09/15/2012 11:34 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Do Chia Seeds Deserve Their Health Hype?

By Kerri-Ann Jennings, M.S., R.D. Associate Nutrition Editor for EatingWell Magazine

I had never heard of chia until a couple of years ago when a health-minded friend started crowing about her latest superfood. “It’s loaded with omega-3s; the Aztecs used to grow it,” she told me. Intrigued, I wanted to find out if chia truly did deserve the health hype. Here’s what I learned -- as Ana Mantica and Amy Levin-Epstein have both reported on chia for EatingWell Magazine:

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What Is Chia?
If your first thought is “Chia Pets” you’re kind of right. Edible chia seeds (Salvia hispanica) are a cousin of the seeds (Salvia columbariae) you once used to grow a crop of green hair atop your clay “pet.” If you’ve never seen or tried them before, chia are small round seeds -- ivory to charcoal-colored -- that dissolve a bit and form a gel when mixed with liquid. For this reason, they make a creamy addition to oatmeal and are sometimes used to make pudding. Or you can sprinkle them on salad or yogurt as a slightly crunchy, nutty topping.

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Health Benefits of Chia
Now to the health aspect. Because chia absorbs water easily, it is easy on sensitive stomachs, according to David C. Nieman, M.P.H., Dr.P.H., of Appalachian State University. “Some other seeds, like flax, are harder to digest because they have more lignan, a tough fiber,” says Nieman. And chia does boast a lot of fiber -- four grams per one tablespoon (women need 25 grams of fiber each day, men need 38). My friend was right, it does contain omega-3 fats: One tablespoon delivers 1.75 grams of the alpha-linolenic acid, the plant-based omega-3 that has been linked to heart health. For comparison, flaxseed provides two grams of ALA per tablespoon. Chia also provides a little protein (two grams per one tablespoon), antioxidants and even some calcium and iron.

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Bottom line: Chia packs a lot of nutrition into a small serving, and is an easy way boost your fiber and plant-based omega-3 intake. (See how chia seeds compare nutritionally to flax seeds and hemp seeds.)

Have you tried chia seeds?

By Kerri-Ann Jennings

Kerri-Ann JenningsKerri-Ann Jennings, a registered dietitian, is the associate nutrition editor of EatingWell Magazine, where she wields her master's degree in nutrition from Columbia University writing and editing news about nutrition, health and food trends. In her free time, Kerri-Ann likes to practice yoga, hike, bake and paint.

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