Chia seeds are back as the latest cleansing superfood on TikTok – should you try them?
A new generation that is unfamiliar with chia seeds' previous fame as Chia Pets and a nutritional powerhouse has dubbed them "internal showers" on social media.
Chia seeds are making a comeback – again.
They’re sprouting up on store shelves and packed into puddings and pretzels and even jams. According to forecasts from Grand View Research, a firm that tracks the food industry, the market for chia seeds is expected to grow by more than 22 per cent per year between 2019 and 2025.
Such is the life cycle of the chia seed – always popping up in one trend or another. The seeds have long been a staple in Latin America, and were even offered to Aztec gods during religious ceremonies, but every generation in America seems to think they’ve discovered them for the first time, said Beth Czerwony, a registered dietitian with the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Human Nutrition.
During the last 40 years, chia has maintained a fairly constant presence in the public consciousness. They appeared as the furry plant Chia Pets in the late 1970s, and by the 90s, health food companies started marketing them as a nutritional powerhouse.
Over the past decade in particular, the tiny seeds have garnered an outsized reputation: As a purported hack for weight loss, a protein supplement and a staple of the ultra-healthy.
Now, thanks in part to social media, chia seeds are again on many people’s minds. Some TikTok users tout the purported benefits of an “internal shower” – a viral trend that involves drinking a supposedly cleansing sludge of chia seeds, water and lemon to relieve constipation and aid with weight loss. The hashtag #internalshower has been viewed more than 100 million times.
“When it was trendy in the early 2000s, the kids talking about it now might not have even been born,” Czerwony said. “Everything old comes back.”
We asked nutritionists and doctors if the latest chia craze lives up to its healthy hype.
ARE CHIA SEEDS REALLY THAT GOOD FOR YOU?
Chia seeds are not a magic conduit to weight loss or a cure for disease, but they are “incredibly healthy as a natural food source”, said Dr Melinda Ring, an integrative medicine specialist at Northwestern Medicine.
As with anything, though, you have to be careful to not overdo it, said Dr Lisa Ganjhu, an associate professor at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine, who specialises in gastroenterology. She warned against eating the seeds straight, which can upset digestion.
Instead, soak them in water or plant-based milk for several hours until they expand to a gelatinous slime, or add ground chia seeds to baked goods. You can also swirl them into a smoothie, where they can absorb the liquid, or else mix them into a pudding.
If you eat too many chia seeds – say, several kilos in a sitting – you run the risk of bloating, cramping, discomfort and diarrhoea, she said.
WHAT ARE THE HEALTH BENEFITS OF CHIA SEEDS?
A serving of chia seeds – roughly two tablespoons – won’t transform your entire diet, or replace the vitamins you should be getting from vegetables. But doctors and dietitians point to a few key health benefits:
- Chia seeds are high in fatty acids
Chia seeds contain remarkably high levels of an omega-3 essential fatty acid known as alpha-linolenic acid or ALA. You can only get these acids from your diet, Dr Ring said, and eating foods that are rich in ALAs can help prevent heart disease.
In fact, the seeds are one of the richest plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids; one serving has more than twice the daily amount of ALA recommended by the US National Institutes of Health.
- Chia seeds have lot of fibre
Two tablespoons of chia seeds have around 10g of dietary fibre – more than twice that of an apple. Fibre-rich foods promote gut health by encouraging bowel movements – hence, the thought behind the “internal shower”. But Dr Ganjhu said she thinks of chia seeds as more of an “internal Brillo pad”.
“It will definitely push things through,” she said.
The fibre in chia seeds can also keep you fuller for longer, especially if you soak the seeds first. The soft outer layer that coats seeds softens up and congeals into a gel-like form, which can further expand in your stomach, Czerwony said.
- Chia seeds contain antioxidants
Chia seeds are high in several potential antioxidants, which can help break down free radicals that damage our cells, Czerwony said. While it is possible to have too many antioxidants, doctors say most people would benefit from more in their diets, because free radicals can build up in the body over time, leading to – among other problems – plaque formations in the heart.
- Chia seeds are a handy workaround to dietary restrictions
Czerwony said she has seen patients use chia seeds, which are gluten-free and vegan, as an egg substitute, using the similar consistency to bake pancakes and breads.
And chia seeds are a good source of protein, although considerably less so than soybeans or quinoa, Dr Ring said, which makes them an ideal supplement for vegetarian diets, or for anyone looking to lower their meat intake.
“It’s a good trend – it’s healthy,” Czerwony said. “It’s not going to hurt you.”
By Dani Blum © 2022 The New York Times
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.