For vegetarians and those who don't like the taste of fish
The chia seed is an excellent, vegetarian source of omega-3s that are so essential to our health.
Through my travels throughout Mexico and Central and South America, I have become familiar with the cultivation and benefits of chia (Salvia hispanica), which has a long history of use among the Aztec and Mayan cultures. Historical records indicate that chia has been used as a food as far back as 2500 BC. Up until a couple of decades ago, it was grown only on small family plots, but it’s now being grown commercially in various Latin American countries.
Oil from chia has the highest proportion of omega-3 fatty acids of any plant known. I’ve outlined the dangers of omega-3 deficiencies and the imbalance of omega-3 oils to omega-6 oils in our diet for years. Until chia became available, the oils from flaxseed, fish, and marine algae were considered to be the only other viable sources of dietary omega-3s. And each of these have their own problems and drawbacks.
Special varieties of flaxseed had to be developed to remove certain toxins inherent in native varieties. With flaxseed, which I’ve used and recommended for years, you have to be careful to avoid problems with preservation. To be digested, flaxseed has to be ground—which increases the risk of oxidation and rancidity if you don’t consume it right away. All omega-3 oils are highly reactive and subject to oxidation, and flaxseed and fish oils don’t contain naturally high levels of protective antioxidants—which is why fish oil capsules often contain added antioxidants such as vitamin E and rosemary.
Fish oil can be another excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, but I guess you could say it has its own set of issues. A lot of people simply won’t eat fish. And, for those of us who do, we have the problem of mercury contamination due to the increased pollution in our waters. Unfortunately, mercury is probably only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to contamination. The increase in other toxins, pesticides, herbicides, and even human pharmaceuticals and hormones in our waterways will eventually find their way into our wild fish stock.
What many people don’t understand is that if you want omega-3s in the flesh of a fish, what the fish eats must contain omega-3s. Wild fish get their omega-3s by eating algae and smaller fish. Farmed fish have to be fed either flaxseed, chia, or fish meal made from other fish in order to raise their omega-3 content.
We’re beginning to see that the demand for fish is overwhelming the supply. It may not be a renewable resource. High-quality fish oil is becoming more and more expensive, and I don’t think it will be long before the cost will put it out of reach for most people.
Chia overcomes these problems naturally. It’s naturally high in omega-3—the highest plant source. It isn’t contaminated. It’s naturally pest-free, so it doesn’t require the use of pesticides or herbicides for growing. It’s a totally renewable resource. It contains a naturally high level of antioxidants—including caffeic acid, chlorogenic acid, and quercetin—that protect it from rancidity.
Chia’s Many Benefits
Chia has several other amazing attributes that no doubt supported the Aztecs’ belief that it could provide mystical and supernatural benefits. Chia is a good source of protein and calcium, low in sodium, lower in net carbs than other grains, and an excellent source of both soluble and insoluble fiber. Chia is 16 percent protein, 31 percent fat, and 44 percent carbohydrate—of which 38 percent is fiber. (The balance is water and what’s known as “ash,” a measure of the mineral content.) Most of chia’s omega-3 content is in the form of the essential fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid or ALA.
Chia has been used as food for thousands of years without any problems. It stores without refrigeration or special care. It digests easily without having to be ground. (Although the Aztecs also ground the seeds into flour for baking.) And, unlike other grains, there are no reports of allergic reactions. There’s nothing not to like about chia unless you’re trying to sell fish/marine oil or flaxseed.
Don’t get me wrong, I still love flax and the proven benefits of fish oil. And, I’ll continue to eat fish and recommend that you add fish to your diet. I do, however, think that chia will be the logical replacement, and I intend to start adding chia to my daily regimen and cut back a little on my use of flax and fish oil.
The research on chia is very impressive, but limited. Research is expensive, particularly on humans, and there’s little financial incentive to spend millions of dollars to investigate a common grain that can’t be patented. But from all indications and research, chia works just as well as fish oil when it comes to lowering levels of triglycerides and LDL cholesterol, while raising beneficial HDL cholesterol.
A recent study found that chia consumption not only raised HDL cholesterol levels, but also effectively improved the overall omega-3 to omega-6 ratio. Chia helps restore the omega-3 to omega-6 balance that has become so lopsided from our diets. Omega-3 oils, as you recall, are anti-inflammatory in nature, and excess omega-6s promote inflammation. Chia consumption can help with most types of arthritis, joint pain, and stiffness, along with conditions such as ulcerative colitis.
The recommended daily amount is two tablespoons a day for adults and one tablespoon for children. The easiest way to use it is to simply sprinkle it in salads, over vegetables, or on top of other foods.