Due to their binding effect, chia seeds have become one of the most popular ingredients for recipes. For example, they are in puddings, pancakes, or parfaits.
Furthermore, countless articles celebrate them as a “superfood” that is supposed to help lose weight, relieve pain, and make the skin radiant.
But can the small grains live up to this great expectation?
Are Chia Seeds Good for You?
Chia seeds are extracted from a plant called Salvia hispanica, native to southern Mexico and Guatemala.
Because they can form a gel due to water absorption, they are a popular thickener or vegan substitute for eggs in baking (Coorey et al. 20141).
Although their consumption may also cause some side effects, chia seeds are known for their variety of nutrients and health benefits.
If we look at the nutrient overview of the seeds, it quickly becomes clear why they quickly gained popularity over the last few years (*):
They are rich in fiber, protein, omega-3 fatty acids, and minerals like zinc or calcium.
Even the keto dieters love chia seeds due to their high fiber content and low net carbs.
However, the question is whether the human body can absorb and use these nutrients at the end of the day so that chia seeds can meet the high expectations.
Therefore, this article looks at the potential drawbacks disregarded when the internet declared chia seeds a superfood overnight.
3 Reasons Why Chia Seeds Are Not Good for You
Exotic superfoods are excellently marketed. Hence, content about chia seeds mostly only tackles the good aspects and rarely addresses those that negate supposed benefits.
They Are Not Primal
Although chia seeds entered our food cycle relatively suddenly, they were immediately dubbed “primal food” by some Paleo adherents.
Historically, chia seeds, like other pseudo-grains, were consumed exclusively by the Mayans and, to some extent, the Aztecs.
But our ancestors did not reach their continent until 1492 when Columbus discovered America.
Before that, no European, Asian, or African could have seen or eaten amaranth, quinoa, or chia seeds. In the end, we are descendants of the inhabitants of the African continent, not the American continent.
The exciting thing is that today’s celebrated superfoods, such as açaí or goji berries, all originate from this new world.
500 years represent just the blink of an eye in the context of human history. Moreover, neither our parents nor any generation before them used to eat pseudo-grains from the new world.
Thus, chia seeds are just now experiencing their maiden voyage in our food cycle. For this reason, they are precisely not primal food in the Paleo or any other sense.
Therefore, neither our immune system nor the 100 trillion cells of intestinal bacteria that have to cope with them have had time to prepare for these foods (Gundry et al. 20172).
Therefore, chia seeds do not have to be equally bad for the intestines. Nevertheless, their long-term effects are merely unexplored.
Another reason that new-world chia seeds could cause trouble for our intestines and the immune system is that they contain proteins previously unknown to our bodies – so-called lectins.
Plants also defend themselves against predators. To ward off pests, insects, and microorganisms, they produce large, sticky proteins (Dolan et al. 20103).
Accordingly, these plant toxins’ concentration is usually high in pest-resistant crops (Macedo et al. 20154).
These so-called lectins hide in seeds, grains, leaves, barks, and shells. Chia seeds, in particular, are therefore considered to contain lectins.
Although humans do not digest lectins, the sticky proteins can sneak into the bloodstream through their intestines.
In the process, lectins also facilitate the attachment and binding of viruses and bacteria, helping them reach their targets (Dalla Pellegrina et al. 20095).
For example, lectins present in cereals and pseudo-grains enable various pathogens to cause a variety of diseases.
Moreover, lectins can bind to insulin and leptin receptors, ultimately leading to weight gain (Shechter 19836).
Also, some lectins increase insulin resistance, leading to even more weight gain (Kamikubo et al. 20087).
So chia seeds, which are supposed to help you lose weight, can be why you don’t lose weight despite eating a “healthy” diet.
Furthermore, according to studies, lectins can cause inflammation and toxic reactions (Freed 19998).
Inflammation and Weight Loss
The imbalance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids can cause uncontrolled inflammation in the human body.
While researchers suggest an optimal ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids of no more than 1:2, we present an average ratio of 1:17 or worse (Okuyama et al. 19969; Singh et al. 201010).
Due to industrial seed oils’ and refined carbohydrates’ dominance in the Western diet, this ratio has deteriorated significantly over the decades.
That’s where chia seeds, with their omega-3 fatty acids, could come in handy. But can the human body efficiently absorb the omega-3 fatty acids from chia seeds?
A randomized controlled study of 90 overweight women and men attempted to prove that the fiber and omega-3 content of chia seeds can reduce body weight, fat, and disease risk.
Nevertheless, even after 12 weeks, the scientists could not see any improvement in these factors.
Moreover, contrary to their hypothesis, they even found an increase in inflammatory markers in the subjects’ blood.
Accordingly, the lectin content in chia seeds prevents the presumed positive benefit against inflammation.
Furthermore, people often forget that chia seeds and all other plant sources contain only the mother of omega-3 fatty acids, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).
The human body can only convert minimal amounts of ALA to eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), according to studies (Zhao et al. 200411).
Indeed potent anti-inflammatory and disease-preventive effects are reserved for EPA and DHA, which are found mainly in fatty fish (Sommer et al. 201112).
Accordingly, overall omega-3 content is not particularly meaningful. And in the case of chia seeds, you have to add the pro-inflammatory factor of lectins.
