Did you know that a nutrient dense superfood may be lurking on your windowsill, disguised as a cat, a dog or even a sponge? Chia seed, the same seed used to create the Chia Pet - the gag gift we all know and love - is one of the hottest health foods on the market. Despite its current goofy reputation, this ancient food is now taking its rightful place at the table once more.

What is Chia?

Chia is an edible seed that comes from the desert plant Salvia hispanica, a member of the mint family native to central and southern Mexico and Guatemala. Historically, the seeds have been the most important part of the plant and were consumed whole and used to make flour and oil.

The 16th century Codex Mendoza provides evidence that chia was cultivated by the Aztec people way back in pre-Columbian times and was as important as maize as a food crop. Chia seeds were a staple food of the Aztec and Mayan diets and were the basic survival ration of Aztec warriors.

What Are the Benefits of Chia?

Chia seed is a nutrient powerhouse that holds many benefits, from curbing appetite and assisting weight loss to relieving joint pain and depression. Here are five major aspects of the nutritional benefits of chia seed.

1. Soluble fiber – Chia seed contains ample soluble fiber, which helps prevent constipation and can protect against heart disease and toxicity in the body. Adults need to consume at least 14 grams of fiber per 1,000 calories consumed. So, on average, we need about 35-40 grams of fiber a day. Sadly, most people average around 10 grams a day, so focus needs to be placed on fiber. Thankfully, just 1 ounce of chia seed (28 grams, about 3 tablespoons) has 11 grams of dietary fiber and is an easy way to help meet your fiber needs.

2. Protein – One ounce of chia seeds provides over 4 grams of protein that contains all 9 essential amino acids as well as some complimentary non-essentials. This complete protein is easy to digest and does not carry the unwanted aspects of other vegetable-source proteins like soy. Soy protein isolate, commonly used in energy bars and vegetarian meat substitutes, is a nearly indigestible product that is extracted with toxic chemical solvents. It comes almost exclusively from genetically modified soy plants that are heavily sprayed with harmful chemical pesticides and herbicides. Advantage: chia.

3. Minerals – Chia seed is rich in several important minerals. A one ounce serving provides 27% of the daily RDI of phosphorus, 30% daily RDI manganese, 18% daily RDI of calcium and is also rich in boron, which helps the body absorb and use calcium.

4. Antioxidants – Chia is high in antioxidants that not only preserve the seed and prevent it from going rancid, but also provide many health benefits. Here are the primary antioxidants in chia and how they can improve your health:

Quercetin - A study by researchers at the University of South Carolina’s Arnold School of Public Health showed that quercetin, an antioxidant found in chia, significantly boosted energy, endurance and fitness in healthy men and women who were not involved in some type of daily physical training. It can also reduce the symptoms of seasonal allergies and reduce inflammation associated with prostatitis and rheumatoid arthritis. Additionally, quercetin has been linked to supporting the immune system and bone health.

Chlorogenic Acid –This chia antioxidant has been found to possess anti-cancer properties and could be used to prevent growth of certain brain tumors. It can also slow the release of glucose into bloodstream after a meal, reducing the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Chlorogenic acid also helps increase the flow of bile, alleviating bile stagnation and promoting liver and gallbladder health. It can also help to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Caffeic Acid– This antioxidant in chia seed can help preventcolitis (a condition that could lead to colon cancer) cardiovascular disease, certain cancers and inflammation. It may also be used in the healthy maintenance of the immune system.

5. Omega-3 - Chia is loaded with vital omega-3 fatty acid, more so than flax seed and, ounce for ounce, more than salmon! The omega-3 fat in chia supports proper brain function, healthy skin, good moods and cardiovascular health.

One More Reason to Eat Chia

Chia seeds also have excellent hydrophilic (water holding) properties and can absorb about 9 times their weight in fluid. When consumed with a glass of water, chia seeds perform this water-holding trick to help you stay evenly hydrated longer, and retain electrolytes in your bodily fluids. This quality is a real plus for athletes who wish to stay hydrated and maintain peak energy levels and endurance during workouts and events.

