What is a superfood?
The term superfood is very loosely defined and seems to mean different things to different people; however, there are two main ways in which we can consider a food as being truly ‘super’.
Firstly, a superfood is packed full of essential nutrients, making it a one stop (well almost) nutrition shop. Whereas many foods tend to be limited in their nutrient profile, superfoods often tick several boxes when it comes to fibre, vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids and amino acids.
Secondly, a superfood may not have a diverse nutrient profile, but it might have one or two specific health promoting nutrients that are not commonly found in other ‘normal’ foods, or at least in such large amounts… so how do chia seeds, which are widely regarded as a superfood, live up to the superfood hype?
What are the benefits of chia seeds?
Chia seeds are harvested from the plant Salvia hispanica, which is from the same family of plants as mint, and the first box ticked as a superfood is when we look at its fatty acid composition.
1) Chia seeds are a great source of fatty acids
Chia seeds are around 30% fat, but these are ‘good’ unsaturated and essential fatty acids omega-6 and omega-3.
Of honourable mention is the fact that 60% of the fatty acids in chia seeds are omega-3 fatty acids, which are important for cellular health and controlling inflammation. Consumption of omega-3 has been associated with lower risk of cardiovascular disease, regulating cholesterol and lower cancer and diabetes risk and this has partly been attributed to the ‘good’ fats contained in chia seeds.
Of course, unsaturated fatty acids associated with improved cardiovascular health are found in other foods. Olive oil for example has been shown to be very good for heart health. So then, are there any other things we ‘find’ in chia seeds that elevate it above the level of a humble ‘normal’ food?
2) Chia seeds provide an excellent amount of plant-based protein
The answer to this is a resounding yes! Chia seeds are also a good source of protein, containing 15-25g per 100g. We know protein is important to help us build muscle, recover from exercise and essential to health, and nuts/seeds are important contributors to protein intake especially for those who have a plant based diet. However, chia seeds are especially excellent as a plant based protein source as unlike many other plant sources they contain all the essential amino acids the body needs.
3) Chia seeds contribute to a healthy gut
Chia seeds also provide a huge amount of fibre, with 30-40g a typical amount per 100g serving. The recommended daily fibre is suggested to be ~30g per day and this is something many people fall short of hitting in their daily needs, adding a little sprinkle of chia seeds to meals is a great way to top up daily fibre intake.
Fibre intake is important for maintaining gut health, which not only helps us have better digestive function, but a healthy gut has important implications for the immune system and has even been associated with better mental health.
4) Chia seeds contain anti-inflammatory properties
If containing essential fatty acids, fibre and all the essential amino acids wasn’t enough to qualify chia seeds as a superfood, they also contain important vitamins, minerals and other ‘active compounds’ that are known to promote health.
These active compounds include flavanols and phenolic acids which are known to have anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties. Combined with the other ‘compounds’ in chia seeds is what makes them a super, health promoting food.
What Should You Do With Chia Seeds?
Chia seeds can be eaten ‘raw’ and are similar in taste and texture to poppy seeds. They can also be soaked, which causes the seeds to expand and soften. The extra volume of soaked chia seeds can be useful as a weight loss tool because it adds extra food volume for the same calorie cost, helping to provide a feeling of fullness, which is important to control hunger.
Chia seeds can simply be sprinkled onto salads, added to porridge or other cereals and make a great addition to smoothies. Soaking chia seeds is not only something that can be done in water, but also any other liquids such as almond milk, which is often used to make chia seed style tapioca or rice pudding.
How many chia seeds should be eaten in a day?
There is no real right answer to this question, however to ensure you get the added benefits of extra fibre and omega 3 fatty acids that are often missing from many peoples’ diets, a 20-30g serving per day will be enough to provide around a third of your fibre needs and make sure you hit your recommended daily omega-3 targets.
Chia seeds are an incredibly versatile food that provides a wide range of essential nutrients including:
- Unsaturated fats… with plenty of omega-3 and omega 6 fatty acids.
- Amino acids… including all our essential amino acids.
- Fibre… with 100g providing the recommended daily amount.
- Flavanols and phenolic acids… which are cancer protective.
Chia seed consumption has been associated with lower risk of several diseases including cardiovascular disease, certain cancers and heart disease; so, all things considered it’s pretty safe to say that chia seeds live up to their reputation as a serious super food.