Remember chia pets, the cute little terracotta figurines from the 70s, where you pasted on chia seeds magically sprouted into pet fur? Who knew the same chia seeds would make a comeback several decades later as a superfood! And yet here we are—sprinkling our yogurt smoothies, muffins, cakes, salads, juices, and what have you, with the crunchy goodness of chia seeds—a powerhouse of nutrition, easy to use, and a healthy (and may we say tastier and nuttier?) replacement for eggs if you are planning to switch to veganism/vegetarianism, with very little nutritional loss.

Origins
Chia seeds have a very interesting story of how they originated, disappeared, and re-emerged as a health fad. Known for their energy boosting properties, they are believed to have first been cultivated in Central America, between Mexico and Ecuador, and used as a staple by the Aztecs and Mayans. After Spanish conquests of the Aztec empires, the Spanish imperialists preferred to grow foods and crops they were familiar with and forced the locals to grow the crop varieties introduced to them by the Spanish conquerors. This gradually led to the decline of chia production in Central America.

While chia seeds come from the sage genus of a desert plant Salvia Hispanica, another variety—golden chia or Salvia Columbariae—is known to have been cultivated on a large scale, almost at par with corn, by the Native Americans. Native American tribes including the Chumash, Costanoan, and the Maidus consumed chia seeds as a staple. The very athletic warriors carried chia seeds on them when they went to fight or hunt, as chia seeds gave them strength while letting them feel fuller for longer periods of time. 

References from Born To Run
Christopher Mcdougall’s book, Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, brought to light the incredible connection between chia seeds—their ability to hydrate, nourish and energize the body—and their use by the super athletes and runners of the Tarahumara people, a Native American tribe.  

Chia seeds today are found in two varieties, black and white; both with similar nutritional value. From being used in lieu of flour for making tortillas, porridge, or soups to acting as a super ingredient in cereals, puddings, salads, breads, and muffins, chia seeds have come a long way to feature in the league of super foods. There is no denying the overwhelming benefits of chia seeds for the body from aiding digestion to being a great friend of the heart, helping you stay young, keeping cancers away to building immunity with the super antioxidants like chlorogenic acid, caffeic acid, myricetin, kaempferol, and being the richest plant based source of omega-3 fatty acids. Studies have shown consuming chia seeds can help in managing various ailments like diabetes (type 2), hypertension, and depression. Let’s take a quick look at the incredible benefits chia seeds have to offer. 

Chia Seed Benefits

A Nutritional Powerhouse
The best thing about chia seeds is they are low on calories but high on the nutritional input they provide. A tablespoon of chia seeds has about 69 calories, 2 gms of protein, 5 gms of fat of which 1 gm is saturated fat, zero trans-fat and the rest is polyunsaturated fat, 6 g carbohydrates, 5 g fiber, 2 mg phosphorus (which meets 11% of the daily value you require in your daily diet), 7 mg calcium, 8 mg potassium, 5 units of vitamin A, 2 mg vitamin C, and 1 mg of vitamin E.  

Feel Fuller, Longer
Though the research is ongoing about how chia seeds may aid weight loss, an important way chia seeds help control weight gain is, by fighting the tendency to overeat. Chia seeds are hydrophilic, that is they can take in 12 times their weight in water. When you mix chia seeds with water it expands and becomes a gelatinous substance. Having this chia gel in your food makes you feel full for a longer period of time, even though you may have not eaten a whole lot of it. It is important to keep in mind to keep drinking enough water after having chia seeds to enable them to move through the digestive tract easily. 

Good For Digestion, Rich Source of Fiber
According to Ayurveda, the root cause of all the major diseases lies in poor digestion. When the digestive fire is healthy and active, our metabolism is likely to remain robust. This is the reason Ayurveda lays significant importance on good digestion for healthy living. An ounce of chia seeds has 11 grams of fiber, which is a significant contribution to the Reference Daily Intake (RDI). It also importantly aids the digestive system. Experts say, almost the entire carb component in chia seeds is dietary fiber. A study carried in the American Journal of Medicine demonstrated strong association between fiber intake and lower cardiovascular risk. Also, 95% of the fibers present in chia seeds are insoluble types, which is known to lower diabetes risk. The soluble fibers also promote colon health. The gel-like substance formed when chia seeds mix with liquids and the fiber present in it help increase stool volume and speed up the time taken by the food to move through the intestines. It helps manage constipation and lower bad cholesterol. Experts recommend that chia seeds should be had along with a considerable amount of liquid.

