A lot of media outlets like to sell the idea of “superfoods”. Some of these like kale and spinach are definitely very good to eat on an almost daily basis but for a while I was also eating daily Chia seeds and flax seeds until I found out they are pretty much a waste of time if you eat very little processed foods. Not only are the health benefits a lot weaker than you might expect due to a few reasons (shared below) but also some studies have shown potential side effects. Similarly to my post on are multivitamins good for you, I will try to sum up why some of these “superfoods” under a closer look are actually not that amazing and not worth too much time thinking about or forcing in your diet. Its true they do have a lot of nutrients, but your body cannot take advantage of them as well as you might expect.
1. They contain healthy “omega 3’s”. Really?
Yes, flaxseed and chia seeds do contain some omega 3 but is this omega 3 actually useful for your body? Omega 3’s come in different forms. The most popular and the ones your body actually want are “docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)” and “eicosapentaenoic acid EPA”, these are naturally found in most fish. The form of omega 3 in flaxseeds and chia seeds is “ALA (Alpha Linolic Acid)”. ALA is converted to DHA and EPA at an ABYSMALLY low rate. As this research shows, “in vivo studies in humans show that asymptotically equal to 5% of ALA is converted to EPA and <0.5% of ALA is converted to DHA”. So ya, a terribly low conversion. Definitely not worth considering both of these seeds as a source of omega 3’s, or even worse, to rely on them thinking your omega 3 needs are met. Instead, ideally eat some fish every 2-4 days that is wild and low in the food chain like sockeye salmon. Or, get some fish oil supplements (Currently I use cod liver oil, but fish oil and krill oil are both great as long as you make sure to avoid these potential fish oil supplement side effects).
Also, this research shows an important side effect of flaxseed, a higher risk of prostate cancer due to higher ALA.
Of course, like most seeds they also do contain omega 6s. So you are pretty much messing up your ratio while eating these since the omega 3 content can’t really be calculated. Instead eat grass fed beef or fish a few times a week to get your omega 3’s. Or take supplements.
2. They show impressive nutrient content… but your body usually will poorly take advantage of it.
Chia seeds, and flaxseeds both contain some anti nutrients in the form of phytic acid, while these are not really harmful to your body especially if eaten in moderation they DO make your body absorb a lot less of the nutrients present in the food. Phytic acid in the seeds basically binds to the zinc, iron, copper, and to a lesser extent, the calcium and magnesium present in it. It does not “bind” (unlike what some people believe) to what’s not being presently digested in your stomach from the research I’ve seen. So, they are only a problem while digesting foods in a meal and in the case of these seeds, that means the helpful minerals you could have taken advantage of if phytic acid was not present. So, phytic acid binds to the helpful minerals and prevents your body from absorbing them. You then simply get rid of both when you go to the bathroom. It’s difficult to know what % of the above “nutrients” your body will get from the chia seeds but it is likely to be a lot lower then expected (unless you soak them / de-activate the phytic acid).
3. Flax seeds & Chia seeds side effects
They exist if these seeds are not eaten in moderation and/or not stored properly. So, after you understand that chia seeds aren’t the “perfect” superfood to eat every single day, you might want to be aware of some possible chia seeds side effects. In Dr. Loren Cordain “The Paleo Answer” book he shows that there is evidence that CHRONIC use of chia seeds can cause inflammation in the intestine and may promote “leaky gut”. The key word is chronic, meaning if you eat them very often. Also, being full of polyunsaturated fats they are prone to easy oxidation (unlike saturated fats like coconut oil or most fat from beef) and if you buy a big amount and leave it in the cupboard for a few months they can easily start having mold by simply not being fresh. You probably want to put anything over two weeks supply in the freezer and just take a portion out for 2 weeks as needed. I think the actual chia seeds side effects are quite mild unless you have some allergy to them, the point is exercise moderation. If you really need more fiber, mix in other vegetables full of fiber like broccoli (my favorite, just don’t overcook it.. Ideally steam them 5 minutes and don’t use the microwave which potentially destroys nutrients in it due to the overheating).
4. Chia Seeds have fiber, fiber is good.
Yes fiber is good and if you want to eat chia seeds mainly for fiber that can be ok but if you are health conscious enough to add chia seeds to your diet you hopefully also changed your diet to have very little processed foods and a lot of vegetables. Vegetables will have all the fiber you need and you can replace the chia seeds with something that you enjoy the taste of more or that has vitamins/minerals you see your diet is low in. For example I calculated my daily meals for a few weeks and saw I tend to be on the low side for vitamin E, so I added almonds on an almost daily basis which taste great and have a lot of vitamin E.
You insist on eating chia seeds and flax seeds? Here is how to minimize the phytic acid so you can absorb more of the nutrients:
If you really like the taste and eat them often you might want to consider the following. To neutralize some of the phylic acid content, you probably want to soak the seeds in some salty water overnight. After that, eat them quickly as the seeds will probably grow mold even faster, unless you dry them. For this reason I honestly do not even bother with either. They provide some minerals but I have other sources to get those and a more enjoyable taste. They just seem like a waste of money (unless you enjoy them). When I want nuts that contain omega 6’s, I’ll stick to my occasional brazil nuts for selenium & almonds for vitamin E which are harder to find elsewhere (in my diet at least) and harder to supplement (both selenium and vitamin E seem to be better to get from diet rather than supplements for absorption and use).
I’ll make some other posts in the future on other anti nutrients contained in foods like broccoli or spinach, but those are quite easy to resolve while still fully taking advantage of the health benefits by lightly heating them such as steaming them for 3-5+ minutes or so.