These tiny seeds pack a nutrient punch.

By Melanie Fincher
Andy Lyons/Meredith

If you're not familiar with chia seeds by now, it's time to get acquainted with this nutrient-rich "superfood." What these seeds lack in size, they more than make up for in nutrients. While these seeds date all the way back to Aztec and Mayan cultures, they have recently surged in popularity thanks to their numerous health benefits.

According to a report by Mordor Intelligence, the chia seed market is projected to reach more than 2 billion dollars in sales by 2022. Learn everything you need to know about chia seeds, including how to incorporate them into your diet today.

What Are Chia Seeds?

Chia seeds are edible seeds that come from the desert plant known as Salvia hispanica, a member of the mint family. This plant is grown in Mexico and Guatemala and dates back to Mayan and Aztec cultures. The seed was a staple in these cultures, and it was even offered to the Aztec gods in religious ceremonies.

The name "chia" actually means strength in Mayan, and folklore has it that the seeds were used as an energy booster. And it's no wonder; chia seeds are a concentrated source of omega-3 fatty acids, carbohydrates, protein, fiber, antioxidants, and calcium.

While these tiny black and white seeds have a rich history dating back thousands of years, they have burst into popularity in recent years among health-conscious consumers.

How To Eat Chia Seeds

There's no right or wrong way to eat chia seeds — these versatile seeds can be added to a variety of dishes for a little nutrient boost. One of the most popular ways to enjoy chia seeds is chia pudding, which is made by mixing a liquid like almond milk or juice with chia seeds. Once the chia seeds absorb some of the liquid the mixture becomes more like a pudding.

You can also add dry chia seeds to smoothies, yogurt, oatmeal, cereal, sandwiches and even salad. They don't add much flavor, but they do give a nice crunch to these dishes. Because chia seeds are so absorbent, you can even use them to thicken jam.

Pictured: Chia Greek Yogurt Pudding
Buckwheat Queen

Chia Seeds vs. Flax Seeds

There's more than one type of nutrient-dense seed on the block. While both chia seeds and flax seeds are rich in a variety of nutrients, there are a few key differences between the two.

Chia seeds are native to Mexico and Guatemala, and come in both black and white varieties (although there's no nutritional difference between the two colors). Chia seeds tend to be smaller and more bland in taste than flax seeds.

Flax seeds on the other hand originate from the Middle East. They are generally brown or golden, and can be bought whole or ground. They have a nuttier, more robust flavor than chia seeds.

Both seeds are high in protein and omega-3 fatty acids; however, flax seeds are slightly higher in these nutrients as well as manganese, copper, and potassium. Chia seeds contain fewer calories and more fiber, and twice the amount of bone-strengthening calcium and phosphorus. Chia seeds also contain slightly more iron than flax seeds.

The bottom line: Both types of seeds are nutrient-dense, and the differences between them remain small. It depends on what you're looking for in terms of nutrient composition, as chia seeds have more bone-strengthening minerals and fiber while flax seeds are higher in omega-3 fatty acids.

Chia Seeds Health Benefits

Chia seeds are often referred to as "superfoods." And while this is an unregulated term, it isn't entirely inaccurate in describing chia seeds. Ahead are a few of the reasons you should be incorporating chia seeds into your diet.

  1. What they lack in calories and size, they make up for in nutrients. Two tablespoons of chia seeds is only about 140 calories and 1 gram of carbohydrates. On top of this low calorie count, you'll also get a healthy dose of fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, protein, and a variety of micronutrients, making them one of the most nutritious foods on the planet.
  2. They contain all nine essential amino acids. Often referred to as the "building blocks of proteins," these are needed for important processes like building proteins and the synthesis of hormones and neurotransmitters. Our bodies don't produce these naturally, so we have to get them through our food.
  3. Most of the carbs in chia seeds are fiber. Don't let the nutrition label fool you. The vast majority of carbs in chia seeds are fiber, which your body doesn't digest. In fact, 11 out of 12 grams of carbs in one serving of chia seeds are fiber, making them a low-carb friendly food.
  4. They may help you lose weight. The protein in chia seeds can help reduce appetite. The soluble fiber absorbs large amounts of water and expands in your stomach, helping you to feel fuller longer.
  5. They may help prevent disease. The high content of linoleic and alpha-linolenic (ALA) fatty acids in chia seeds can help reduce risk of heart disease. While studies have shown that chia seeds alone do not prevent the risk of heart disease, they may contribute to disease prevention when as a part of a plant-rich diet, according to Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Potential Side Effects of Eating Chia Seeds

Like in all things, moderation is key when it comes to chia seeds. They make for a nutritious dietary addition. However, eating too many can cause negative side effects.

Excessive fiber intake can cause digestive symptoms like abdominal pain, gas, and bloating, especially when paired with inadequate hydration. While a high-fiber diet can help protect against inflammatory bowel diseases in the long-term, those experiencing flare-ups should limit their intake during short periods of time.

However, most people can reduce these symptoms by drinking plenty of water to help pass the fiber through the body. It's a good idea to start by eating one ounce of chia seeds daily to assess your tolerance before increasing your intake. And drink lots of water!

How to Buy and Store Chia Seeds

Chia seeds ($9-13; walmart.com) can be found in most grocery stores, health food stores, and specialty markets. All are naturally gluten-free and vegan. Chia seeds should be black and white — not brown, as that's an indicator that the seeds have not yet matured.

Store chia seeds in an airtight container in a cool, dry place. They will last four to five years without refrigeration.

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