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Chia seeds in focus

Dietitian Yvonne O'Halloran looks at the benefits of eating small but mighty chia seeds

Chia seeds come from the plant Salvia hispanica L, which is part of the mint family. These plants are native to and used to be a major food crop in central and southern Mexico. Chia seeds are well-known to most people and are a regular staple in a vegan pantry.

Chia seeds have created a really nice name for themselves over the past decade, with the chia seed market expected to reach more than $2 billion USD in sales by 2022.

They are often referred to as a 'superfood', meaning they offer benefits beyond their nutritional value - like lowering cholesterol, reducing appetite, controlling weight, improving blood sugars and improving gut health. Let's take a closer look at chia seeds to determine if all this hype is, in fact, true.

The facts

Chia seeds are rich in polyunsaturated fat, fibre, protein, calcium, phosphorus and zinc. Just two tablespoons of chia seeds (28 grams) contain about 140 calories, 4g of protein, 11g of fibre, 7g of unsaturated fat, 18 per cent of your RDA for calcium and good amounts of omega-3 fatty acids.

They are also a complete protein, which means they contain all the nine essential amino acids that must be consumed through our diet (our body cannot make them). Chia seeds come in two colours - black and white, and though there are some nutritional differences in both, they are so minor that they are considered nutritionally equal.

Black chia may have a slightly higher protein content and white may have a little more ALA omega-3 fatty acids, however, depending on the location where they are grown, most of the time these subtle differences are undetectable.

Chia seeds provide us with healthy fats in the form of ALA, but this must be converted to the usable form EPA and DHA. Recently, the Nurses' Health Study found there was a 40 per cent decreased risk of a sudden cardiac death in women who consumed the highest amounts of ALA.

Scientific evidence has shown that adding just one teaspoon of chia seeds daily, resulted in people consuming less calories at the next meal (Ayaz et al, 2017).

 

Another study found that ground up chia seeds (two tablespoons) daily, resulted in significantly more weight loss and decreased waist circumference compared to the fibre matched control group who consumed oat bran (Gibbs et al, 2016).

Furthermore, their inflammatory marker known as C-reactive protein (CRP) was reduced. Chia seeds contain calcium, which is attributed to bone health.

A 25g portion of chia contains 157mg of calcium, which is a significant source of calcium, more than that in 100ml of cow's milk.

However, not all studies showed the same results. For example, a 2009 study published in Nutrition Research looked at how well chia seeds helped promote weight loss in overweight adults.

Surprisingly, researchers found that consumption of 50g of chia seeds (about ¼ cup) daily did not have any significant effect on body mass or on risk factors for certain diseases, such as inflammation and high blood pressure (Neiman et al, 2009). There is actually very little research on chia seeds in human studies.

The Harvard School of Public Health highlighted that many reviews and human studies have not found evidence that chia seeds have a significant impact on inflammation, body weight, blood sugar, blood pressure and lipid levels.

Therefore, it seems likely that the benefits of chia seeds come from their incorporation into a rich diet full of healthy plant-based foods and not just from consuming chia seeds alone.

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How to use chia seeds

• Do not consume chia seeds dry! In a study presented at the American College of Gastroenterology Annual Scientific Meeting a 39-year-old male presented to the emergency room after eating a tablespoon of dry chia seeds, then drinking a glass of water.

Shortly after taking this, he noticed he was not able to swallow anything, even his own saliva. In the emergency room, doctors performed an endoscopy to see what, if anything, was causing the issue.

They found a mass of congealed chia seeds completely obstructing the man's oesophagus. Chia seeds are completely safe to consume, once they absorb liquid before being swallowed.

• Chia seeds can be added to any plant milk or water and mixed through to create a gel like consistency. Add flavours like maple syrup, cinnamon, cacao, salt etc and
pop into the refrigerator overnight. You can top with fruit, nuts, granola, or cacao nibs leaving you with a tasty and very nutritious snack or breakfast option.

• Chia seeds can be used in baking as a great egg replacement, due to the seeds gel consistency making them a great binder.

 

• Chia seeds can be easily added to homemade bread, oatmeal, smoothies, soups, sauces, dips and condiments (like homemade jam) or even in cocktails or as a garnish on certain foods.

• Aim to consume two tablespoons per day (whole or ground), but also ensure your overall diet is balanced and healthy.

 

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Find Yvonne on Facebook at @livingveganofficial

 

VeganLife

The lifestyle magazine written by vegans for vegans.