By Lanier Norville
You’ve probably heard the buzz about the latest purported superfood: chia seeds, the seeds of the tropical grass plant salvia hispanica, which pack a high dose of omega-3s, plus protein, fiber and other essential nutrients, into a single serving. You may have even heard about chia in your facility: Some doctors are now recommending them for their high omega-3 content, which can help alleviate symptoms of everything from joint pain to eczema. But how can a single food do all that? Are chia seeds a true superfood, or are they just the latest in a series of passing health food fads? (Anyone remember the cabbage soup diet?) OR Today consulted with the experts to find out.
Kristen Holmberg, a longtime fibromyalgia sufferer, thought she’d never sleep through the night without pain in her legs awakening her.
“Some nights I couldn’t fall asleep because of the pain; other times I’d be so exhausted I’d fall right to sleep, but my leg pain would wake me up a few hours later, and I’d toss and turn the rest of the night,” she says.
A certified pain management specialist and quantum biofeedback practitioner, Holmberg was accustomed to the idea of healing through food, and had almost kicked her fibromyalgia symptoms entirely. So in May 2010 when a friend introduced her to Mila, a brand of omega-3-rich chia seeds, she added a daily serving to her diet.
“After three weeks of eating Mila, I was astonished to wake up one morning, after sleeping undisturbed by pain all night,” she says. Holmberg credits the anti-inflammatory properties of the omega-3s she gets from the chia seeds for her relief.
Today, Holmberg eats a serving of Mila’s chia blend every day and incorporates the whole raw food into her wellness practice. “I incorporate it because it seems like just everybody needs it for one reason or another – 95 percent of people are deficient in omega-3s,” she says. “It’s been a game-changer – for me personally, as well as my practice.”
To test the seeds’ potential wide-ranging benefits, Holmberg asked 25 of her clients at her pain management practice, High Mountain Healing Arts, to eat a two-tablespoon serving of Mila every day for a month. Using quantum biofeedback, she measured energy frequencies in each participant’s body at the beginning and end of the study. She noticed a statistically significant improvement in resistance, which measures inflammation, and impedence, which measures how freely energy flows through the body. “People were noticing that they had less pain, were digesting food better, had more energy, were not as depressed, and had an overall sense of well being,” she says.
Holmberg also encourages clients who are seeking weight loss to incorporate Mila into their diets. “I’ve been working with them with the Mila as a cornerstone of a new way of losing weight that doesn’t involve dieting – it’s really about how we nourish the body in a way that’s so supportive that it doesn’t need to hold onto fat anymore. The fiber-rich food is filling, and it’s a complete protein, “so it’s giving you some of the things we don’t get enough of in our standard American diet,” she says.
When you eat nutrient-rich foods, Holmberg says, you don’t crave as much food, because your body is getting what it needs with less volume. Holmberg has lost 12 pounds since she began eating Mila. She specifically recommends Mila, rather than other brands of chia seeds. Mila is a blend of several strains of chia seeds designed for optimal nutritional content. The seeds are opened in a cold-fracturing process, ensuring the body can absorb and reap the benefits of all those nutrients.
Dr. Theresa Ford, medical director of the North Georgia Rheumatology Group, recommends Mila to her patients. She serves on the health science advisory council for Lifemax, the company that produces Mila. “For years we have recommended flaxseed and omega-3s to our patients to supplement their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory regimens hoping for optimal absorption and bio-availability,” she says. “We finally got that with Mila.” According to Ford, the ancient Aztecs used chia to treat joint pain, among other things. “This had a natural attraction to us in the field of rheumatology, supporting our efforts to incorporate non-pharmacological measures in our treatment regimens.”
