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“Dangerous” may be a strong word – consuming chia seeds occasionally should be just fine – but I think the strong language I chose for the title of this post is actually appropriate. It enables me to demonstrate how serious a problem this is.
Chia seeds have become a buzz food. They are increasingly popular in health food stores, co-ops, smoothies, and high-end yuppie dinner parties.
Chia seeds are celebrated for their numerous, miraculous health powers. They are exalted – so the acolytes say – because of their high nutrient content, their high omega 3 content, their high fiber and protein content, and their ‘hormone balancing effects.’
Yet all of these claims end up being erroneous at best and actively harmful at worst.
Here are the myths in detail, and what you need to know about them:
Myth 1) Chia seeds have high nutrient content
At first glance, chia seeds seem fantastic.
They are high in
- Calcium: 18% of the RDA.
- Manganese: 30% of the RDA.
- Magnesium: 30% of the RDA.
- Phosphorus: 27% of the RDA.
If true, this would be awesome, especially because it is very hard to get enough magnesium in the diet.
Chia seeds also contain significant amounts of
- Vitamin B3
- Vitamin B1
- And Vitamin B6.
Chia seeds contain numerous phytochemicals (sometimes called antinutrients) which reduce their nutritional value. Chia seeds are concentrated sources of phytate which binds the exact minerals everyone is so excited about chia seeds having: calcium, magnesium, iron, zinc, and copper, to name a few.
When antinutrients bind to these minerals, they can not be absorbed by the body. Instead, they are flushed out of the digestive track along with the rest of the body’s waste.
Antinutrients can also bind with minerals found in other foods – so if you eat chia seeds with your salad or with a steak, you will steal nutrients from them, too.
Additionally, chia seeds are said to be high in some B vitamins, including B6. Yet absorption of plant-based B6 by the body is very difficult. B6 is very easily absorbed from animal sources – but plant sources of B6 are somewhat of a myth and should be discarded.
In short – chia seeds’ nutritional value is a myth. Not only are their own nutrients not bioavailable, but they can rob your body of nutrients from other foods as well.
Myth 2) Chia seeds are high in omega 3 fatty acids
This is an important myth. It applies to chia seeds, yet it also applies to flax as well.
Whenever a plant is called “high in omega 3” I encourage extreme caution.
This is because plant-based omega 3 fats are a form of omega 3 called ALA.
However, the most important forms of omega 3 fats for the body are EPA and DHA. Those can only be found in animal products, particularly in fatty fish like salmon or sardines, or in high quality supplements like fermented cod liver oil. The body can convert ALA to EPA and DHA, but at very low conversion rates.
Now you might think that that’s just fine – you can load up a ton on ALA (though you’d need nearly 100x the amount of fish you’d need to eat) and just let your body convert it all.
But that would be a very unhealthy choice.
It is important for the body to have some omega 3 fat. It needs to balance omega 3 and 6 fats in order to support a healthy amount of inflammation and immune activity in the body. The ratio of 3:6 fats should be approximately 1:2.
YET because these omega 3 and 6 fats are a class of fats called poly unsaturated fatty acids, they are highly reactive (the less saturated a fat is, the more reactive it is). Being highly reactive means that they can oxidize in your body, which causes aging, inflammation, and tissue damage.
So you need a balance of omega 3 and 6 fats, but your total consumption of these kinds of fats should be quite low.
Chia seeds, containing all ALA and no EPA or DHA, therefore, I think are quite an unhealthy food. They unnecessarily add a poly unsaturated, highly oxidized load to your body without any of the important anti-inflammatory benefits of EPA and DHA.
Some chia seeds here and there of course will not hurt – but they should by no means constitute a significant portion of your diet, and especially not be considered a quality substitute for fatty fish.
Myth 3) Chia seeds are high in fiber and protein
Yes, chia seeds are high in fiber. Yet fiber is overrated. Why do you need fiber? To bulk up your stool? If you have a healthy gut flora population, this should not be a problem. Seriously. There are many health conditions that may cause constipation, too, but none of them are fixed by a high fiber diet. Fiber may act as a short-term, quick fix for better waste elimination, but it is by no means a solution to the problem.
You get all the fiber you need from having a few servings of vegetables and fruits each day.
In fact, too much insoluble fiber, which chia seeds have, can be abrasive in the gut and colon and actually contribute to inflammation and inflammatory bowel conditions like ulcerative colitis.
Moreover, chia seeds do have some protein in them, but it is “incomplete protein.”
Being “incomplete” means that the protein source does not contain all of the amino acids the body actually needs. The only “complete” sources of protein are animal products – each and every one of them is complete – and the unique case of quinoa. No other plant source is “complete” protein.
Now, being “incomplete” is not necessarily a bad thing. It is fine to be incomplete – the amino acids that are present in chia seeds can still be utilized by your body.
But if chia seeds constituted 100% of your protein intake, you would be in serious trouble. Vegetarians need to be very careful about where they get their protein from, and need to combine different plant proteins in their meals. This is the only way to assure that they get all the amino acids the body needs.
4) Hormone balance
Soy, flax, and chia seeds are the most hormonal of foods. In particularly they contain a heavy dose of lignans, a type of plant estrogen.
Now, the estrogen found in chia seeds is still minimal compared to the body’s normal estrogen production – assuming healthy estrogen production – but repeated exposure over time can have real effects.
Not only can overdosing on phytoestrogenic foods cause estrogen-dominant problems like PMS, endometriosis, mood swings, weight gain, and depression (I personally get very depressed when I consume phytoestrogens), but they are being investigated for any influence they may have on female cancers such as breast cancer and uterine cancer. The jury is still out on whether they have an effect, but that should be telling in and of itself, as the debate has been raging in the nutrition and cancer research communities for years.
Unfortunately I cannot make blanket recommendations regarding phytoestrogens. Generally I think the safest bet is to avoid them, so as to allow for the most natural hormone levels and production in the body as possible – but each woman responds different to them. However, some women can benefit from phytoestrogen supplementation, such as if you are going through menopause. It could really help with symptoms. In that case, I do recommend gently experimenting with phytoestrogens.
I generally recommend starting with a lower-level dose like a bowl of chickpeas a day, instead of a tablespoon of flax, but I make that recommendation for women who have very sensitive hormone systems.If you think you have a more robust system then experimenting with chia supplementation may really be able to help you.
To find out the phytoestrogen content of various foods, check out this post.
So these are the reasons I really, genuinely, strongly dislike the popularity of chia seeds.
I don’t eat chia seeds. I do not treat them like poison. They are not great, certainly, and I am wary of estrogen dominance symptoms which can happen to me quite easily, but they are not poison either. They are simply a food.
Chia seeds have a small degree of nutritional value, and some fiber and protein, which is fine. But so far as being a panacea for health issues, I’ll take a pass.
I will instead stick to my….
bountiful fruits and vegetables,
high quality coconut oil,
organ meats once or twice a month (here’s a liver supplement in case you do not like to eat liver,
daily fermented foods (here are my favorites),
wild-caught fatty fish like salmon or sardines twice a week, and
the rockstar supplement cod liver oil which is rich in fat-soluble vitamins A and D as well as EPA and DHA.
What about you? Have you tried chia seeds? Love em? Hate em? What do you do instead? I’d love to hear!