What’s the buzz? Chia, hemp, and flax can help keep your heart beating strong. But what’s the science behind these tiny seeds?
Chia, hemp, and flax seeds are a good source of plant-based omega-3 fatty acids, a polyunsaturated fat that can reduce inflammation and your risk of cardiovascular disease. Omega-3s are a nutrient that most of us don’t get enough of in our diets, versus omega-6s, which most Americans get too much of. This is because omega-6s are in the oils commonly used in processed foods, while omega-3s must be consumed from whole foods such as fish, seeds, and nuts.
However, before you start gorging on chia seeds — some brands claim to have 5,000 mg of omega-3 fatty acids per 1-ounce serving — know this: only a fraction of the omega-3s in chia seeds are converted into the type our bodies can use. We convert about 10 percent of alpha-linoleic acid (ALA), the type of omega-3 fatty acid found in these seeds, into a usable form known as EPA, while another 2 to 5 percent is converted to another usable form known as DHA. Both EPA and DHA are the types of omega-3s found in fatty fish, and research has linked the consumption of fatty fish 2-3 times per week to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. The percentage of ALA our bodies can convert to EPA and DHA can be further decreased by poor dietary habits, age, genetics, and overall health status. However, despite the low conversion percentage, a daily 1-ounce serving of these seeds can meet the World Health Organization’s recommendations to consume between 200 mg and 500 mg of EPA and DHA daily.
Beyond omega-3s, these seeds are also a good source of magnesium, potassium, and phytonutrients — plant compounds thought to protect against heart disease. Rich in fiber, they may also help lower LDL cholesterol, which, if too high, can contribute to heart disease risk.
The ways to incorporate hemp, chia, and flax into your diet are nearly endless. Here are a few suggestions: soak chia seeds in water or nut milk for a healthy plant-based breakfast pudding; sprinkle hemp, chia, or flax on your morning oatmeal or a salad; blend them into a smoothie; or use flax seed mixed with water as an egg replacement in a vegan meal. (Pro tip: flax seeds should be ground for best absorption.)
What’s the takeaway?
While it might be a stretch to consider these seeds the life-saving superfoods that some claim them to be, they are still nutritional powerhouses that can play a role in heart disease prevention and are a good source of plant-based omega-3 fatty acids. And, even though they’re a little spendy, a 1-ounce serving (2 tablespoons) is only 75-150 calories, so it’s easy to keep your budget and calories in check when consuming proper portions.