Remember the Chia Pet? These gift items, clay figurines that sprouted grass-like "fur," were once all the rage. Fast-forward a few decades, and the seeds from the same chia plant are being sold online and in health food stores as a weight loss aid.
They're supposed to help control hunger while they enhance your diet with super-nutrients. But what's the real story on these nutritious seeds and their ability to help you lose weight?
What Is Chia?
Chia is an edible seed that comes from the desert plant Salvia hispanica, grown in Mexico dating back to Mayan and Aztec cultures. "Chia" means strength, and folklore has it that these cultures used the tiny black and white seeds as an energy booster. That makes sense, as chia seeds are a concentrated food containing healthy omega-3 fatty acids, carbohydrates, protein, fiber, antioxidants, and calcium.
Chia seeds are an unprocessed, whole-grain food that can be absorbed by the body as seeds (unlike flaxseeds). One ounce (about 2 tablespoons) contains 139 calories, 4 grams of protein, 9 grams fat, 12 grams carbohydrates and 11 grams of fiber, plus vitamins and minerals.
The mild, nutty flavor of chia seeds makes them easy to add to foods and beverages. They are most often sprinkled on cereal, sauces, vegetables, rice dishes, or yogurt or mixed into drinks and baked goods. They can also be mixed with water and made into a gel.
Can Chia Really Help You Lose Weight?
In theory, chia seeds are supposed to expand in your belly, helping you to feel full, eat less, and ultimately shed pounds. But one study indicates otherwise.
"Over a 12-week period, we did not see a change in appetite or weight loss" in study participants who consumed chia seeds, says researcher David Nieman, DrPH, a professor at Appalachian State University in North Carolina. "Our study showed no reduction in body weight, body fat and no improvement in traditional cardiovascular markers from 50 grams of chia per day.”
A study reviewing the body of scientific evidence on chia found similar results.
"The evidence is limited on chia, and only two clinical trials examined heart health and body weight," says explains researcher Catherine Ulbricht, PharmD. "One showed some beneficial heart effect, but neither showed any effect on weight loss."
More study is needed before chia can be recommended either for weight loss and heart health, says Ulbricht, chief editor of Natural Standard Research Collaboration.
Should You Try Chia?
While there's little evidence for the weight loss benefits of chia, it can be a nutritious addition to your diet. Nieman notes that people in his study tolerated it without any complaints for 12 weeks.
"Use chia seeds in foods, not as a supplement, but as an alternative to processed grains like white bread because it is a much healthier whole grain that is great-tasting in foods like muffins," suggests Michael Roizen, MD, co-author of You Staying Young.
In the book, Roizen and Mehmet Oz, MD, recommend two daily doses, each consisting of 20 grams (a little less than 2 tablespoons) of chia seeds. The authors also note that the antioxidant activity of chia seeds is higher than any whole food, even blueberries.
Is there any downside to chia? Ulbricht cautions that if you have food allergies (especially to sesame or mustard seeds) or are on high blood pressure medications or blood thinners, you should ask your health care provider before adding chia to your diet.
The Bottom Line on Chia
Enjoy chia seeds for their flavor and to boost the fiber, protein, calcium, antioxidants, and omega-3s in your diet. But don't expect a big weight loss boost.
Unfortunately, there is no magic bullet (or seed) for weight loss. If you want to lose weight, you'll need to follow a healthy, calorie-controlled diet and get more physical activity.