July 25, 2024

Despite their tiny size, chia seeds pack a powerful punch, so if you’re looking for a food that combines an outstanding macronutrient and micronutrient profile to improve your health and support your running performance, these nutrient-dense seeds should be a regular on your shopping list.

Chia seeds come from the Salvia Hispanic plant, and while they have been a mainstream superfood for a number of years, these little morsels have actually been around for centuries. Early historical documentation links the functional food back to the Aztecs and Mayans, who used chia both for its nutritional and medicinal benefits. Chia actually means ‘strength’ in the Mayan language, and the ancient Aztecs ate the seeds to increase their power and endurance.

Two tablespoons of chia seeds weigh in at under 140 calories, while offering almost 5g of protein, more than 8g of fat and almost a third of your daily recommended intake (30g) of fibre. Here, we’ve rundown some key reasons why you should include chia seeds as part of your healthy runner’s diet.

How can chia seeds benefit runners?

They are packed with anti-inflammatory properties

Chia seeds may help to combat the inflammation that naturally occurs as a result of exercise. The antioxidants in the seeds (in particular the phenolic compound caffeic acid) is thought to help dampen down inflammation which takes place when muscles suffer micro-tears. The antioxidant compounds may also help to fight off the damaging effects of chronic inflammation, protecting cells from oxidative damage by scavenging harmful free radical damage.

They are rich in protein

Chia seeds are made up of approximately 20% protein. The seeds contain all nine essential amino acids which are only obtainable through diet rather than being naturally synthesised by the body. This essential amino acid chain is required to rebuild and repair muscle tissue following training sessions, making chia seeds a valuable plant-based source of protein. This means that if you’re vegetarian, vegan or looking to reduce animal protein in your diet, chia seeds are an excellent choice.

One tablespoon provides around 3g of protein to help aid muscle recovery after training 0 but make sure you eat them as part of a balanced diet that contains a wide range of protein sources.

They are crammed with fibre

Chia seeds contain a good combination of soluble and insoluble fibre. This duo of fibre helps to nourish the microbiome that live in the digestive system to keep gut bacteria thriving. When chia seeds are soaked in liquid like water or milk, the gelatinous consistency of the seeds slows down digestion which keeps you feeling fuller for longer. The fibre content in chia seeds also helps to lower blood glucose levels, preventing blood sugar highs and lows, which helps to protect against insulin resistance and Type 2 diabetes.

As a side note, if your body is not used to high-fibre foods, you might find that you’re sensitive to it, suffering symptoms like gas and bloating. If this is the case, it’s best to introduce chia seeds in small qualities and avoid eating directly before training.

They are rich in omega-3 fatty acids

Chia seeds contain alpha-linoleinic acid (ALA), which is a type of plant-based omega-3 fat that your body converts into the two active forms of omega-3 fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Moreover, ALA has been specifically associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, according to a study published in the journal Advances in Nutrition. Another study, conducted on animals found that the fatty acid profile of chia specifically helped to lower blood triglycerides and increase levels of healthy HDL cholesterol.

They are loaded with minerals and vitamins

Chia seeds don’t only provide you with macronutrients, they are an excellent source of key minerals that help to support bone density. Keeping bones strong is paramount for runners, because stress fractures account for up to one sixth of all athletic injuries, according to a survey by the American College of Sports Medicine, and good nutrition is one of the best ways to help safeguard bone health. According to findings from the University of Arizona, 28g (two tablespoons) of chia seeds provides 180mg of calcium (the recommended daily intake for adults is 700mg).

Chia seeds also deliver phosphorus, which is a base component of bone tissue and magnesium, which helps to keep bones strong and also acts as an electrolyte to help maintain fluid balance and rehydrate the body from lost sweat.

There’s a good presence of B vitamins in chia seeds, too, in particular thiamine (vitamin B1) and niacin (vitamin B3), which are needed to break down and release energy from food.

Should you eat chia seeds whole or ground?

In order to access the nutritional goodness of chia you’ll need to soak the whole seeds. The seeds swell up to 10 times their weight when when added to liquid such as milk or water, and this expanded volume increases satiety.

Essentially, after the seeds have been soaked (anywhere from 30 minutes to overnight), a gel-like coating is formed. This breaks down the outer layer to make the whole seeds more digestible.

As another alternative you can buy the seeds in milled form (or grind them yourself), and this still allows you to enjoy the health benefits. In fact the jury is still out as to whether ground chia seeds or whole chia seeds offer more nutritional value.

One study conducted by scientists at Australia’s University of Adelaide found that milling the seeds made the protein and omega-3 content inside the seeds more easily accessible. Although the research was carried out using digestive microbes from pigs, some experts believe similar effects would apply to humans.

But there are a few things to bear in mind before grinding chia seeds. Exposure to oxygen turns the seeds rancid, distorting the natural flavour and smell, so it’s preferable to grind them in small batches prior to eating them.

The best ways to prep chia seeds

There are plenty of easy ways to serve up ground chia seeds. A teaspoon of ground chia seeds added to Greek yoghurt with fruit makes for a nutritious pre-run snack, while adding a tablespoon of the milled seeds to breakfast smoothies with your choice of milk, banana, avocado and berries, or thrown into a post-training protein shake, will instantly increase the nutrient goodness.

And when it comes to whole chia seeds, adding two tbsp of chia seeds to 120ml of milk and allowing the mixture to soak for a minimum of 30 minutes will result in a gel-like chia pudding that can be eaten in the lead up to workout, or to refuel after a light run. Add toppings such as fresh fruit, a sprinkle of cinnamon and desiccated coconut and a drizzle of honey for a high quality snack.

Louise Pyne is a nutritionist and freelance health writer. Visit www.louisepynenutrition.com for more info

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