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All About Chia Seeds

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Have you heard of chia? You might remember Chia Pets, the cute little terracotta figurines you smear with seeds to help them grow “fur.” These are the same seeds, but don’t pilfer your pet’s stash—those seeds aren’t consumption grade. The ancient seeds are actually packed with rich nutrients. Chia seeds are a genus of the mint family, originating in Mexico’s central valley and were widely cultivated by Aztec cultures in pre-Hispanic times. Chia seeds were often used as currency for tax payments to nobility and as offerings for the Priesthood. They’re so nutritious that one tablespoon of seeds was believed to sustain an individual for twenty-four hours!

Chia is gluten-free, with very high concentrations of omega-3 fatty acids (ALA), significant levels of antioxidants, dietary fiber, oil, protein, calcium, phosphorous, and potassium. You might be more familiar with flax seeds, another good vegetarian source of omega-3’s. Why would a person choose chia over flax, you ask? Chia actually has a slightly higher concentration of omega-3 fatty acids than flax. Another advantage of chia over flax is that chia is so rich in antioxidants that the seeds don’t deteriorate, so they can be stored for long periods without becoming rancid. And, unlike flax, chia doesn’t have to be ground to make its nutrients available to the body.

Another big reason to choose chia over flax is phytoestrogens. Are your eyes glazing over? Stick with me here! Those of you who are living with breast cancer probably are already aware of phytoestrogens—they’re plant-based estrogens that may or may not mimic the natural estrogens in our body and therefore raise our estrogen levels. You can also find them in soy, which is why a lot of women who’ve had breast cancer avoid or limit their soy consumption. Whether or not phytoestrogens raise your natural estrogen levels is still controversial, and there are differing opinions from reputable sources. So what’s the best alternative? Chia seed. Chia contains no phytoestrogens. And since it’s just as good, if not better source of ALA, why not use chia instead?

Another note: you can’t compare the omega-3 fatty acids in chia (or flax, for that matter) to the omega 3’s you get from salmon. It’s like comparing apples to oranges. The type of omega 3 in chia (and flax) is alpha-Linolenic acid, or ALA, which is different from the omega 3’s in fish—DHA and EPA—needed for optimal health. ALA must be converted in the body to DHA and EPA—so you need to eat seven times the amount of ALA to get one gram of DHA. That’s a helluva lot of chia. The bottom line here is that chia is a nutritious whole food and a good addition to a healthy diet.

Whaddaya do with chia, anyway? Chia has a nutty, but unobtrusive flavor. You can mix the whole seeds in water and add lime or lemon juice and sugar to make a drink known in Mexico and Central America as “chia fresca.” As with ground flax, you can sprinkle ground or whole chia seeds on cereal, in yogurt or salads, or grind them and mix them with flour for making muffins or other baked goods. I use ground chia seeds in smoothies—they up the protein and fiber content and add body to the shake.

Any way you use them, chia seeds can be a great way to amp up your daily nutrition numbers. Give them a try this week!


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