Why a nutritionist wants you to eat: chia seeds

    Chia seeds pudding
    Published: 21 March. 

    So you know these little black seeds are good for you, but you’re not crazy about chia pudding? Try these alternative ways to enjoy their nutritional benefits this National Chia Day (23 March)

    When it comes to love-or-hate foods, chia pudding is definitely on the list. While some of us can’t get enough of this creamy breakfast treat – usually made with plant milk, chia seeds and a fruity topping – others find it less than appealing. (‘Slimy’, ‘like frogspawn’, ‘weird’ and ‘worse than tapioca pudding’ are just a few comments Google brings to light.)

    However, if these tiny black seeds aren’t on your menu, you’re missing out. Native to Central America, chia – or Salvia hispanica – is part of the mint family. It has been cultivated for thousands of years, and the seeds were part of the staple diet of the Aztec and Mayan civilisations. Today they’re championed by health-conscious foodies for their unique array of nutritional benefits:

    • Omega-3 essential fatty acids  ‘Chia are one of the very few plant-based sources of omega-3s,’ says nutritionist Lily Soutter. ‘Usually found in oily fish, omega-3s are important for nourishing the brain – 60% of the brain is fat – and support mood, memory and concentration.’ As our bodies can’t make omega-3s, we must get them through diet, making chia a must-have if we’re vegan or vegetarian. 
    • Fibre  Chia seeds are also loaded with fibre, essential for a healthy digestive system, but ‘something we under-consume as a population,’ says Soutter. ‘We should get 30g per day, but on average only get 17-18g. Chia seeds are an easy way to add more: a 2 tablespoon serving provides 11g, one-third of your daily target.’ 
    • Soluble fibre  Chia seeds are especially high in soluble fibre – the bit that swells up when you soak them, forming the distinctive gel-like coating. Chia seeds can absorb 10-12 times their weight in liquid, which is what makes chia pudding so filling. ‘This keeps hunger at bay, meaning chia can be good for weight management,’ says Soutter. Plus, soluble fibre lowers blood levels of ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol, feeds ‘good’ bacteria in your gut, and bulks up stools.
    • Protein  Chia seeds provide 17g protein per 100g (for comparison, salmon provides 20g). Unlike some plant-based protein sources, chia seeds contain all nine essential amino acids – the body can’t produce these, so we need to get them from food. This means chia seeds are a ‘complete’ protein. 
    • Micronutrients  Chia contains ‘calcium for strong bones, iron for red blood cells, and magnesium and zinc, which are good for your brain,’ says James Vickers, registered nutritionist and Vitality Expert. There’s vitamin B3 (niacin), too, a common ingredient in face creams. ‘Research shows B3 can help keep skin moist and healthy,’ says Vickers.
    • Antioxidants  Chia contains antioxidant compounds that fight cell damage, including quercetin, chlorogenic acid and caffeic acid, says Vickers. Research suggests these compounds may help reduce the risk of cancer, lower blood pressure and keep the brain healthy. 

    How much should I eat?

    There’s no official recommendation for how much chia to eat daily – but don’t overdo it, as chia seeds can continue to absorb liquid after you’ve swallowed them. Eating too much chia ‘might cause abdominal discomfort and bloating,’ says Vickers. If you’re new to chia seeds, ‘start small and build your way up,’ says Soutter. ‘Begin with a teaspoon and see what you can tolerate. Have no more than 2 tablespoons a day (28g) and always drink plenty of water with them.’

    How to up your intake

    It’s easier than you might think to add chia seeds into your meals. They can be eaten raw or cooked, and because they ‘taste of pretty much nothing’, they won’t affect food’s flavour, says Vickers. 

    Keep a packet on-hand in the kitchen cupboard to sprinkle in your cooking. ‘Add to anything: sweet or savoury dishes; at breakfast, lunch or dinner. Scatter over meals like a curry or rice dish, or use to thicken sauces. Their texture also adds bite to salads,’ says Vickers.

    Stir them into cereal, yoghurts or porridge, or even pancake batter, suggests Vickers. Chia seeds also work well in smoothies, adds Soutter. Like flaxseed, chia can be used in baking as a ‘vegan egg’ – to replace one egg, mix 1 tablespoon chia with 2.5 tablespoons water and leave to stand for 5 minutes. ‘The slimy texture replaces egg white as a binding agent,’ explains Vickers.

    Alternatively, try these simple, delicious ideas.

    Overnight chia oats (and Weetabix)

    Use chia seeds to beef up the nutrition profile of your regular overnight oats, for a spin on chia pudding that you might find more palatable and that has nearly twice as much protein. 

    Per person, mix 30g porridge oats with 10g chia seeds, 100ml oat (or other plant) milk, and ½ tsp vanilla extract. Cover and chill overnight, then serve with berries, chopped nuts, yoghurt – whatever you like. Add extras like vanilla extract, maple syrup and cinnamon before chilling, if you wish.

    Oats not your bag? This year’s hot TikTok hacks include Overnight Weetabix: as the name suggests, this involves crushing Weetabix with milk and the toppings of your choice and chilling overnight. Try it with a tablespoon of chia seeds added.

    Chia energy balls

    ‘I make these by mixing chia with cocoa powder, oats, a little honey and some almond or peanut butter,’ says Soutter. ‘They’re a snack that’s full of protein and fibre to keep you fuller for longer.’ Similarly, add chia to home-made flapjacks and raw energy bars containing dried fruit, nuts and oats. 

    Lemon and chia seed muffins

    Chia seeds are an easy win in carb-heavy cakes and bakes that otherwise lack nutritional benefits – you won’t even notice they’re there. ‘If a recipe says one type of seeds, swap in chia. So, instead of lemon and poppy seed cake, make lemon and chia seed cake,’ says Vickers. ‘Top home-made cookies with chia seeds before you pop them in the oven. Chia can also be added to gluten-free energy breads made with oats.’ 

    The whole seeds work fine in more textured bakes like biscuits, muffins and bread. For finer cakes and brownies, try milled (ground) chia.

    Tofu in chia breadcrumbs

    ‘In savoury dishes, add chia seeds to breadcrumbs to coat fish, chicken or tofu, and bake in the oven,’ says Vickers. (Dip your fish, chicken or tofu pieces in whisked egg whites or plant milk, to help the coating stick, and stir-fry if you prefer.) ‘You can also combine chia with other seeds, such as sesame, that have more flavour.’ It’s a simple way to complement protein sources with omega-3s – serve with plenty of veg for a balanced meal.

    Chia raspberry jam

    Swap your shop-bought jam for a healthier chia compote. ‘I make a raspberry and chia jam,’ says Soutter. ‘I use frozen raspberries, a little bit of honey, water and chia seeds, and mash it all with a fork over a hot stove. Enjoy as a toast topping, put it on porridge, or on pancakes with yoghurt.’ The protein, extra fibre and ‘good’ fats will help balance out the sugars from the fruit and honey.

    And if you insist on chia pudding…

    The basic version is made by soaking chia seeds in your choice of milk, possibly adding a little honey, and leaving overnight in a jar in the fridge. The best, in Soutter’s opinion, are made with creamier plant milks – think oat rather than almond; a ratio of 15g chia to 60ml milk is recommended by many.

    Remember, says Vickers, ‘you don’t need to eat a whole jam jar of chia pudding at once. Instead, use it as a topping, like you would yoghurt, and spoon it over fruit or cereal at breakfast time.’

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