In addition to lectins, chia seeds also contain another anti-nutrient, phytic acid. And phytic acid can insolubly bind those minerals that chia seeds provide in the digestive tract and prevent their proper absorption (Gibson et al. 201013).
In the end, the superfood is not that super, after all. Those looking for a vegetarian anti-inflammatory alternative low in lectin may be better off with flax seeds (Faintuch et al. 200714).
Chia Seeds Side Effects
Besides the fact that people can be allergic to chia seeds, the pseudo-grain has some other dangers that you need to consider.
Chia Seeds in Water
On the one hand, what makes chia seeds a famous binding agent in baking recipes can also entail dangers.
They can absorb 27 times their weight in water.
As the seeds form a thick gel from absorbing the liquid, they can swell up in the esophagus, making them impossible to swallow without medical treatment if you wash them down with water.
For this reason, you should soak chia seeds in another food or water before eating them – especially if you have a history of swallowing problems.
For this reason, young children should generally not eat chia seeds.
Can Too Many Chia Seeds Cause Digestive Issues?
Chia seeds consist of 38% fiber (*).
On the one hand, dietary fiber can promote health by allowing individual healthy bacteria in the gut to feast on it. On the other hand, however, too much fiber can trigger the following digestive problems (NRC 198915):
- Abdominal pain
Finally, dietary fiber is the carbohydrate portion of plant foods that the human body cannot digest. Therefore, it is an anti-nutrient that reduces the absorption and digestion of food.
Accordingly, dietary fiber requires abundant water to pass through the digestive tract. But since chia seeds absorb water heavily and become enormously bloated, they can also cause digestive problems this way.
Can Chia Seeds Cause Constipation?
Although conventional wisdom touts fiber as a remedy for constipation, it is not.
If you’ve ever tried to push as much volume as possible through a narrow passage, you’ll have noticed that it doesn’t work well.
Therefore, more indigestible fiber that must pass through the digestive tract promotes constipation rather than prevents it.
Accordingly, one study shows that reducing fiber intake reduces constipation and related symptoms (Ho et al. 201216).
So if you struggle with constipation, avoiding high-fiber foods like chia seeds may be helpful.
Besides, people with inflammatory bowel diseases such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease need to monitor their fiber intake and avoid chia seeds if necessary.
Are Chia Seeds Good During Pregnancy?
In addition to the dangers already discussed, no particular side effects of consuming chia seeds during pregnancy have been reported to date.
However, the seeds may cause adverse interactions when taken with medications, such as antihypertensive or diabetes medications.
How Much Chia Seeds per Day?
After the small seeds triggered an initial international boom, the European Commission had to deal with the food.
Although it did not express any specific health concerns, the European Commission limited the intended use to 15 grams of chia seeds per day (*) and 2 grams of chia oil per day (*).
Again, there is a lack of more conclusive long-term studies and opinions.
Flax Seeds Are a Good Alternative to Chia Seeds
Although chia seeds are not unhealthy, they cannot deliver everything they promise. Unfortunately, it is precisely the positive effect on inflammation and weight loss that fails to materialize.
Furthermore, calcium and zinc from chia seeds usually cannot be adequately absorbed by the body.
So, if you are looking for a safer vegan omega-3 source that can help you lose weight, you will instead find it in flax seeds.
Besides their preventative effects against cardiovascular disease, flax seeds are more likely to be produced regionally and have a smaller carbon footprint.
Are Chia Seeds Good for You FAQ
How much chia seeds should you eat a day?
According to the European Commission, you should consume a maximum of 15 grams of Chia seeds per day.
What is the benefits of chia seeds in your body?
Chia seeds contain plenty of minerals and healthy fats, but anti-nutrients in chia seeds such as lectins and phytic acid negate many of the claimed health benefits.
Do chia seeds help reduce belly fat?
Studies show that chia seeds may not help you lose body fat as expected. For weight loss, flax seeds may be a better alternative.
What happens when you eat chia seeds everyday?
Consuming too many chia seeds can cause digestive problems and constipation.
Studies and Books
2Gundry SR, Buehl OB. The Plant Paradox: The Hidden Dangers in “healthy” Foods That Cause Disease and Weight Gain. New York, NY: Harper Wave, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2017.
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4Macedo ML, Oliveira CF, Oliveira CT. Insecticidal activity of plant lectins and potential application in crop protection. Molecules. 2015 Jan 27;20(2):2014-33. doi: 10.3390/molecules20022014. Review. PubMed PMID: 25633332; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC6272522.
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14Faintuch J, Horie LM, Barbeiro HV, Barbeiro DF, Soriano FG, Ishida RK, Cecconello I. Systemic inflammation in morbidly obese subjects: response to oral supplementation with alpha-linolenic acid. Obes Surg. 2007 Mar;17(3):341-7. doi: 10.1007/s11695-007-9062-x. PubMed PMID: 17546842.
15National Research Council (US) Committee on Diet and Health. Diet and Health: Implications for Reducing Chronic Disease Risk. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 1989. 10, Dietary Fiber. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK218764/
16Ho KS, Tan CY, Mohd Daud MA, Seow-Choen F. Stopping or reducing dietary fiber intake reduces constipation and its associated symptoms. World J Gastroenterol. 2012 Sep 7;18(33):4593-6. doi: 10.3748/wjg.v18.i33.4593. PubMed PMID: 22969234; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3435786.