“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!
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Hey Stefani, nice article, chia seeds need a bit of this kind of attention.
But, are you still recommending FCLO??!! Have you read Dr. Kaayla Daniels’ report and the subsequent s—storm of agreements, rebuttals, denials, expulsions. She was kicked out of WAPF, along with Dr. Ron’s products, and at least one chapter leader, for questioning the safety of FCLO, a big WAPF supporter.
I’ve stopped taking it or selling it, and discuss thoroughly with each patient. If they still think it really helps them, I give them one of the bottles I no longer feel comfortable selling.
yeah, I actually just ordered another bottle.
I’ve read a lot of sides to the debate. And I don’t see that Rosita’s has all that much better clarity about the quality of their processing or oil. And I think, having read Chris’s take on it especially, that taking the FCLO might not be the super super food that we all thought it was, but it still helps more than it hurts. I need to get my vitamins A and D from SOMEWHERE, and I don’t get sunlight and my kitchen access for liver preparation is limited.
I like chia seeds, but I certainly don’t eat them daily or in large quantities. I do, however, take flaxseed oil for Omegas because I am deathly allergic to all fish and, thus, can’t eat good fatty fish or take cod liver oil. Do you have any suggestions on how to boost proper consumption of these important nutrients for someone who can’t take half a bite without ending up in the hospital?
brains are high in omega 3?
I’m not kidding.
A small amount of flax will not harm you. the best trick for you however would be to simply keep your omega 6s to a near minimum, that way you don’t really need all that much omega 3s
There are vegan options for fish oil supplements. You can usually find at health food stores or online.
I hate being told to eat animals.
Love this! So interesting, chia is so overhyped. Question: do you recommend avoiding flax as well? Assuming that you’re not menopausal or in need of phytoestrogens.
Yes I do! Flax and chia are very similar
How often would one need to take the liver supplement if not eating organ meats?
On a related note re: Omega 3s and organ nutrients – what are your thoughts on Chlorella Spirulina Tablets? In addition to the liver supplements are there other good sources of getting organ nutrients aside from eating actual organs? I know Wild Paleo Market has some organ beef sticks for example…
Great post. I just bookmarked it to remind myself to stop buying these darn things! They kill my FODMAPy gut. Do you think all nuts and seeds fall into this category in terms of eating oxidized PUFA/omega 6 content? Love the podcasts too!!
Would you hold the same position for hemp seeds, Steph? Thanks for such great information – and for being willing to take stands against trends and prevailing opinion 🙂
Fermented cod liver oil?!? If I had to choose, I think I’d rather Eat the chia seeds after seeing the latest controversy that one…
Thanks for the article. Do you feel the same about Flax seeds or Sesame seeds?
Yes I do! Sesame less so than flax but flax is quite like chia, yes.
Great article Stephani. I have your book PCOS Unlocked and it has been a great help in discovering my food triggers for cystic acne on my chin as well as mood swings/anxiety/depression. I just bought a new bag of chia seeds and I’m wondering if eating them in sprout form or letting them grow a bit more into a grass, then trimming and adding to salads would be a less harmful way to consume them.
Honestly I think it’ll help but I don’t know… if you do sprout them come back and let me know how it goes!
Fantastic article that could be improved immeasurably with sources for all/any of your points. Help us all get smarter about what we put in our bodies! 😀
Hi Sefani, Thank you for all of this info. I’m trying to study as best I can about food and what the best plan is for me to eat to recover my health. Would you therefore be able to supply some references to the information you supplied about the chia? I’d like to learn more about what you have shared with us. Thank you so much !
Very informative and good to know! I love your posts, but god they can be depressing.
Great post! Totally agree. My feelings for chia seeds are “meh”. They are fun to make puddings with sometimes but pretty useless in general.
Wow, thanks for that information i was thinking of ordering some chia seeds to have for breakfast! What about hemp seeds, do they have the same negative effects? Thanks x
also not my favorite things in the world but they don’t have the same potency… i suppose it’s worth a shot!
Ugh I happen to eat very strictly, no grains, no gluten, no dairy, relatively no fat. I usually don’t even eat substitute grain free anythinges unless I make it myself from scratch. I eat fish occasionally, sometimes only once in a few weeks. I love tofu but don’t soy eat it unless organically fermented and unpasturized like miso. I also love chick peas and avoid them and make eggplant bobaganuch instead of hummus when I crave it. No tahini but I do use sesame seeds. I recently had tried to add some flax and chia to my diet to get better nutrients and some good fats but, I’ve been sprouting it and the chia since it’s supposed to be better digestible that way. I was wondering you take on this study with sprouted instead of raw? I’d hate to waste the stuff I have by not using it and I’m always scared of introducing my body to things that can cause it to change and gain. I’m very lean but muscular and I have a feeling u have severely low estrogen levels since I run a lot and don’t “cycle”.
What study are you referring to? The effects of sprouting on anti nutrients has been quite well documented.
Just wandering if you could list your pharmaceutical sponsors on here. Many thanks.
Um, I have none.
