Chia - What is it?
Chia, or Salvia hispanica, is a nutrient-dense seed which has experienced a recent surge in popularity and is being hailed as a superfood. It is thought to be the richest plant source of omega-3 fatty acid, it is high in antioxidants and micronutrients like Iron, Magnesium, Calcium and Potassium, and the seed is rich in fibre and protein, containing all eight essential amino acids. Chia is usually consumed by soaking it in liquid until the seeds swell, forming a gel, but it can also be added to breads, cereals, and other nutritional foods in dry form.
If the name sounds familiar, you probably remember the 1980s, when the "Chia Pet" enthralled a generation of children.
Chia - Where does it come from?
Chia is native to Mexico and Guatemala, and it was grown as a staple crop by the Aztecs. It was used in both food and medicine and was thought to be as abundant as maize. These days it is cultivated throughout its native South America and also in Australia. Australia is the world's biggest producer of chia seed.
The great nutrient profile is chia's biggest asset. The anti-inflammatory and cardioprotective benefits of omega-3 are very well known and are covered in depth in this article. Likewise, chia contains four well known antioxidants – quercetin, kaempferol, chlorogenic acid and caffeic acid, which counteract the effects of harmful free radicals (1).
Fibre in the chia seeds promotes satiety, as does the extra bulk when the chia seeds are gelled with liquid. The gelling property has also been cited as an attribute, because the gel is though to be absorbed by the body more slowly than a liquid, providing longer lasting hydration.
Chia is often compared to flax seed, which has a similar nutritional profile. One of the main differences between chia and flax is that flaxseed has a hard shell to prevent the omega-3 oil from oxidising, whereas chia has a soft shell, and the oil is through to be protected from going rancid by the antioxidants within the seed. The absence of a hard shell makes the omega-3 in chia seed more bioavailable than flax – whole flaxseeds are able to pass through the human digestive system intact.
Chia Benefits for Bodybuilding
Any athlete striving for peak physical condition needs to make sure they are getting the nutrition to support their efforts. Chia is a natural and efficient way to take in some of these. In addition to supporting general health, high levels of omega-3 and antioxidants can really help in recovering from a workout, and can be protective against joint disease, which can really stifle athletic progress.
The fact that chia swells to form a gel in liquid can be used to advantageous ends, because whatever liquid it is soaked in will be absorbed slowly by the digestive system. Adding chia to a solution of BCAAs and electrolytes, for example, and drinking the gel before training can result in a slow release of these nutrients throughout a workout.
Chia Side Effects & Safety
Author Christopher McDougall says of Chia: "in terms of nutritional content, a tablespoon of chia is like a smoothie made from salmon, spinach, and human growth hormone". Unfortunately, some people find the texture of chia about as appealing as the aforementioned smoothie. It has colourfully been described as "frothy grey slime", and while some people are able to get used to, and even enjoy the texture, others find it insurmountably challenging.
Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are the omega-3 fatty acids that have the strongest association with human health. The omega-3 contained in chia is in the form of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which lacks many of the health properties of DHA and EPA. The body can produce EPA and DHA from ALA, but this is an inefficient conversion. For these reasons, ALA is considered a lower quality form of omega-3 fatty acids than fish oil and other DHA- and EPA-rich sources (2).
Chia Recommended Dosage & Timing
To see nutritional benefits from chia, it is recommended that 1-4 tablespoons of the seeds be consumed per day. Chia seeds can either be whole or processed by light milling or grinding into flour. This does not affect the nutritional content, and makes the seed more versatile. It has a mild, nutty flavour that goes well with sweet and savoury foods.
Chia in Supplements
Chia can be found in a number of different supplements. It is a common inclusion in superfood supplements, such as BSc Naturals Performance Immugreens, and it makes an appearance in many other "Natural" products. It is also included in some muscle support products, such as Cell Tech and Mass Tech, from the Muscle Tech range.
Chia will stack alongside anything, but a popular option is to utilise its ability to slowly release nutrients by mixing it with a pre- or intra-workout supplement and consuming the gel before training.
(1) Norlaily MA, Yeap SK, Ho WY, Beh BK, Tan SW, Tan SG. The Promising Future of Chia, Salvia hispanica. Journal of Biomedicine and Biotechnology Volume 2012 (2012)
(2) Lane K, Derbyshire E, Li W, Brennan C. Bioavailability and potential uses of vegetarian sources of omega-3 Fatty acids: a review of the literature. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2014;54(5):572-9.