One of the central focal points of my Natural Health System is proper diet. In this era of fast foods, processed foods, genetically modified foods, microwaved foods, corner espresso stands and long work hours, proper diet has become a rarity. So much so, that most people do not have a clear idea about what to eat, proper food combining and healthful food preparation.
Salvation from the grip of disease is invariably linked to the pursuance of a dietary course navigated by well-charted guidelines such as high water-, alkaline mineral- and fiber- content, the laws of optimal food combining and raw food/cooked food balancing.
A fundamental dietary principle of my Natural Health Science System is: Eat a diet dominated by fresh, whole, high water-content, alkaline ash foods that prominently features a variety of nutrient-dense, power foods.
One of these nutrient-dense, power foods is chia seed — a food that is an important component of my daily diet. In this article: Part I of two-parts, I will present a detailed discussion about the nutritional bounty and healing potential of chia seed.
In Part II, I will provide details of how to use chia seeds and incorporate them into specific recipes.
Chia Seed (Salvia hispanica): Power Food for 5,000 Years
For many individuals, their only experience with chia seeds is restricted to having owned a Chia Pet (clay animal figurines covered with chia sprouts that represent the “pet’s” fur). The majority of Chia Pet owners do not realize that the seeds which give rise to their “pet’s” green “fur” is one of the planet’s foremost superfoods.
For many centuries, chia seeds (indigenous to Mexico and Guatemala) were a staple food of the Native American tribes of the American southwest and Mexico. Humans began using chia seeds as a food more than 5000 years ago. Chia (Salvia hispanica), a member of the mint (Lamiaceae) plant family, was first cultivated by the Aztecs in pre-Columbian times. For them, it was as important a food crop as maize. The Aztecs and Mayans ground chia seeds into a flour, drank a mixture of chia seeds added to water, and also pressed the seeds to express their oil. Unfortunately, the Spanish conquistadors introduced their own foods into the territories they invaded and prohibited the farming of chia. Nevertheless, chia seed is still widely used today in various parts of Central America and South America as an essential source of vital nutrition.
Chia seeds are small (approximately 0.04 inches or 1 mm in diameter), oval, and mottled black, brown, gray and white in color. One of the most notable characteristics of the seeds is that they are hydrophilic, meaning that, through the mechanism of hydrogen bonding, they have a strong affinity for water. Hydrophilic molecules typically have polar groups. Polar groups are chemical groupings in which electron distribution among the molecules is uneven. This enables them to take part in electrostatic (relating to static electricity) interactions which, in turn, facilitate their absorption of water. When soaked, chia seeds are capable of absorbing 12 times their own weight in water.
When the seeds are soaked or otherwise mixed with water, they develop a mucilaginous gel-like coating that thickens sauces and lends them a distinctive texture. This hydrophilic quality is one of the reasons chia seed can soothe the mucosal lining of the gastrointestinal tract and help alleviate constipation.
For the Aztecs, chia seed was a concentrated high-energy food which greatly increased the endurance of warriors who ran long distances or were engaged in the Aztec’s lengthy campaigns of conquest. Similarly, certain tribes of the American Southwest relied upon the stamina-sustaining quality of chia seeds during their migrations. Native American runners who ran the entire roundtrip from the Colorado River to the Pacific coast of California (for the purpose of trading southwestern turquoise for seashells) often carried only chia seeds to sustain them during the journey.
Chia Seeds: A Nutritional Powerhouse
Chia Protein vs. Soy Protein
In order for a food to be able to provide and help sustain the type of stamina alluded to above, it must be a nutritional powerhouse. In this reference, chia seed consists of 20% highly bioavailable, complete protein (protein that contains all the amino acids essential for human health). Chia seed has 3 to 10 times the oil content, and approximately 150% to 200% the protein concentrations, of most grains. In fact, chia seed contains more high-quality protein than soybeans. Soy protein is also a problematic nutrient that commonly elicits food sensitivity reactions.
A food sensitivity is different than a food allergy. Whereas a food allergy elicits an immediate, readily perceptible reaction, such as swelling, rashes or difficulty in breathing, food sensitivities are less acute and immediate in nature. Food sensitivities result from difficulty in digesting certain foods. Many people have difficulty digesting soy protein, especially when ingested in a highly processed form.
