Chia Seeds: They’re Not Just for Pottery Pets Anymore

You can just hear the commercial: “Ch-ch-ch-chia!”

The terracotta animal figures who grow green sprout “hair” were first produced in 1977.  The original chia pet was in the shape of a ram, but now there are over 30 different varieties, including one of President Obama (above). Since 2007, it is estimated that over 500,000 chia pets are sold each year!

But lately, those tiny chia seeds are finding a new niche, that of a superfood!

Food of the Aztec Warrior

Chia, botanical name Salvia hispanica,  is a species of flowering plant in the mint family.  It is native to central and southern Mexico and Guatemala, and was cultivated by the Aztecs in pre-Columbian times.  It was considered an important crop, perhaps even as important as maize. It was part of the basic survival ration of Aztec warriors. They believed chia seeds imparted high energy, endurance and good health.

The seeds were also used by the Aztecs as offerings in religious rituals, which caused it to be banned after the Spanish conquest.

Marathon Runners Love it Too!

In 2009, award-winning journalist and avid long distance runner Christopher McDougall studied the running habits of the super-athletic Tarahumara Indians in Mexico. In his book,  Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen (Vintage)McDougall talks about how these runners consumed chia seeds while on their desert runs.  This started a flurry of articles in running magazines touting the endurance benefits of chia. Now many marathon runners swear by them.


 So, What’s So Good About Chia Seeds?

Chia seeds can be called a total nutritional powerhouse.

Chia seeds are a complete protein source, meaning that they have all of the essential amino acids in an appropriate balance. They are about one-fourth protein (4 grams/serving), higher than many other seeds and grains.

One serving size includes 18 percent of recommended daily calcium, is a great source of potassium and is low in cholesterol and sodium.

And even more, they have an extremely high concentration of omega-3 acids—even more than salmon! Omega-3 fatty acids are considered essential fatty acids, meaning that you can not live without them. The body cannot make them itself, so they must come from the diet. Omega-3’s can promote heart health and decrease triglyceride levels. They are also thought to play an important role in reducing inflammation throughout the body.

James (Jim) E Scheer , in his book, The Magic of Chia: Revival of an Ancient Wonder Food notes that chia is high in fiber and is easily digested. They absorb many times their weight in water to form a gel.

The outer layer of chia seeds is rich in mucilloid soluble fiber. This mucilloid is intended to keep the seeds from drying out in the arid desert air. When chia seeds are mixed with water or stomach juices, a gel forms that creates a physical barrier between the carbohydrates and the digestive enzymes that break them down. The carbohydrates are digested eventually, but at a slow and uniform rate. There is no insulin surge or spike needed to lower the blood sugar level after eating chia.

Bring on the Celebrity Endorsements…

Recently chia has been touted by celebrity physicians, such as Dr. Mehmet Oz and Dr. Andrew Weil.

Initially found only in health food stores, chia seeds are now readily available in stores like Whole Foods and online at and other vendors.

Ready to Try Chia? Here’s a Recipe!

Pumpkin Chia Seed Muffins (per Dr. Oz on Oprah)


1 tablespoon chia seeds , ground (use a coffee or spice grinder)
1 cup whole wheat or whole grain flour
1/2 cup white unbleached flour
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 can (16 ounces) organic pumpkin (make sure there is only pumpkin listed on the ingredient list)
2 eggs
1/4 cup high-quality extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup pure maple syrup or 1/2 cup agave nectar or a combination of the two
1 tablespoon vanilla
1/2 cup chopped walnuts or pecans , optional
Salt and pepper to taste

Pre-heat oven to 350°.

Mix dry ingredients together in a bowl. In a separate bowl, mix all wet ingredients.

Fold the wet ingredients (fold in nuts now if you are using them) into the dry ingredients and spoon into paper-lined muffin or greased muffin tins. Bake for 25–30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the middle of a muffin comes out clean. Store completely cooled muffins in resealable plastic bags in the freezer.

Have you ever tried chia seeds? Are you a runner that uses them?

Tell us about your experiences!

Update and a Note about Sources

In re-reading our post, it does sound a little like an advertisement and it was not our intent to endorse chia seeds as a “superfood.” We did review the scientific literature on nutritional aspects of Salvia hispanica. It’s also worth pointing out that chia seeds have been the subject of clinical research studying their use as a dietary supplement for people with type II diabetes.

Michele R. Berman, M.D. was Clinical Director of The Pediatric Center, a private practice on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. from 1988-2000, and was named Outstanding Washington Physician by Washingtonian Magazine in 1999. She was a medical internet pioneer having established one of the first medical practice websites in 1997. Dr. Berman also authored a monthly column for Washington Parent Magazine.


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