken down to).

Haven’t found anything yet about the effect of chia seeds on power performance… If you have, let me know!

If you’re a chicken…

Yes, someone out there extensively researched the effect of feeding chickens with chia seed.  I’m guessing it was a very remote farm… Chia seed enables chickens to have:

  • A favourable fatty acid content in their blood and flesh;
  • A lower body weight with lower feed conversion;
  • Production of less manure;
  • Production of lighter, fewer eggs;
  • Lighter egg yolks (if you’re a white hen) BUT heavier egg yolks (if you’re a brown hen).

I’ve included these bits in case conversation gets a bit slow at your next dinner party.

Bottom line

  • Chia seeds not only make great pets, they also have a great nutritional profile;
  • There is evidence that chia seeds exhibit a favourable effect on the skin, certain metabolic parameters and some aspects of athletic performance;
  • There is a whole bunch of really weird research out there.

Anecdotal but once I started taking chia seed pre-workout, no more dying! 🙂

Costantini L, Lukšič L, Molinari R, Kreft I, Bonafaccia G, Manzi L, Merendino N. Development of gluten-free bread using tartary buckwheat and chia flour rich in flavonoids and omega-3 fatty acids as ingredients. Food Chem. 2014 Dec 15;165:232-40. doi: 10.1016/j.foodchem.2014.05.095. Epub 2014 May 27.
Diwakar G, Rana J, Saito L, Vredeveld D, Zemaitis D, Scholten J. Inhibitory effect of a novel combination of Salvia hispanica (chia) seed and Punica granatum (pomegranate) fruit extracts on melanin production. Fitoterapia. 2014 Sep;97:164-71. doi: 10.1016/j.fitote.2014.05.021. Epub 2014 Jun 6.
Martínez-Cruz O, Paredes-López O. Phytochemical profile and nutraceutical potential of chia seeds (Salvia hispanica L.) by ultra high performance liquid chromatography. J Chromatogr A. 2014 Jun 13;1346:43-8. doi: 10.1016/j.chroma.2014.04.007. Epub 2014 Apr 13.
Coorey R, Tjoe A, Jayasena V. Gelling properties of chia seed and flour. J Food Sci. 2014 May;79(5):E859-66. doi: 10.1111/1750-3841.12444. Epub 2014 Apr 15.
Inglett GE, Chen D, Liu S. Physical properties of sugar cookies containing chia-oat composites. J Sci Food Agric. 2014 Mar 24. doi: 10.1002/jsfa.6674. [Epub ahead of print]
Capitani MI, Ixtaina VY, Nolasco SM, Tomás MC. Microstructure, chemical composition and mucilage exudation of chia (Salvia hispanica L.) nutlets from Argentina. J Sci Food Agric. 2013 Dec;93(15):3856-62. doi: 10.1002/jsfa.6327. Epub 2013 Sep 4.
Mohd Ali N, Yeap SK, Ho WY, Beh BK, Tan SW, Tan SG. The promising future of chia, Salvia hispanica L. J Biomed Biotechnol. 2012;2012:171956. doi: 10.1155/2012/171956. Epub 2012 Nov 21. Review.
Sandoval-Oliveros MR, Paredes-López O. Isolation and characterization of proteins from chia seeds (Salvia hispanica L.). J Agric Food Chem. 2013 Jan 9;61(1):193-201. doi: 10.1021/jf3034978. Epub 2012 Dec 28.
Rossi AS, Oliva ME, Ferreira MR, Chicco A, Lombardo YB. Dietary chia seed induced changes in hepatic transcription factors and their target lipogenic and oxidative enzyme activities in dyslipidaemic insulin-resistant rats. Br J Nutr. 2013 May;109(9):1617-27. doi: 10.1017/S0007114512003558. Epub 2012 Sep 5.
Nieman DC, Gillitt N, Jin F, Henson DA, Kennerly K, Shanely RA, Ore B, Su M, Schwartz S. Chia seed supplementation and disease risk factors in overweight women: a metabolomics investigation. J Altern Complement Med. 2012 Jul;18(7):700-8. doi: 10.1089/acm.2011.0443.
Jin F, Nieman DC, Sha W, Xie G, Qiu Y, Jia W. Supplementation of milled chia seeds increases plasma ALA and EPA in postmenopausal women. Plant Foods Hum Nutr. 2012 Jun;67(2):105-10. doi: 10.1007/s11130-012-0286-0.
Poudyal H, Panchal SK, Waanders J, Ward L, Brown L. Lipid redistribution by α-linolenic acid-rich chia seed inhibits stearoyl-CoA desaturase-1 and induces cardiac and hepatic protection in diet-induced obese rats. J Nutr Biochem. 2012 Feb;23(2):153-62. doi: 10.1016/j.jnutbio.2010.11.011. Epub 2011 Mar 22.
Olivos-Lugo BL, Valdivia-López MÁ, Tecante A. Thermal and physicochemical properties and nutritional value of the protein fraction of Mexican chia seed (Salvia hispanica L.). Food Sci Technol Int. 2010 Feb;16(1):89-96. doi: 10.1177/1082013209353087. Epub 2010 Feb 5.
Illian TG, Casey JC, Bishop PA. Omega 3 Chia seed loading as a means of carbohydrate loading. J Strength Cond Res. 2011 Jan;25(1):61-5. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181fef85c
Jeong SK, Park HJ, Park BD, Kim IH. Effectiveness of Topical Chia Seed Oil on Pruritus of End-stage Renal Disease (ESRD) Patients and Healthy Volunteers. Ann Dermatol. 2010 May;22(2):143-8. doi: 10.5021/ad.2010.22.2.143. Epub 2010 May 17.
Nieman DC, Cayea EJ, Austin MD, Henson DA, McAnulty SR, Jin F. Chia seed does not promote weight loss or alter disease risk factors in overweight adults. Nutr Res. 2009 Jun;29(6):414-8. doi: 10.1016/j.nutres.2009.05.011.
Ayerza R. The seed’s protein and oil content, fatty acid composition, and growing cycle length of a single genotype of chia (Salvia hispanica L.) as affected by environmental factors. J Oleo Sci. 2009;58(7):347-54.
Ayerza R Jr, Coates W. Effect of dietary alpha-linolenic fatty acid derived from chia when fed as ground seed, whole seed and oil on lipid content and fatty acid composition of rat plasma. Ann Nutr Metab. 2007;51(1):27-34. Epub 2007 Mar 14.
Ayerza R, Coates W, Lauria M. Chia seed (Salvia hispanica L.) as an omega-3 fatty acid source for broilers: influence on fatty acid composition, cholesterol and fat content of white and dark meats, growth performance, and sensory characteristics. Poult Sci. 2002 Jun;81(6):826-37.
Ayerza R, Coates W. Dietary levels of chia: influence on hen weight, egg production and sensory quality, for two strains of hens. Br Poult Sci. 2002 May;43(2):283-90.
Ayerza R, Coates W. Dietary levels of chia: influence on yolk cholesterol, lipid content and fatty acid composition for two strains of hens. Poult Sci. 2000 May;79(5):724-39.

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