Chia Seeds, A Transformative Jelly Good For Your Heart
Over the last few years, bags of tiny black seeds have started cropping up at health food stores across the country. These are chia seeds, the seeds of a mint-like plant native to South America, and are billed as the next miracle weight-loss product. Unfortunately, science has yet to prove chia seed’s efficacy in promoting weight loss, but don’t let that put you off!
Chia seeds are actually great for cardiovascular health overall, and may even have some good side-effects like cancer prevention. Turns out that the chia seed is small but mighty!
Small but mighty
Chia seeds may be a relatively recent import to the North American market, but they have been a cornerstone of South American culture for centuries. In the Aztec civilization, chia was the third-most important crop, behind only corn and beans. Chia was so important to the Aztecs that priests were often paid for their services in chia seeds, taxes from conquered tribes often consisted exclusively of chia seed, and the seeds were offered to the gods during religious rites.
This last use of chia seed caused the plant to almost go extinct after the Spanish conquered the Aztecs, as the Spanish were bent on stamping out every last bit of the Aztec religion to make way for Christianity and so forbade the planting or harvesting of the chia plant. However, the chia plant nevertheless managed to survive, and has remained an important food crop for much of Mexico.
Are you jelly?
The most unique property of chia seeds is what they do in water. When added to any liquid, the tiny, hard black chia seeds suddenly transform into a jelly-like substance. This amazing property comes from the fact that chia seeds are coated in tiny micro-fibers, invisible to the naked eye, which are strongly attracted to water.
Normally they lie flat on the seed, but when exposed to water they stand on end, trapping water molecules between them and immediately coating the seed in a gel. These micro-fibers are so strong that they can hold up to nine times the weight of the seed in water!
Weight loss and other properties
In Mexico, the chia seed is considered an endurance food, as it packs well and gives a boost of energy when eaten. In fact, the indigenous people of the Raramuri tribe, who are famed for routinely running as much as 200 miles at a stretch, fuel their runs with a traditional drink made with lemons, water, and chia seeds. In North America, chia seed has become synonymous with weight loss—the prevailing theory is that the gel made by chia seeds fills up the stomach without adding significant calories, allowing you to eat less.
Unfortunately, this has yet to be proven by any clinical studies, so as of yet it cannot be conclusively said that chia seeds can help with weight loss 1. However, the tiny seeds are undoubtedly great for cardiovascular health! A clinical study showed that adults eating a diet including chia seed displayed improved glucose tolerance and serum triglycerides, both considered risk factors for cardiovascular disease 2.
And, as if improved heart health wasn’t enough, eating chia seeds might come with even more benefits! Research has shown that chia seeds are a great source of antioxidants, which can help with ailments ranging from diabetes to cancer 3. So, while they might not help you lose weight, eating chia seeds is certainly a great way to improve your overall health and decrease your risk of cardiovascular disease.
1. Nieman DC, Cayea EJ, Austin MD, et al. 2009. Chia seed does not promote weight loss or alter disease risk factors in overweight adults. Nutrition Research 29(6): 414-418.
2. Guevara-Cruz M, Tovar AR, Aguilar-Salinas CA, et al. 2012. A dietary pattern including nopal, chia seed, soy protein, and oat reduces serum triglycerides and glucose intolerance in patients with metabolic syndrome. Journal of Nutrition 142(1): 64-69.
3. Reyes-Caudillo E, Tecante A, and MA Valdivia-Lopez. 2008. Dietary fibre content and antioxidant activity of phenolic compounds present in Mexican chia (Salvia hispanica L.) seeds. Food Chemistry 107(2): 656-663.