Chances are you’ve heard the phrase “good things come in small packages”—and in the instance of chia seeds, this is certainly true. Like most superfoods, chia grows south of the equator in the fertile Central and South American regions. And while this seed is tiny—think of a small grain of rice, only oval shaped—it contains an abundance of vital nutrients.
Remember those funny clay critters known as Chia Pets? Chia seeds, or salvia hispanica, are what make the Chia Pet blossom. But the history of chia seeds reaches much farther back than kitschy clay pets. IN fact, chia seeds fueled great South American empire of the 1550s and 1660s. It was when the Spanish arrived that chia lost ground as a staple food; the Spanish viewed chia as a strength-giving force to the native people, thus undermining their quest to conquer the land.
Natural Solutions spoke with Dr. Lindsey Duncan, a naturopathic doctor, celebrity nutritionist, and founder of Genesis Today; he explained the history and health benefits of chia seeds. “It’s a powerful food and such rich history that the word ‘chia’ in Mayan translates into ‘strength’. These seeds have been used by cultures—the Mayans, the Aztecs, and even the Incans throughout history—for running long distances and endurance. The runners used to carry a small pouch full of chia seeds to sustain their energy,” says Duncan.
In the past few decades chia has gained popularity due to its numerous health benefits. When a food has such a rich history and exorbitant health claims, more research tends to be put into proving nutritional benefits. And this is how a superfood is “born.”
Duncan explains that “anytime a food is called a superfood, it’s because it has a high level of nutrients. In the case of the chia seed, it’s high in protein, calcium, potassium, iron, and most importantly, it’s high in vegetarian essential fatty acids omega-3 and -6. These are fats the body needs to thrive, yet cannot produce on its own. All sources of omega fatty acids are dietary.”
Chia seeds contain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fatty acid necessary for maintaining a healthy body. However, the human body does not produce ALA; all ALA is found in plant foods. These foods include kiwifruit, flax, perilla, hemp, and soybeans—yet chia contains the highest amount of ALA per serving than any other source.
ALA is also known to lower the risk for cardiovascular and coronary heart disease. It can also slow down (and even reverse) the hardening of arteries. This is due to ALA’s ability to keep the heart’s rhythm functioning properly.
There was a time when chia grew under the radar. Duncan explains that “ten or twelve years ago, no one knew what ALA meant, but today most people do, especially those on a journey toward better health. There are studies that show women who ate high levels of ALA (about 1.5 grams per day) had a 46 percent lower risk of sudden cardiac death than those who ate about half a gram or less per day.”
One ten-year study found that women who consumed more ALA than those who did not had fewer symptoms of depression. Surprisingly, the women who consumed omega-3 from fish did have symptoms of depression. This means that it’s ALA, not other kinds of omega-3s, that aid in reducing depressive symptoms.
Duncan adds that “there are several studies that show that people who took omega-3 fatty acids in addition to prescribed antidepressants had a greater improvement in [depressive] symptoms than those who took antidepressants alone.”
It is ALA’s anti-inflammatory properties that make it so potent for preventing heart disease and cardiovascular events. This is alarming since many Americans do not get enough ALA or other omega-3s in their diet; what they get too much of are omega fatty acids, which are necessary, but only in proportion with omega-3s. “All omega fatty acids are important—3, 6, 7, and 9—most Americans get about 15 to 20 times more omega fatty 6 than they do 3, so that’s why I recommend a 3:2 ratio. And the chia seeds are a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids that has that 3:2 ratio.” Duncan explains that there are “basically two types of omega fatty acids, ALA (found in vegetable, soybean, canola, and flaxseed oil), EPA, and DHA, which are found in fatty fish.” A balance is necessary optimal health.
Chia seeds aren’t all ALA though. Duncan claims a helpful “side benefit [of chia] is that it’s high in fiber. There’s approximately 11 grams of fiber per ounce. That’s about 42 percent of the [recommended] US daily value!”
So how much chia is recommended per day to achieve optimal health? Duncan recommends a tablespoon or two of chia seeds per day. Since chia acts as a complex carbohydrate it releases glucose in the body slower than a simple carbohydrate and it curbs your hunger by making you feel full.
Chia is commercially grown in Mexico, Central, and South America. When the herb matures at about three feet in height, many golf-ball sized, purple, spiky, flower pods emerge. Once the flower petals dry out, the seeds can be collected whole from the bush by beating the flower with a small paddle (such as a fly swatter or ping-pong paddle) into a bucket or basket.
In terms of environmental impact, chia grows relatively easily in dry, coastal sage scrublands, making it easy to find, collect seeds, and plant in an agricultural manner.
Duncan feels that “if you’re going to harvest something, be in the country [the food is harvested from]. This is the only way you’re going to ensure that the soil, environment, cultures, and people are treated properly, the tradition is treated properly, and everything is given its due respect.”
Unlike most superfoods from Central and South America (think of acai’s need to be frozen to transport), chia requires little to keep it nutritionally whole. Since chia can be transported to North America without being frozen or mashed into a pulp, Duncan “recommends consuming the chia seed whole, as a food, to reap the full benefits, because there are ALA supplements available, but he feels “it’s always better to eat the whole food rather than extract out one active compound. When a food is taken into a laboratory, you’re basically messing with Mother Nature.”