Full of Antioxidants
Chia seeds are chock full of powerful antioxidants like chlorogenic acid, caffeic acid, myricetin, and kaempferol that delay aging, boost your immune system, and make your skin look younger, and reduce risks of several chronic illnesses like cancer and heart diseases, when consumed as part of a balanced diet.

Richest Plant Source of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Chia seeds are loaded with linoleic and alpha-linoleic (ALA) fatty acids, healthy types of Omega-3 fatty acids, which are not very commonly found particularly in vegetarian/vegan diet sources, except in say walnuts or flax seeds.  Human studies have shown omega-3 fatty acids promote cardiovascular health, promote mental health, lower cholesterol, regulate heart rate and blood pressure, prevent clotting of blood, and manage inflammation—one of the most important risks for several lifestyle diseases these days.

Alternative to Processed Grains
Since chia seeds are gluten free, they can make a great and healthier alternative to processed grains. For the same reason, chia seeds are great for people with celiac disease (gluten allergy). Its nutritional value makes it an attractive addition to less healthy food items like cakes and muffins.

Vegan? It Meets Your Calcium Requirement
When people are planning to switch to veganism, their most important concern is how the vegan diet would compensate for the protein and calcium requirement in the diet. Chia seeds have more calcium per ounce than many other dairy products that are usually consumed for meeting calcium requirements.  

Better Sugar Control
 Studies show the soluble fiber in chia seed can potentially lower blood sugar. Having chia seeds can help you manage the spike in blood sugar levels after meals. Animal studies also showed, regular intake of chia seeds or oil reduced insulin resistance and improved metabolism in insulin resistant animals.

Good Egg Replacement
For those planning to go vegan, chia seeds can be encouraging for you to take the plunge, for you will miss out on nothing—neither the nutrition nor the taste. Also, chia seeds can also replace eggs in baking because of their gel like consistency.

Harvard School of Public Health gives the following recipe to make chia gel equivalent to an egg in portion for baking purposes:

This may be used to replace whole eggs in baking. For 1 whole egg, mix 1 tablespoon of whole chia seeds or 2 teaspoons ground chia seeds with 3 tablespoons water. Allow to sit for at least 5 minutes or until the mixture thickens to the consistency of a raw scrambled egg.

You can make some extra chia gel, put it in a sealable jar and refrigerate it for later use up to one week.

Culinary Uses
Chia seeds are extremely versatile in their culinary uses. Crunchy with a mild nutty flavor, when mixed with water it attains a gel like state, which has a thickening value if you want to make thicker soups, oatmeal, chia porridge, or chia pudding. From soups, breads, biscuits, yogurts, salads to flour, muffins, smoothies, muesli and pastries, chia seeds can blend in with all your meals.  

Chia sprouts are also an extremely healthy addition to your salad bowl. Chia sprouts have more vitamins than the seeds themselves.

Growing Chia in Your Garden
 If you want to grow chia in your garden, you will need more space as the chia plants grow in height and width, taller than any other in the mint family.  They germinate well in pots, but will eventually have to be transplanted to a garden space once the sprouts are about three inches.

Chia seeds need not be buried in the soil. Loosen the earth, sprinkle the chia seeds as a carpet. Make sure there is no weed in the space you are planning to plant chia seeds. Space them well. Water them regularly without fail. They may not require a lot of fertilizers but they need sufficient moisture in the soil. The fact that it does not require fertilizers makes it an organic favorite.

Risks Related to Consumption of Chia seeds
Studies suggest, chia seeds should be avoided if you have allergies. 15 g of daily intake of chia seeds is a safe amount to consume. Since chia seeds have blood thinning properties, if you are on blood thinning medications, you must consult your doctor before consuming the seeds. They should also not be had before surgery, according to experts.  

Recipe: Chia Pudding 

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 cups milk (dairy or dairy-free)
  • 1/2 cup chia seeds
  • 1 Tbsp maple syrup
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract- 1 Tsp

Directions

  1. Add all ingredients to a medium mixing bowl bowl and whisk until combined.
  2. Cover the mix and refrigerate for 6 hours or overnight.
  3. Add fresh fruit to the thick and creamy chia pudding—ready to serve!

This being the most basic chia pudding recipe, you can experiment with a similar base by adding Greek yogurt, coconut milk, shredded coconut, berries, and coconut oil. Add it all together in a bowl, whisk, refrigerate, and try it  after a couple of hours. You can keep whisking the mix from time to time to avoid lumping.

Managing Inflammation with Ayurveda

Dr. Poornima Sharma teaches time-tested Ayurveda wellness practices, tools, and techniques to help you manage inflammation and prevent disease.
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