Chia Seeds: Benefits and Side Effects
A favourite staple of the Aztec and Tarahumara tribe, chia seeds have been catapulted into the category of ancient super food. However, a few people have spoken out against them including The Paleo Diet author Loren Cordain who says they should be avoided due to potential side effects. We look at whether they are really worth the hype as a miracle running fuel.
The interest in chia seeds blew up when Christopher McDougall wrote about their use by the Tarahumara Indians in his popular book Born to Run. The tribe used a blend of maize and chia to fuel them during arduous ultra runs through the desert. Even ancient civilisations such as the Incas, Mayans and Aztec used chia seeds to help bring strength to hunters and warriors on long expeditions.
McDougall went as fas as to say: “If you had to pick just one desert-island food, you couldn’t do much better than chia, at least if you were interested in building muscle, lowering cholesterol, and reducing your risk of heart disease; after a few months on the chia diet, you could probably swim home.”
Chia Seeds Benefits
The most touted benefit of chia seeds is their high omega-3 content. However this is in the form of short-chain ALA omega-3. This needs to be converted to long-chain EPA/DHA omega-3. Unfortunately, our bodies aren’t very efficient in converting ALA to EPA/DHA so much of the benefits are lost. If this is the main reason you’re looking at chia seeds, you may well be better off with some wild fish, grass fed meat and fish oils for your omega 3s.
On the plus side, chia seeds are packed with soluble fibre and are high in antioxidants, calcium, iron, manganese and phosphorous. A unique property of chia seeds is the ability to hold up to 12 times its weight in water. Soaked for 30 mins, the seeds will form a gel like substance. Researches believe this gel reaction also occurs in the stomach, forming a barrier which means carbohydrates are broken down slowly. This makes the seeds popular among endurance athletes and also diabetics, who want a slow release energy source.
Chia Seeds Side Effects
While chia seeds do contain low levels of anti-nutrients and phytates these are fairly negligible unless you’re eating them as a staple. A grey area exists over possible gastrointestinal side effects of the seeds. A number of participants in a chia study left after experiencing problems. The exact cause of this issue is unknown however. As the seeds are extremely hydrophilic, they may possibly absorb fluids in the stomach causing cramps or pain. Again this is only likely to occur in high quantities.
Mark Sisson: “[These are] primal, but be wary of any superfood claims (unless they’re talking about liver and pastured egg yolks), closely monitor your fibre tolerance and don’t rely on them for your omega-3s.”
Loren Cordain: “Until further human trials are completed employing a sample size with sufficient statistical power to resolve these immune system issues, then the potential adverse effects of long term, chronic chia seed consumption may outweigh the potential benefits.”
Robb Wolf: “If folks want to throw a couple of tablespoons of it back a day, I don’t think that’s going to hurt them. But it’s really, really supplementing with that short-chain omega-3 and so expecting it to do anything remotely like supplementing with EPA/DHA is just completely false.”
Matt Lalonde: If you suffer from an autoimmune disease, eliminate this pseudo-cereal from your diet.
A few sprinkled over a dish for texture is fine but the claims of superior omega-3 qualities are overstated. The Aztec may have loved them but they were also into human sacrifice and kicking heads down temple steps. Stick to grass fed meat, wild fish and fish oils for your omega-3 intake.
Where to buy
Chia seeds are available in store and online from Holland and Barrett. They cost approx £2.19 for a 100g pack or 4.99 for a 350g pack. You can also purchase organic whole and milled chia seeds at £12.09 for a 400g and 315 pack respectively.
image courtesy of: sweetbeetandgreenbean