I started eating Chia seeds regularly during my 5th pregnancy. About 6 wks soaking then abs adding them to my daily protein smoothly I started violently vomiting. I ended up in the ER. At first I didn’t connect it to the Chia seeds…until I tried to eat them a week later and began vomiting again! They will never pass these lips again!
“However, the most important forms of omega 3 fats for the body are EPA and DHA. Those can only be found in animal products,”
Udo’s Oil™ DHA 3•6•9 Blend
Made with DHA sourced from unrefined algae, not fish. Fish actually get DHA from algae.
What are your credentials Stefani? This article is very irresponsible.
This was an old post, when algal DHA was only first coming to market and not well known or studied. As it stands, I do now know and I agree that it is a good source of DHA – its omega 3s appear to have the same effect as that from fish. However though it does lack the vitamin A and D benefits that come from consuming the oils in fermented cod liver form
You suggest to eliminate chia on basis of phytate’s presence in it. But ALL legumes and grains contain phytates. Do we eliminate those too? Phytates protect us from inflammations and not all negative if you actively combine your foods.
You need to specify the safe amount and point out foodtypes that may be unhealthy to combine with phytate-loaded foods (if any) before suggesting us to throw away something that’s good and healthy.
I totally agree with Ramon. I don’t consume legumes and very limited grains, so maybe my phytate diet is very low that chia seeds may not be bad. I use chia seeds for egg substitute due to egg intolerance and love the chia pudding. There should be a balance. How about this article totally in favor of chia seeds. https://wellnessmama.com/4981/benefits-of-chia-seeds/
Please don’t condemn the organic chia seed.
Hey great if that works for you, I’m totally on board 🙂
one more question: do phytoestrogens increase or decrease our own estrogen’s potency? you said that, at high levels, they can lead to symptoms of estrogen dominance… but i read somewhere that they can actually *diminish* the effect of our own estrogen bc they’re weaker and bind to the same receptors as our (stronger) estrogen hormones?
i realize that the world of hormones is a wacky one, so this explanation is probably grossly oversimplified and highly inaccurate… perhaps our bodies overproduce estrogen to make up for the weaker phytoestrogen bindings, leading to the symptoms of estrogen dominance you mentioned? harumph :/
sorry for the rambling tramp rant.
Thanks for this! My daughter is allergic to soy and we’ve started having linseed and chia seeds in bread, smoothies, baking etc. this year. I’ll rethink that now! Interesting given that soy is high in phytoestrogens.
I am incredibly hormonally sensitive too & just recently made the connection to chia seeds being the cause of many symptoms. Flaxeed worked wonders initially (esp for my hair loss) but soon had drastic detrimental effects too. My question is..what is your opinion on coconut oil affecting your oestrogen levels? I read this was the case. I covered myself in coconut oil daily & cooked with it & had daily smoothies with coconut water. My symptoms have subsided somewhat since eradicating all of these from my diet.I’m loathe to reintroduce coconut until I ascertain if it’s a factor or not. Are you able to help seen as you too seem to react hormonally to all phytoestrogens? Thank you!
Hi Ruby, I actually haven’t heard anything about coconut oil and estrogen dominance. I personally have been consuming quite a bit of coconut of late and not seeing any sustained hormonal difference (and yes, I normally see a difference pretty immediately). BUT that doesn’t mean that it’s still not true for you. If I were you, I’d personally keep the coconut low for a couple weeks longer, and then reintroduce a small amount and see what kind of impact it has 🙂
Thank you for your article. I recently added freshly ground chia seeds, and then chia seeds and flax seeds to my diet as a low carb substitute for breakfast. Since I am approaching menopause (51 years old), I didn’t realize that the onset of hot flashes appears to have been caused by this addition to my diet. Since I also started experience weight gain rather than the loss I had begun by going low carb, I eliminated my “noatmeal” thinking it was somehow just too many carbs for me. About two weeks later, I realized I had no longer been experiencing any hot flashes and concluded that they were like precipitated by the chia and flax seeds. Since adding estrogen is normally considered a way to reduce hot flashes in menopause, I am guessing that the chia and flax seeds upset my estrogen balance by suppressing my normal estrogen. I also haven’t had a period since adding chia and flax seeds to my diet. I realize that the timing could be coincidental, and I could test my sensitivity by reintroducing them into my diet, but I am not sure that I should. If the seeds did indeed cause hot flashes, does that mean I am estrogen sensitive, or just that they overwhelmed my own estrogen? I appreciate your thoughts.
I should clarify… many internet sources suggest adding flax or chia seeds to a diet to suppress hot flashes, assuming the phytoestrogens replace the natural estrogens diminished by menopause. So my response definitely seemed like the opposite of this effect. As I approached 50, I had previously experienced bouts of perimenopause that included hot flashes and intermittent menstrual periods, but had not experience any in the months prior to adding chia and flax seeds to my diet, and had a very regular cycle. So my assumption is that the phytoestrogen was enough to suppress my normal estrogen levels, but not enough to suppress the resultant hot flashes. It may just highlight the unpredictability of ones response to chia/flax seeds. And I may have complicated issues by combining chia (possible androgenic testosterone boosting) and flax (higher phytoestrogen). Hopefully you can make more sense of it than I have.
