A glass of milk with a side of chia 0

On more than one occasion I have heard Argentine locals explain that they have incorporated chia seeds into their diets as a way to reduce their cholesterol.  Meanwhile, these same individuals have continued to maintain their standard eating habits that include consuming high cholesterol foods such as eggs, milk, cheese, beef, chicken and fish.  In some instances, chia was even added to muffins and breads that were also loaded with butter and milk.  This surprised me.

So what is the big deal with chia?  As you might remember, these chia seeds are the same seeds behind the popular Chia Pets from the 1990s.  It’s hard to forget the contagious “Cha Cha Cha Chia!” tagline from the commercials.  However, these days, consumers are taking chia seeds well beyond the confines of terra cotta pots and funky chia sprouted hair-dos.  They are adding chia to smoothies, puddings, breads, energy bars and salads.  The list goes on.

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Chia, native to Mexico and Guatemala, is a species of a flowering plant in the mint family.  Prior to the Spanish colonization of Latin America, chia seeds were a staple crop for the Aztecs and Mayans.  In fact, the name “chia” comes from the Mayan word for “strength.”

So why are chia seeds viewed as a super food?  As shown below, these tiny seeds pack a pretty hefty nutrient punch with a high nutrient to calorie ratio.

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It’s clear that chia seeds are loaded with dietary fiber and offer a decent source of calcium and protein.  Additionally, beyond the basic nutrition label above, we know that chia seeds are packed with omega-3 fatty acids as well as phosphorous and manganese.

But let’s get back to the “lowering the cholesterol via chia” conversation.  While chia does have some health benefits, on its own, chia is not going to reduce one’s cholesterol.  Sorry.  Unfortunately any potential health benefits that chia seeds might offer due to their high omega-3 levels are unfortunately going to be negated by the concurrent consumption of high cholesterol foods.

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We as humans crave potential “cure all” solutions, especially when it comes to our health and diet.  Most people like quick fixes, specifically ones that are easy and don’t require too much mental or behavioral change.

This brings me to the topic of other approaches to cholesterol reduction. Having worked in pharmaceutical marketing, I have seen up close how statins and other cholesterol reducing drugs are positioned for physicians and how they’re in turn recommended to patients.  I won’t get into the specifics here, but a statin is generally recommended based on specific atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease risk factors such as current LDL cholesterol, age, gender, family history, tobacco use, type 2 diabetes and body weight.  These risk factors should of course be taken seriously, but it’s important to remember that cholesterol reduction can be tackled from more than one angle.  What if there was a way to reduce one’s cholesterol through lifestyle changes, specifically dietary modification?

Statins have fallen into the infamous bucket of “cure all” solutions for cholesterol reduction. Statins might reduce the potential for future cardiovascular events through lowering a patient’s LDL, but does cholesterol reduction on its own via a statin have other positive health implications?  I’m afraid not.  Oh, and we can’t forget that statins, like most drug therapies, have a laundry list of possible negative side effects.

What if dietary modification (i.e. eating a nutrient-rich, plant-based diet) could reduce one’s cholesterol and also offer a laundry list of positive “side effects” such as reducing risk for type 2 diabetes, lowering blood pressure, lowering risk for certain cancers, and lowering one’s body weight?  What if you had more energy and looked better naked?  Not a bad outcome, huh?

I’ll save the discussion about dietary modification for the another day, but suffice it to say, chia seeds in conjunction with an animal-rich diet unfortunately won’t provide much in the way of cholesterol reduction.