Commonly experienced food sensitivity symptoms include: fatigue, lethargy, sleepiness after eating, mood swings, depression, restlessness, headache (including migraine), flatulence, bloating, dyspepsia, rheumatic pain.
Soybeans contain protease inhibitors (e.g., trypsin) – substances that suppress some of the key pancreatic enzymes necessary for proper protein digestion. The soybean has also become one of the most prominent genetically modified (GMO) foods. Ninety-three percent of the soybean crop in the United States is genetically modified (GMO). GMO soybeans contain more protease inhibitors than organic soybeans. Notably, protease inhibitors are resistant to deactivation by cooking or other processing methods.
In contrast, the chia seed is easy to digest and (at the time of this writing) has not been genetically tampered with by big agribusiness.
Importantly, fermented soy products such as miso, tempeh and natto are actually health-building foods. The earliest writings concerning soybeans appeared about 5000 years ago when the emperor of China discussed the virtues of soybean plants for regenerating the soil for future crops. Significantly, he focused his praise upon the plant’s root rather than its seeds (i.e., its beans). This suggests that the Chinese of that era already recognized the problematic nature of soybeans (regarding human consumption) in their natural form. Modern nutritional science now highlights the soybean’s anti-nutritive qualities, with the understanding that soybeans should be eaten only in their fermented form.
About 3000 years ago in China, it was discovered that certain molds (Aspergillus oryzae for miso; Rhizopus oligosporus for tempeh) when allowed to grow on soybeans, destroyed the toxins present and made the nutrients in the beans bioavailable. A bacterial species called Bacillus subtilis var. natto is used to prepare another traditional soybean food called natto. Fermentation releases the nutrients within soybeans and transforms them into a nutritious food.
Isoflavones are naturally ocurring compounds that occur in legumes. Genistein is an isoflavone found in soybeans. The discovery that genistein could regulate cell division drew interest to it as a substance that had potential in inhibiting cancerous growth. However, most of the isoflavones in soy products, including genistein, are bound to carbohydrate molecules called glucosides. In this bound form, genistein is called genistin. It is only via fermentation that genistin is transformed into genistein.
Most unfermeneted soy products in the U.S. do not distinguish between genistin and genistein on their labels. Thus, those who consume soy milk and other commercial, non-fermented soybean products for their isoflavone content generally do not realize that the isoflavones they contain will not be available to their bodies.
Research has shown that isoflavones such as genistein have significant clinical potential. However, they also have significant downside potential if overconsumed. I will discuss isoflavones at greater length in a future issue of Nature’s Therapies.
Chia seeds, like other seeds or nuts, are a concentrated source of calories. Three tablespoons of the seeds contain 179 calories (approximately 11% of a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet), 6 grams of protein and 15 grams of carbohydrate.
Researchers at the University of Alabama (as reported in the January 2011 issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research) compared chia seed to the sports drink Gatorade to determine whether the former could be as effective regarding carbohydrate loading (for sustained energy) prior to athletic activity.
They determined that the substitution of chia seeds for Gatorade can enable athletes to decrease their intake of refined sugar, while increasing omega-3 content, without decreasing performance results.
Importantly, there are some serious issues with Gatorade. The sports drink contains: filtered municipal water; brominated vegetable (soybean) oil (added to certain beverages that contain citrus oils to prevent them from rising to the surface and thus ensure the stability of the flavor mixture); sucralose (used in sugar-free varieties of Gatorade; an artificial sweetener marketed commercially; high fructose corn syrup (Among the wide array of problems with this ingredient is that it may lead to an accumulation of fat in the liver because the liver converts fructose into fat.); citric acid (added for flavor and to act as a preservative); refined salt; sodium citrate; monopotassium phosphate; glycerol ester of wood rosin; artificial colors.
Dietary fiber (actually a type of carbohydrate called polysaccharides) derives from the edible portions of plant cell walls that are resistant to digestion. Dietary fiber is found only in plant products.
Fiber intake, which plays a crucial role in the prevention of many diseases including heart disease and colon cancer, has also been shown to assist weight loss in overweight individuals by reducing food intake at meals. High-fiber foods take longer to digest, thus producing an increased feeling of fullness and satiety. This slower digestive time leads to more gradual uptake of glucose into the blood, thereby discouraging large blood glucose and insulin spikes.
