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Are Chia Seeds all They’re Cracked up to be?

Some surprising data about chia seeds

Are chia seeds as healthy as reported, or is it better to eat flax? Let’s look at some facts associated with these tiny seeds.

First, it is important to grind seeds such as flax or chia to release their omega-3 fatty acids. Each seed has a hard seed coat and without breaking it, you’ll just be gaining the fiber benefit from it – certainly not a bad thing, but it’s a shame to miss out on the rest of the benefits when a quick press of your coffee grinder would handle it in a few seconds.

What do we really know about chia?

The seeds have been around for thousands of years and they are a major crop. They are high in fiber, as just mentioned, and omega-3 fatty acids. Sounds good so far, right?

Here’s where the trouble began: You wouldn’t think chia was “big business”, but apparently it’s big enough to get involved with some stretching of the truth. I want to thank Dr. Greger, who, along with his team, unearthed some less than accurate data published on chia.

  1. Anutra brand chia seeds stated that chia possessed 25 times more cancer-fighting lignans than flax seeds. When Dr. Greger challenged them they admitted it was untrue. I checked out their website at the time of writing this blog and it no longer states the untruth. However…
  2. The Anutra site still quotes a study that supposedly showed significant reductions in systemic inflammatory markers such as C-reactive protein, cholesterol, blood sugar and more, that would reduce the incidence of not only heart disease, but diabetes, cancer, and osteoporosis. Hmmm… sounds great, only one problem.

When Dr Greger and his research team from nutritionfacts.org looked closely at the study, it turns out the “significant reduction in C-reactive protein levels” were only significant as compared to the placebo group who, in this study, was fed two tablespoons of wheat bran per day. The wheat bran caused such a dramatic worsening of the inflammatory marker C-reactive protein (can anyone say gluten sensitivity??) that the chia group “appeared” significantly better, but it was only in comparison to the worsening showing in the wheat bran group. Sneaky…

As Dr. Greger, who bless his heart has a research team who can dig deep and find such discrepancies for us, likes to say, when researchers appear to be exaggerating it’s likely a red flag and you should look at their funding. And sure enough, it turns out the study was indeed funded by a chia company.

It was a full 5 years later when the truth came out about the conflict of interest, but it did come out.

The lead researcher of the study had even filed a patent to use chia to treat disease, but likely due to the poor outcome of chia to truly improve inflammation, blood sugar, cholesterol, weight, or other inflammatory markers, the patent was abandoned.

It’s not all doom and gloom, chia does seem to lower blood pressure, but, not as well as ground flaxseeds.

3. A follow-up study evaluated individuals who ate two tablespoons of ground chia seeds daily for 10 weeks and while their blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids did rise, there was “no influence on inflammation or disease risk factors.” In other words, despite their blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids increasing, it didn’t translate into improved health markers. Their cholesterol, blood sugar, C-reactive protein, and other inflammatory markers all remained unchanged.

Summary: chia seeds, even ground, had no good effect on the health of the participants.

Note: as expected, those who ate whole chia seeds showed no improvement in even their blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids.

Flax seeds have the following proven benefits:

Slow the rate of prostate cancer.

Reduce blood pressure dramatically, with just a single tablespoon ground per day.

“Active” omega-3 – meaning eating them does result in heart protective and anti-inflammatory effects

Lower cholesterol due to large amounts of soluble fiber

Cancer-fighting due to their high lignin content – 15 times greater than other seeds such as sesame or chia. It is this robust lignin level considered to be the reason behind flax seeds’ potent anticancer benefits.

I will be honest, typically I pride myself on “smelling a rat” when research doesn’t add up in a way I know to be true about the body. I’m fed up with research “results” that later turn out to be covertly falsified, exaggerated, or engineered to yield misleading impressions. Typically such misleading studies involve drugs, but more and more the unethical practice is spilling over to food research – witness sugar studies funded by Coca-Cola, egg studies funded by the American Egg Board, etc.

In functional nutrition we “joke” that no one gets rich studying plants, so we don’t really need to worry about falsehoods in plant-related studies. But in this case “Big Chia” was hard at work misleading us. It makes me angry. Fortunately, there are diligent, honest scientists who truly have your best interests at heart and when something doesn’t “smell right” they find out why.

The bottom line is that while there is nothing dangerous about eating chia seeds, there is also not the benefits that have long been touted. They are a source of fiber and assist with lowering blood pressure, however, surprisingly, their content of omega-3 fatty acids doesn’t “translate” into the expected health benefits of lowering inflammatory markers.

My recommendation: enjoy 1 tablespoon of ground flax each day and if you really love the taste of chia, grind them up and enjoy them too. But the health benefits will come from the organic ground flax.

If your health is not where you want it to be, we can help. If you’ve been trying to eat better but still haven’t regained your health, contact us for a Free Consultation – Call (408) 733-0400.

If you are not local to us you can still receive help, our Destination Clinic treats patients from across the country and internationally.

We help the world’s busiest people regain, retain, and reclaim their health, energy, and resilience.

References:

  1. Vuksan V, et al. Supplementation of conventional therapy with the novel grain Salba (Salvia hispanica L.) improves major and emerging cardiovascular risk factors in type 2 diabetes: Results of a randomized controlled trial. Diabetes Care. 2007 Nov;30(11):2804-10.
  2. Statement of Clarification re Vuksan V, et al. Supplementation of conventional therapy with the novel grain Salba (Salvia hispanica L.)improves major and emerging cardiovascular risk factors in type 2 diabetes: Results of a randomized controlled trial. Diabetes Care 2007;30:2804–2810
  3. Nieman DC, et al. Chia seed supplementation and disease risk factors in overweight women: a metabolomics investigation. Journal of Alternative & Complementary Medicine. 2012 Jul;18(7):700-8.

Nieman DC, et al. Chia seed does not promote weight loss or alter disease risk factors in overweight adults. Nutritional Research. 2009 June;29(6):414-8.

Toscano LT, et al. Chia flour supplementation reduces blood pressure in hypertensive subjects. Plant Foods Human Nutrition Journal. 2014 Dec;69(4):392-8.

Loreto AM, et al. Chia Seed (Salvia hispanica): An Ancient Grain and a New Functional Food. Food Reviews International Vol. 29, Iss. 4,2013.

Nemes SM, Orsat V. Evaluation of a Microwave-Assisted Extraction Method for Lignan Quantification in Flaxseed Cultivars and Selected Oil Seeds. Food Analytical Methods, June 2012, Volume 5, Issue 3, pp 551–563.

Rodriguez-Leyva D, et al. Potent antihypertensive action of dietary flaxseed in hypertensive patients. Hypertension. 2013 Dec;62(6):1081-9.

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