Chia's hydrophilic properties also make it a perfect weight loss food. When chia absorbs fluids, it expands in your stomach, helping you to feel fuller longer with fewer calories, yet more nutrition. This is a very healthy way to reduce your caloric intake without depriving yourself of nutrition or satisfaction.

Can I Just Eat Flax Seed Instead?

Why bother with chia seed when flax seed is so cheap and easy to find? There are a few good reasons. Chia shells are easily broken down, even when swallowed whole. This is a vast improvement over flax seed, which needs to be ground up to be digested properly. If you eat flax seed whole, it will just pass right through you undigested. If you grind the flax, it starts to oxidize (go rancid) almost immediately and will only add free radicals to your body if you eat it. Advantage: chia.

Additionally, chia doesn’t contain toxins and harmful substances like flax does. Among other things, flax contains chemicals called goitrogens that can suppress the thyroid and interfere with its function. Chia also contains a wider variety of nutrients than flax, making it clearly the better choice.

How Do I Use Chia?

The great news is that chia seed has almost no taste and is about the easiest health food to incorporate in your diet you will ever find. You can bake with it, use it as an oil substitute in recipes or use it as a thickener in sauces, gravies and salad dressings. Try the following simple ideas on how to use chia seeds:

Grow Your Own - Chia sprouts or microgreens (fancy word for bigger sprouts) are very easy to grow and great on sandwiches or in stir fry, salads or pesto. To grow your own, get a wide, shallow dish (about 2-3” deep) and add potting soil or a soil-less seed starter mix. Sprinkle chia seeds over the surface and water daily. In a few days, you will have fresh sprouts that you can harvest again and again. Simply snip, rinse and use. As the greens mature, they develop a slightly fuzzy texture, so try to harvest them when they are young.

Chia Gel - One of the best and easiest ways to get the most nutrient value from your chia seeds is to make chia gel. To do this, stir chia seeds into pure water (1 part seeds to 9 parts water) and allow them to soak for 24 hours or at least overnight. Soaking your seeds activates the germination process, which makes them easier to digest and exponentially increases their already high nutrient content. You can then refrigerate the gel for up to 2 weeks for use in smoothies, salad dressings, or other recipes.

Lazy Chia - If all of this sounds like too much work for you, just take a tablespoon of chia seeds, pop them in your mouth, and rinse down with a full glass of water. They slide down easily, even for people who have trouble swallowing pills. I do this every night just before bed as it helps prevent the overnight dehydration that typically occurs and allows my body to gradually absorb the water.

I recommend you make friends with the chia seed and include it in your daily diet. Take your beloved chia pet off the windowsill, give him a haircut and sprinkle the trimmings on a salad, over fish or into a sauce or dressing. Chia is not just for laughs anymore!

Author's Bio: 

Carisa Holmes is a holistic health advocate, Reiki practitioner and author based in the Powell area of Columbus, Ohio. Carisa has worked in the holistic health and natural beauty fields for nearly 10 years.

Through overcoming a plethora of personal health issues and working with clients, Carisa has developed a clear understanding of the functions of the physical body as well as the more subtle layers of the human energy field.

In her practice, Carisa helps empower people to move toward higher levels of wellness. Using tools such as whole food, natural skin care and powerful yet gentle Reiki energy healing, Carisa helps clients lose weight without starving themselves, heal sickness and injury, increase energy levels and feel more calm, happy and alive.

Carisa is very grateful for the many things she has learned and is eager to share them with others. Carisa writes a health and wellness column for GrapeVine Columbus Diversity News Source and maintains a private practice in the Powell/Columbus, Ohio area.

To contact Carisa about how you can heal yourself naturally, visit www.CarisaHolmes.com or email directly at info@carisaholmes.com