What is Chia?
Chia was first cultivated in the southern part of Mexico next to Guatemala. It has a long history of use among the Aztec and Mayan cultures. To the Aztecs, chia was an integral part of their diet, as well as a key component in their religious ceremonies. Their warriors also utilized it as a survival ration. 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. 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 has their own problems and drawbacks. Chia 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 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. And, unlike other grains, there are no reports of allergic reactions.
How Chia Helps With Diabetes
One six-month study involved type 2 diabetes patients (11 men and nine women) who were already on a diet and/or medication to control their disease. Daily use of chia resulted in a very significant decrease in blood pressure—a drop of 10 points in the systolic pressure (the top number) and a drop of 5 points in the diastolic pressure (the bottom number). C-reactive protein (CRP), a marker of inflammation in the body, was reduced by 37 percent. And fibrogenic factors, which can abnormally increase blood clotting and impair circulation, were also reduced without increasing bleeding time.
I found this study particularly interesting when you consider that these results were achieved in patients whose condition had already been stabilized through diet and medication. In addition, adverse cardiovascular factors associated with diabetes were decreased, there are numerous reports of how the daily use of chia can help stabilize blood sugar levels and even allow some individuals to decrease the amount of insulin they require. Considering chia’s high fiber content, its positive effects on blood sugar are not surprising.
Other Health Benefits of Chia
In addition to having a high omega-3 content, 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.
The fiber in chia absorbs as much as seven to nine times its weight in water. This added bulk can help one overcome constipation (assuming enough water is consumed) with the added benefit of giving the feeling of “fullness” that helps many people who are trying to lose weight.
In addition to both having the highest fiber content of any food and being one of the best sources of omega-3 fatty acids, chia is an excellent source of dietary calcium. A daily serving (about 2 tablespoons) contains about 125 mg of calcium, more than 7 grams of fiber, and more than 3 grams of omega-3 fatty acids.
Chia helps restore the omega-3 to omega-6 balance that has become so lopsided from our diets. As I mentioned earlier, omega-3 oils are anti-inflammatory in nature, and excess omega-6s promote inflammation. Chia consumption can help with other inflammatory conditions including most types of arthritis, joint pain, and stiffness. Finally, chia’s ALA gets converted into DHA, which has been shown to be beneficial in the treatment of depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia, and even to improve some cases of Alzheimer’s. DHA makes up between 15 and 20 percent of the cerebral cortex and anywhere from 30 to 60 percent of the retina. Deficiencies of this fatty acid can have profound effects on both brain and eye function and development.
Proper Daily Dosage of Chia
The recommended daily amount is 2 tablespoons a day for adults and 1 tablespoon for children. The easiest way to use it is to simply sprinkle it in salads, over vegetables, or on top of other foods.
I expect to see more about chia and chia-related products, particularly as our supplies of fish oil become more suspect and the prices predictably rise. More and more benefits of chia will become apparent as its use becomes more widespread. In addition to all the benefits I’ve outlined, the fact that it is non-allergenic, non-GMO, low in net carbohydrates, and gluten-free will make it a very valuable and versatile food.
Now It's Your Turn: How do you like to eat chia?