Chia seeds hit the dietary mainstream last year when Mehmet Oz endorsed them as a key fiber source and weight-loss aid on network television on “The Dr. Oz Show.” Then Ray Rice, a running back for the Baltimore Ravens, told the Wall Street Journal that he credits the seeds for replenishing his energy and regulating his digestion, in an article that photoshopped a lush, green head of Chia-Pet hair onto the 212-pound NFL offensive lineman. (The same seeds that help Ray Rice feel strong sprout the hair of the Chia Pet, the potted pop-culture relic of the 80s.) But the history of the tiny, cracked pepper-sized seeds dates back much further than that.
As early as 3000 B.C., the Mayans and Aztecs had made chia seeds a staple of their diet, along with corn, beans and amaranth. The seeds of salvia hispanica grass, native in the region from north-central Mexico to Guatemala, were cultivated, farmed and used as currency among tribesmen. Referred to by the Aztecs as “running food,” chia seeds were the sole source of nutrition for several days for some messengers. But the seeds faded as a staple food after the arrival of Spanish conquistadors, who viewed them as a source of strength to the native people, and a threat to their conquest.
Today, the seeds are once again gaining ground to combat another threat: the typical U.S. diet, low in fiber and lacking in essential nutrients, which nutritionists and wellness experts cite as a source of many of our modern ailments.
Raw foods expert Susan Schenck, author of “The Live Food Factor: The Comprehensive Guide to the Ultimate Diet for Body, Mind, Spirit & Planet,” says chia seeds are the seed with the highest protein content – a great source for people who want to incorporate more plant-based sources into their diets. In her new book, “Beyond Broccoli: Creating a Biologically Balanced Diet When a Vegetarian Diet Doesn’t Work,” she highlights their benefits: “I can get 40 grams of protein if I eat 8 ounces of chia seeds. The 8 ounces will cost me 1,096 calories and give me 96 grams of carbs and 72 grams of fat. The problem is, I have used up two-thirds of my daily caloric allotment! But compared to other seeds, I am getting more protein for fewer calories. For each ounce of chia seeds, I am also getting 1,620 omega-6s, but a great amount of omega-3s: 4,915.”
The only major drawback, according to Schenck, is cost. Chia seeds cost about six times as much as sunflower and flaxseeds, she says. “Nonetheless, if you are a vegan who can afford it, make chia seeds a primary source of protein in your diet.”
But even if you’re not a vegan, a tablespoon or two of chia seeds a day can be a positive addition. With a longer shelf life and softer exterior shell than flax – making absorption of their nutrients easier for your body – they can be mixed into smoothies or fruit juice, sprinkled on salads or oatmeal, or baked into bread or muffins.
Kristin Kirkpatrick, RD, LD, MS, wellness manager for the Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Institute, has found that her patients appreciate the seeds not only for their ease and nutritional quality, but for a certain culinary property: When mixed with liquid, the seeds become gelatinous.
“It’s wonderful for thickening soups without as much fat as other thickeners,” such as cream, she says. “The other place where we use it is in things like muffins. [The gel] provides that moisture and gooiness for the same texture that other fats will.” Kirkpatrick encourages her patients to substitute healthy oils for unhealthy ones. In baking, chia gel made from chia seeds and water can be substituted for vegetable oil.
The Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute focuses on a whole-body approach to wellness, and nutrient-rich foods – or what have come to be known in pop culture as superfoods – are at the center of its program. “I think every solitary fruit and vegetable is a superfood,” Kirkpatrick says. “And chia seeds, with the evidence we have regarding omega 3 fatty acids, are a superfood.”
But Kirkpatrick cautions against the idea that chia seeds – or anything referred to as a superfood – will have a dramatic effect on an otherwise unhealthy diet. “If you have chia seeds every day, but your diet doesn’t have any fruits and vegetables and is high in calories, it’s not going to be a miracle seed. But it’s a great addition to a healthy diet.” Chia seeds can help reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, Kirkpatrick says, and they’re a great vegetarian alternative to salmon and other marine sources of omega-3s.
If you’re already eating a healthy diet, Kirkpatrick says, “Chia seeds are great to include and have a wonderful culinary benefit.”
For more information about Mila, visit www.lifemax.net/seed4fuel.