Chia contains approximately 40 grams of fiber per 100 grams (3.38 ounces) of seeds. The recommended fiber intake for adults is 25 to 38 grams per day. Among Americans, the average daily intake of fiber is 12 to 17 grams per day. Ideally, fiber intake should be a combination of soluble and insoluble fiber. While neither soluble nor insoluble fiber is absorbed from the gut into the blood, they exert different physiological effects when mixed with water.
Soluble fiber (including pectins, gums, mucilages, and certain hemicelluloses), so-called because it is soluble in water, swells and forms a gel-like substance when mixed with water. Soluble fiber helps moderate blood glucose levels and lower blood cholesterol levels by binding to the cholesterol in the semi-digested food mass moving through the digestive tract. The soluble fiber in chia seeds has a relatively long transit time through the intestinal tract. This is one way it bulks up the stool (counteracting the tendency toward constipation) and provides the desirable slower rate of glucose absorption.
Short-chain fatty acids aid in the absorption of vital minerals. Short-chain fatty acids production in the gastrointestinal tract helps to maintain the integrity of the intestinal wall through which minerals are absorbed. The acids lower the intestinal pH (i.e., makes it more acidic), thereby helping to facilitate the ionizing and solubilizing of minerals required for their optimal absorption,”
Aside from chia seeds, good soluble fiber sources include fruits and vegetables (oranges, apples and carrots are notable in this reference), barley, oats (Both of these grains contain gluten, and so, those with gluten sensitivities will need to avoid them.) and legumes (beans, lentils and peas).
On the other hand, insoluble fiber (including cellulose, lignins, and certain hemicelluloses) does not absorb or dissolve in water. Thus, it passes through the digestive tract close to its original form. The primary value of insoluble fiber is that it helps maintain a healthy environment within the intestines, in part, by helping to prevent constipation and hemorrhoids. Aside from chia seeds, the bran layers of unrefined grains are good sources of insoluble fiber.
The total fiber content of chia seeds is approximately 38%, with the soluble fiber content being approximately 5%. Two tablespoons (about 1 oz. or 28.35 grams) of chia seeds contain about 9.6 grams of total fiber.
When mixed with water, the particular soluble fibers in chia produce a soft, fibrous gel that cleans intestinal walls as it passes down the intestinal tract; it can also help relieve diarrhea by serving as a bulking agent that solidifies stool consistency.
While fiber is generally not absorbed as a carbohydrate, some of it, particularly the more easily fermented soluble fiber, is transformed via bacterial fermentation (by probiotic bacteria that normally colonize the colon) in the colon into short-chain fatty acids (acetate, propionate and butyrate) that are both well absorbed and nourishing to the lining of the colon. Butyrate is the preferred energy source for the epithelial cells that line the colon. Short-chain fatty acids also exert an important anti-inflammatory action which can be of critical importance for those suffering from inflammatory bowel diseases such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. It can also discourage the development of colon cancer.
These fatty acids have important consequences for metabolism, serving as a source of fuel for the rest of the body, especially the liver. Thus, a crucial distinction among non-digestible polysaccharides is their fermentability. As fermentation is a product of bacterial feeding, fermentable fiber serves as a vital food for probiotic intestinal flora.
These beneficial bacteria that colonize the intestinal tract serve a pivotal role in maintaining the health of the entire digestive system, and thus, of the body as a whole.
In large part, chia seed, because of its relatively high content of soluble fiber, is a rich source of fermentable fiber (as are fruits and vegetables). On the other hand, whole grains are rich in cellulose which is relatively resistant to bacterial fermentation.
The 3:1 ratio between insoluble and soluble fiber in chia seed is the ideal one. In general, dietary fiber lowers the risk (among other things) of acid reflux, diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, colon cancer, diverticulitis, hemorrhoids and a variety of other disorders. While a balance of insoluble and soluble fibers is required to exert these effects, fermentable soluble fibers specifically reduce LDL cholesterol, high blood pressure, the glycemic and insulin response associated with glucose metabolism, and colon-cancer risk.
Chia seeds are a very good dietary source of vitamins A, C and K as well as various B-vitamins, including B1 (thiamine) and B3 (niacin). It also contains significant amounts of B2 (riboflavin), B5 (pantothenic acid), B6 (pyridoxine), folic acid, choline, inositol and PABA.
