The Curious (and somewhat polarizing) Case of Chia
Some so-called superfood trends came and passed without making their way into my clinical practice. Goji schmojey– when was the last time I found myself telling a patient: “I have the answer to your problems– Goji berries!” If you answered “never,” you’d be correct. Pomegranate juice? Meh. Acai? Whatevs. I’m not so easily impressed.
So when I found myself recommending Chia seeds to patients with all manner of dietary dilemmas– from chronic diarrhea to chronic constipation to chronic gas/bloating from IBS — I knew that this so-called Superfood had staying power. When I found myself going through bags of it at home in relatively quick succession, I knew Chia had crossed over from trend to staple.
On one hand, chia (latin: Salvia hispanica), is an unusual little seed. Once wet, chia seeds swell and take on a viscous, gelatinous texture that is responsible for some of their unique nutritional properties and utility in the kitchen. To some, this texture is more “slimy” than endearing, and indeed I’ve found that it can be quite polarizing as far as seeds go. But if you can get past this aesthetic hurdle, there are a multitude of reasons to love chia seeds. Here are ten of mine:
- No grinding required: Unlike some other popular seeds–like flax –chia’s seed coat is well penetrated during the digestive process, meaning that you need not grind it into a powder in order to access its nutritional heart of gold.
- It gels: Chia’s unique fiber turns into a gel once wet, making it a handly little ingredient to keep around the kitchen. Out of eggs? Swap in 1 TBSP of gelled chia seeds per large egg called for in a recipe. (Try a chia: water ratio of 1:6 to make the gel.) Chia seeds can be used to make a tasty and nutritious pudding. For a lactose free/dairy free/vegan variety, try this deelish Banana chia pudding recipe. For a kid friendly milk-based pudding, try this fun Vanilla Chia Seed pudding recipe from Weelicious. Chia seeds can also be used instead of pectin to make homemade jam.
- Kids like them! And even better, MY kids like them! You can slip a few TBSPs of chia seeds into practically any baked goods recipe– brownies, bars, cookies, muffins– to boost its nutritional credentials without altering the taste. (I put them in my oatmeal banana peanut butter bars.) If your kiddo isn’t one for fiber rich foods, try mixing some chia seeds into his favorite fruit/yogurt smoothie. Give one of the easy, stovetop-free pudding or jam recipes above a try–and let the kids help you make it. That way, the next time you’re beating yourself up for allowing your children to indulge their chicken finger habit more often than you’d like, remind yourself that at least they’re also the type of kids who gobble up chia seeds!
- Omegas: We’ve got a long way to go to re-calibrate the ratio of pro-inflammatory omega 6 fats to anti-inflammatory omega 3 fats in the typical Western Diet. Regular inclusion of omega-3 rich plant foods like chia seeds can certainly help. A modest TBSP of chia provides about 2.2g of omega 3s in the form of alpha-Linolenic acid (ALA)– well above the recommended intake of 1.6g per day for men and 1.1g for women.
- Iron: According to the USDA, 1 TBSP (about 1/2 oz) of chia seeds has about 1mg of iron, which is 5% of the daily value for women, 9% of the daily value for kids aged 1-4, and 12.5% of the daily value for men. Not too shabby!
- Calcium: Chia is a great non-dairy source of calcium, making it a handy little accessory to keep around the kitchen if you’re female, lactose intolerant, vegan or all of the above. That same 1 TBSP portion has about 9% of the daily value for calcium (90mg), according to the USDA.
- A gluten-free source of fiber: The typical gluten free diet can be low in fiber, particularly because gluten-free substitutes for breads, crackers, cereals, waffles and all manner of baked goods tend to be made from starchy flours like tapioca, potato, rice and corn. But adding a tablespoon of chia seeds to diet staples like yogurt, GF oatmeal or cooked cereal, smoothies adds FIVE fabulous grams to the meal in an instant.
- Digestive tolerability: Chia seeds are low in FODMAPs, meaning that they’re unlikely to trigger gas and bloating in people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) or otherwise sensitive digestive plumbing.
- They can help manage chronic diarrhea: Eating foods relatively high in the gooey, gummy, spongy type of fiber called “soluble fiber” can be life-changing for people who suffer from chronic loose, urgent stools as the result of IBS. Chia seeds are a good source of soluble fiber. Even though chia seeds contain relatively more of the other type of fiber (called insoluble)– generally known to hasten digestive transit–studies have nonetheless shown that chia’s soluble fiber minority to be so incredibly viscous that it nonetheless slows down digestive transit. As a result, a bedtime chia smoothie may help calm morning bathroom woes–or some chia in the morning yogurt can help keep a tummy calm later in the day.
- They can help manage chronic constipation: A food that helps manage BOTH diarrhea AND constipation? Yes– you read correctly. Viscous soluble fiber is magical in that way. While it regulates transit time in the setting of jumpy, spasmy intestines prone to diarrhea–it also absorbs water and helps keep stool soft, formed and easy to pass. As a result, fiber-rich foods like chia smooth out digestive transit irregularities of all sorts.
If you’re ready to jump on the Chia bandwagon, look for it at natural grocery stores and supplement stores. Bob’s Red Mill is one national brand that markets it.
And if you’ve got a favorite chia recipe to share, please post it in the comments below!
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