I think the unpredictability is pretty key here. I see a lot of stuff on phytoestrogens on the internet that is refuted by examples I’ve experienced personally or seen in real life, all of the time. Phytoestrogens sometimes enhance estrogen activity in one kind of tissue (given which type of estrogen receptor it has) which decrease it in others. It’s quite possible to get estrogen boosting effects in one place but the opposite in others. I would say that yes, your hypothesis makes sense, or is at least in the ballpark – maybe the hot flashes are genetically inherent to you, or are triggered otherwise. In any case you’ve clearly found a good correlation between the seeds and what you’ve gone through, so now you can experiment abit and find what’s best for you
Thank you for this article. My nutritionist suggested I might avoid them but I wasn’t sure why so ignored him for a while. My health improvement was slow though and I’m trying everything so I gave them up and feel better for it. I was eating loads every morning. I’ve recently started seed cycling to regulate my hormones but wonder if that’s a good idea now?
So I recently bought a bag of chia seeds not knowing about the phytoestrogens. Will they still contain this is I sprout them? I can’t eat soy without effects, but I don’t know how these compare to the level in soy? Hate to let food go to waste, but I guess I could always feed them to the birds 😉
hehe. it’s worth testing sprouting them and consuming them to see if/what effect they have on before feeding them to the birds 🙂
Stefani, how about if you’re post menopausal and you have low estrogen? I thought about adding flax or chia seed to my diet, but maybe not after reading this. Any suggestions?
perhaps! i would probably start with a bit of soy instead of the flax or chia, like eating edamame beans. it may not solve all your symptoms but it could help alleviate some 🙂
Chia seeds increase my bleeding 10fold! I’m estrogen sensitive. Flaxseeds give me migraines.
I have this issue where my body holds onto cholesterol. My Functional Medicine practioner suggested flax, chia and hemp seeds to aid in the removal of this excess cholesterol. Have you heard of this, and do you have any recommendations for foods that would help with this. Also, for estrogen dominance, are there Things that excess estrogen binds to for elimination from the body?
Seeds don’t “remove” cholesterol; they are fibrous and so some doctors think they are good for lowering cholesterol. I don’t really see it this way. Higher fiber diets are associated with lower cholerstol levels in large part because they’re just based off of more healthful foods (fruits, vegetables) and help modulate blood sugar.
Excess estrogen can be helped with lots of leafy greens! These have an enzyme in them that helps speed liver detox and the flushing of hormones out of the body 🙂
Also very important to keep your digestion and bowel movements regular as this helps the body detox too!
Hi Stefani, When you say that chia seeds aren’t a complete protein, I think you are mistaken. Chia seeds contain all 9 of the essential amino acids making them a complete protein, not an incomplete protein.
Technically that’s correct but they’re so low in lysine it’s functionally incomplete, in my opinion. I should be more precise about that in my writing – you are correct about that for sure <3
I recently started using chia seeds to make a pudding since I started on the keto diet. I am, also, suspicious of the latest and greatest popular foods. I don’t eat a lot of chia seeds, but good to get this information so I can keep them to a minimum. I was eating a tablespoon of flaxseeds in my morning smoothies until I saw a video, from Dr Berg, talking about their high estrogen levels. I do not consume them at all now. Thank you for your perspective.
Tofu in laren quantities for 4 months, reversed my perimenopause but brought back my endometriosis to such a severity I was nearly hospitalised and jeopardised my job. I didn’t know about isoflavones at the time. So will never go near these foods again, after 5 weeks of stopping, I am now slowly re-experiencing perimenopause but with great relief~ hoping that my endo symptoms will also recede. Before all this my endo had completely gone, so am mortified about messing my body body around so much and the huge stress of endo and needing an op for it now, after it had previously settled from my age and having 2 children. Just wish this info was out there educating people more.
Tofu in large quantities for 4 months reversed my perimenopause but brought back my endometriosis to such a severity I was nearly hospitalised and jeopardised my job. I didn’t know about isoflavones at the time. So will never go near these foods again, after 5 weeks of stopping, I am now slowly re-experiencing perimenopause but with great relief~ hoping that my endo symptoms will also recede, but will i go back to no endo as before and how long will it take? I do not know. Before all this my endo had completely gone, so am mortified about messing my body body around so much and the huge stress of endo and needing an op for it after it had previously completely settled from my age and having 2 children. Just wish this info was out there educating people more.
Thank you for this article. My body always reacts to chia seeds and I stopped eating them but felt like I was missing certain health benefits. Now I see why I was reacting and am glad I picked up on it. This is confirmation.
I did a google search, and please correct me if I’m wrong, but google says Chia seeds do not contain lignans like flax seeds. If that’s wrong, please provide me with some resources as to why.
Do you suggest any good seeds that can be taken daily in diet without these side effects?please