Chia seeds are an unusually rich source of calcium with a 3-tablespoon serving of the seeds containing 233 milligrams of calcium (compared to 299 milligrams in 1 cup of milk). Milk has long been considered to be one of the leading sources of calcium. In terms of quantity of calcium, this is true. However, milk is a highly problematic food that generates mucus and congestion in the body and, in many cases, elicits a food sensitivity or food allergy response.
Chia seed also contains significant amounts of boron, copper, iodine, iron (one serving of chia contains 2.8 milligrams of iron), magnesium, manganese, molybdenum, phosphorus, potassium, selenium, silicon, sodium, strontium, sulfur and zinc. The combined presence of boron, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and strontium qualifies chia seed as a bone-building food.
Notably, regarding my above discussion of chia seed and fermentable fiber, the production of short-chain fatty acids in the gastrointestinal tract aids in the absorption of minerals into the blood. Said fermentation lowers pH to a level of acidity that is optimal for ionizing and solubilizing minerals.
According to investigations performed by Dolores Alvarado of the University of the Valley of Guatemala, chia seeds are a better source of antioxidants than blackberries, grapes, mango, noni fruit and pineapple. Chia’s antioxidant capacity is attributable to its content of vitamins C and E, flavonoids (including quercetin, myricetin and kaempferol), phenolic acids (e.g., caffeic acid) and lignin.
Chia seeds contain a broad spectrum of antioxidants including chlorgenic acid, caffeic acid, and coumaric acid all of which may play a role in cancer prevention.
Chia Seeds: Richest Non-Marine Source of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Unsaturated fatty acids are essential for normal glandular activity, including adrenal, thyroid and reproductive gland functions. They nourish skin cells, mucous membranes and nerve tissue. Unsaturated fatty acids collaborate with vitamin D in the assimilation of calcium and phosphorus as well as in the conversion of carotene (pro-vitamin A) into vitamin A. The long-chain triglycerides in chia seed can help to reduce the deposition of cholesterol on arterial walls.
Chia seed is also an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids. In fact, chia is the richest known non-marine whole food source of omega-3 fatty acids. The word chia derives from chian, the Nahuatl (the Aztec language) word for oily. The seeds yield 25�30% extractable oil, 55% of which is the omega-3 fatty acid alpha linolenic acid (ALA). Chia contains approximately 18 grams of omega-3 fatty acids per 100 grams of seeds. Chia oil contains approximately 55 grams of omega-3 fatty acids per 100 milliliters (3.38 ounces) of oil. By weight, chia seeds contain more omega-3 fatty acids than salmon. Chia seeds are often fed to livestock and chickens to enrich their meat and eggs with omega-3 fatty acid.
Omega-3 is an essential fatty acid (EFA), necessary for cellular growth and development throughout all stages of human life. It is referred to as an “essential” fatty acid because the body does not produce sufficient quantities of them, and so, depends on dietary sources for its supply.
Adequate omega-3 fatty acid intake is required for cellular, heart and metabolic health. Aiding in the prevention of cardiovascular disease is one of the roles for omega-3 fatty acid that has been best substantiated by research studies. Omega-3 fatty acids can help reduce high blood pressure as well as LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels, thus promoting cardiovascular health.
As noted, chia seed is an excellent source of the omega-3 fatty acid alpha linolenic acid (ALA). Much of the ALA assimilated by the body (as much as 85%) is used for cellular energy production. ALA, an omega-3 fatty acid found in plants, is similar to the omega-3 fatty acids that are in fish oil, called eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Your body can convert ALA into EPA and DHA.
While both men and women can convert ALA (a short-chain omega-3 fatty acid) to EPA and DHA (long-chain fatty acids), women may be able to do this more efficiently. Notably, diabetics and schizophrenics have a reduced ability to convert ALA into EPA and DHA, Thus, it may be necessary for some of those individuals to obtain omega-3 fatty acids from foods such as cold-water fish, which are rich in EPA and DHA.
The immune, cardiovascular and nervous systems require adequate amounts of EPA and DHA for their normal functioning. Unless pre-formed EPA and DHA are ingested from foods such as cold-water fish, a shortfall of ALA intake results in a shortfall of the production of those two fatty acids as well.
