by Dietitian Ellen
Have you heard of chia seed? I know, you may be thinking, “I’ve heard of the Chia Pet, but chia seed? What is that?”
Well, chia seed IS the seed from the Chia Pet. But you can eat it, too! Weird, I know, but true.
Chia seed as a super food dates back to ancient Aztec warriors on their long expeditions. Now, it is a super food for athletes on their sometimes long “expeditions,” i.e., workouts and races.
Chia seed is a good source of omega-3 fatty acids which are beneficial for heart health, anti-inflammatory purposes, and also possibly in helping to ease mood swings. (As athletes, I know none of us EVER experience mood swings. ;) <cough>)
Chia seed is also a great source of fiber. The seeds can absorb up to 10x their weight in water. If you were to pour a tablespoon into a glass of water and let it sit for some amount of time, the water would form into a gel. This property allows the seeds to provide an extended source of nutrients and help to stabilize your blood sugar, which is especially important during long workouts and races. Some athletes have even experimented with making their own “gels” with chia seeds.
In addition to the favorable omega-3 fatty acid and fiber properties of this athletes' super food, it is also a good source of protein, calcium, and iron, all of which are important for athletes. Protein helps to build lean muscle mass. Calcium is essential for strong bones and reduced fractures. Iron is necessary for the formation of hemoglobin, which is critical for the transport of oxygen from the lungs to cells in your body. Chia seed: like flax seed… on steroids (metaphorically speaking).
Chia is available in whole seed and milled chia flour forms. Some research has shown that the omega-3 benefits are stronger in the milled chia flour. Regardless, both options are exceptionally nutritious, and both forms are tasteless and will only add a different texture to your food. There is now Dole® milled chia available in to-go packets, which look similar to Crystal Light® packets.
Chia can be added to a variety of recipes. It is great when added to smoothies, juices, cereals, oatmeal, and yogurt. Sprinkle it on soups and salads. Add it to dips and spreads. Chia can also be easily added to baked goods, be added to peanut butter toast, or even take the place of sesame seeds when making homemade (healthier) sesame chicken. Just make sure you wait until you are about to enjoy your sesame chicken before you add your chia; otherwise, it will react with the soy sauce and form a gel. It will taste the same, but the appearance might turn some off. (Speaking from experience!)
When deciding how much chia seed to add to your food, I typically suggest 1 tablespoon, 2–3 times per day. For most of the athletes I work with, this ends up being at breakfast and dinner, unless you train full time and have the pleasure of eating at home for lunch or decide to carry the to-go packets mentioned above. I suggest placing your chia on the kitchen counter as a friendly reminder to incorporate this super food more often. You could even fill a recycled spice jar with chia and put it with your salt and pepper shakers.
Here are some of my favorite ways to incorporate chia seed.
Power Protein Bars: By far the tastiest “protein bar” you may ever experience. A mix of oatmeal, peanut butter, dark chocolate, chia seed, and other mouthwatering ingredients make this recipe a hit! Proceed with caution, these little guys are in no way calorie free. However, they are a great source of protein and fiber. I would suggest this as a breakfast bar or post workout recovery option. Many people have tried this recipe, and I have not had one person say they did not like it. Either my athletes are afraid to hurt my feelings, or these are the real deal.
Green Smoothie: I love adding chia to smoothies, and I love sneaking in a few vegetables without having to prepare them. This recipe does both. (You can assume you will be hearing about this recipe again, when we talk about spinach in an upcoming article.) This is great as a breakfast on the go, or a recovery treat, as well. You can even make this recipe the night before and store it in the refrigerator to save time when making breakfast for the family.
Breakfast in a Jar: This is another time saving recipe. Easy to prepare the night before a busy morning. (Aren’t all mornings busy?) This is a great combination of yogurt, oatmeal, mixed berries, and chia. It is easy to add chia to plain Greek yogurt or oatmeal, too! There are a lot of flavor combinations that would be great to experiment with.
Chia seed is easy to find in your local Hy-Vee HealthMarket or other health food stores. This super food is a great addition to any person’s daily diet. If you have further questions, feel free to leave a comment!
Ellen Ries, RD, LD
Read Dietitian Ellen’s introduction to this series: Super Foods for Athletes. Watch our blog every Friday for additional articles!