ALA has been shown to reduce fatal cardiovascular episodes. It can help to reduce the thickness in the carotid artery’s tunica media: the innermost two layers of an arterial wall. Greater-than-normal arterial wall thickness is an indicator of atherosclerotic disease.
ALA also exerts anti-arrhythmic effects (arrhythmia is a condition in which the heart beats with an irregular or abnormal rhythm) and reduces risk of fatal myocardial ischemia. Myocardial ischemia refers to a dangerous decrease in oxygen supply to the heart muscles that results from a partial or complete blockage of blood-flow in the coronary arteries (which deliver blood to the heart). Myocardial ischemia damages the heart muscle, thus impacting its ability to efficiently pump blood to the body tissues. Chronic myocardial ischemia can cause threatening arrhythmia. Of course, sudden and severe coronary artery blockage often results in a heart attack.
The Nurses’ Health Study (reported at the American Heart Association 2004 Scientific Sessions) found that women who consumed the highest levels of ALA (approximately 1.5 grams or1500 mg. per day) had a 46% lower risk of sudden cardiac death than women who consumed the least amount (just over half a gram or 500 mg. per day) of ALA.
While fish oil has received a great deal of attention regarding the reduction of cardiovascular disease risk factors, many researchers in preventive cardiology (including Sidney Smith, MD, Director of the Center for Cardiovascular Science and Medicine at the University of North Carolina) believe that ALA can be as beneficial as the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish (reported in Medscape Medical News, November 11, 2004).
Alpha-linolenic acid can help lower blood pressure in people with hypertension. One population study found that eating a diet rich in alpha-linolenic acid reduced the risk of high blood pressure by about 30% (NHLBI Family Heart Study. Hypertension. 2005).
Research also suggests that alpha-linolenic acid may decrease bronchial inflammation and otherwise improve lung function in asthmatics (International Archives of Allergy and Immunology. 2000).
Chia seeds have been shown to increase blood levels of HDL (“good”) cholesterol, while lowering triglycerides, LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels. Therefore, ALA-rich chia seed oil is an excellent alternative to fish oil as a source of omega-3 fatty acid for treatment of dyslipidemia (an abnormal amount of cholesterol and/or other fat in the blood). Chia seed also improves long-term cardiovascular risk factors (including high blood pressure, arterial inflammation and clotting proneness) in those with Type 2 diabetes.
The World Health Organization suggests a daily intake of at least 1200 mg of dietary ALA omega-3 for a healthy diet. Two tablespoons (20g) daily of chia seeds contain more than 4000 mg of omega-3 fatty acids.
Chia seed also contains a large quantity of uniquely valuable insoluble fiber. The highly hydrophilic fiber in chia seed can absorb more than 12-times its weight in water. In comparison, flaxseed, also a hydrophilic food, absorbs only 6-to-8 times its weight in water.
When chia seed is soaked in water for about 30 minutes, the seed/water mixture will transform into a mucilage gel. When eaten with high water-content foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables, this mucilage formation takes place in the stomach. Once in the small intestine (the site of the completion of the enzymatic digestion of carbohydrates), the gel then acts as a physical barrier between carbohydrates and carbohydrate-digesting enzymes, thus slowing the conversion of complex carbohydrates into glucose.
This slower absorption of glucose into the blood benefits both diabetics and those with reactive hypoglycemia. Prolonging their conversion into glucose helps to stabilize metabolism and reduces the peaks and valleys associated with abnormal glucose metabolism. The filling, bulking effect of the swollen fiber also reduces appetite (important for those who need to lose weight). Additionally, the lengthier conversion of carbohydrates into glucose serves as a time-release mechanism that enhances physical and mental endurance—helping to explain the popularity of these seeds with the ancients, as set out above.
In the intestines, chia seed’s insoluble fiber, swollen with water, increases peristaltic action, which reduces digestive stool transit-time and assists in the removal of toxins via the colon. Due to its ability to absorb water, chia seed can prolong hydration of tissues such as the mucosal membranes that line the gastrointestinal tract.
Clearly, chia seed, a fount of diverse nutrition, is indeed a power food. In a future issue of Nature’s Therapies Journal, I will present Part II of my discussion of chia seeds, with the focus being the use of chia seeds as both food and medicine.
Disclaimer: This publication is intended as an educational tool, and not as a prescription. Seek the advice of your health-care provider before discontinuing any medication and/or trying any new remedy or technique.