Amid health trends and superfoods craze, both chia and flaxseeds have made their mark in the health food industry. Somewhere between chia pudding and flax crackers many folks enjoy both of these nutrient-dense seeds, while likely noticing their similarities and wondering, what is the difference? What are the health benefits of flaxseed? What are the health benefits of chia seeds? What are the best uses and situations for either or both?
While you may have a personal preference or be simply buying one or the other out of habit, here are some science-based facts and some unique health qualities of chia seeds and flaxseeds. In addition, you’ll find some delicious ways to enjoy these little seeds of wonder in your diet. Let’s start at the beginning.
What Are Chia Seeds?
Chia seeds are tiny flat black or white seeds that come from the Salvia hispanica L. plant. They first became popular in the United States in 1981 with the introduction of the chia pet. To grow the “hair” of your chia pet you would simply water it daily and the green-like (chia) grass would populate your “pet” leaving it green and furry.
But aside from their use in creating these hairy pets, chia seeds are ancient oilseeds native to Mexico and Guatemala, used by the Mayans and the Aztecs.
Today, chia seeds are primarily known for their high omega-3 fatty acid content—a group of fatty acids with a double bond between the third and fourth carbon atom, known for many health benefits. Not only do chia seeds provide a natural plant source of omega-3 fatty acids, but they also are high in fiber, plant-based protein, and natural antioxidants.
What Are Flaxseeds?
Flaxseeds are one of the oldest crops (grown for food and fiber) that grows in Europe, Asia, and in the U.S. dating back to the beginning of civilization. Their Latin name is Linum usitatissimum, which is said to mean “very useful.” From clothing to oil, and animal feed to a great superfood for your morning smoothie, flaxseed refers to the flax when it is consumed by humans, whereas linseed refers to flax when it is used as feed for animals.
Today, flaxseeds are primarily known for supporting constipation, cholesterol management, diabetes management, and the digestive tract, as well as to simply boost the nutrient density of any meal.
Flaxseeds are best eaten ground, to release their nutrients.
The Macronutrients of Chia Seeds and Flaxseeds
Macronutrients are foundational elements of food—protein, fats, and carbohydrates—that are required in your diet. As you likely know, each of these elements has important roles and functions in your body.
In many eating styles, it has become popular to count the macronutrients and/or consider their ratios as they land on your plate.
Observing your macronutrient intake and meal composition can be informative. But while more research needs to be done within this area of study, research suggests that macronutrients can often be out of balance (very heavy in one and too light on another), which has been shown throw off your blood sugar, leave you less satiated as well as affect your potential weight loss and your energy levels throughout the day.
Historically, a calorie is defined as the energy needed to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree Celsius. Nutritionally, calories in food provide the body with energy in the form of heat. There are many different recommendations for how many calories an individual requires, and some important factors to consider in this determination.
- General health
- Energy output
- Body type
One area of discrepancy is how the different macronutrients (protein, fat, and carbohydrates) contain different amounts of calories per gram.
- 1 gram of carbohydrates contains 4 calories
- 1 gram of protein contains 4 calories
- 1 gram of fat contains 9 calories
Can you see where the confusion lies? Many folks striving to eat a lower-calorie diet will naturally choose to eat less fat to cut back on calories. While this may sound like a good idea, when doing the math, there are repercussions when you do not get enough fat. One study confirmed that the focus on quantity (calories) is misleading when the focus could be on quality (of the food). The results confirmed that with a healthy diet based in whole foods, low in sugar, low in refined grains, and low in highly processed foods with no direct focus on calorie counting showed that participants lost weight over the course of a year.
Both chia seeds and flaxseeds are referred to as healthy whole foods. While their unique calorie counts are listed below, rather than focusing on counting them into your daily totals, try listening to your hunger and satiation cues for a more accurate representation of what you need for energy and vitality.
The nice thing about both of these superfood seeds is their impressive nutrient profiles. You will see that both chia seeds and flaxseeds have a lot to offer your health and well-being. Each of these seeds has a unique nutrient profile to explore.
The nutrients highlighted below are measured with one ounce of each chia seeds or flaxseeds.
- 244 mg phosphorus
- 179 mg calcium
- 1.3 mg zinc
- 44.8 mg potassium
- 2.5 mg niacin (vitamin B3)
- 200 mg calcium
- 6 mg iron
- 33 mg sodium
Proteins are made up of smaller units called amino acids, attached together with peptide bonds forming a long chain, which are often known as the building blocks for the structure of a protein. Both chia seeds and flaxseeds are complete plant-based proteins—complete with all the amino acids you need to form a complete protein—with notably similar amounts of protein per gram. Chia seeds and flaxseeds both pack a high-protein punch.
Fiber is defined as “a non-digestible carbohydrate that is intrinsic and intact in plants.” In this study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, research concludes that eating a diet high in fiber from fruits, vegetables, and grains can lower the risk of cancer, diabetes, and heart disease and has been associated with lower body weights. These results were based on a daily intake of fiber for women of 25 grams per day and for men, 38 grams per day. Most people could use more fiber in their diet as the mean amount of fiber intake in the American diet is 17 grams per day.
While there are many sources to obtain healthy whole food fiber, both chia seeds and flaxseeds are great sources to consider.
Both flaxseeds and chia seeds contain a high potency omega-3 fatty acid—alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)—one of the three main omega-3 fatty acids (the others are EPA and DHA). Omega-3 fatty acids are important building blocks in the body. Often, when folks think of omega-3 fatty acids, they think of fish. While fish is a source that is high in omega-3 fatty acid, some of the ocean’s fish are high in heavy metals such as mercury. Consequently, plant-based sources of omega-3 fatty acids, such as chia seeds or flaxseeds, are a great option to consider.
Omega-3 fatty acids—in the form of ALA—have yet to be a confirmed source of preventive healthcare, but studies suggest they may play roles in the reduction of coronary heart disease, bone protection, lowering the risk of type 2 diabetes, and much more.
Finding good sources of omega-3 fatty acids is imperative for long-term health and vitality. Chia and flax seeds both provide high-quality sources of omega-3 fatty acids.
There are numerous ways to enjoy both chia seeds and flaxseeds in your diet. Below are a couple of options to start with and from there, feel free to get creative and enjoy the health benefits of either or both of these superfood seeds.
Easy Chia Seed Pudding
This tasty and very easy-to-make breakfast or snack is one of many recipes that provide a hefty dose of chia seeds into your diet while enjoying an array of flavors and textures. With the full serving below, you will get a dose of protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Chia seeds have very little flavor of their own, so they are very adaptable with many different flavor profiles. Feel free to explore different fruits, liquids, and spices and find your favorite combinations.
- 6 tablespoons chia seeds
- 2 cups unsweetened milk of choice
- 1 tablespoon maple syrup or honey
- 1/2 cup berries
- 2 tablespoons shredded coconut
- Optional: other toppings of choice
In a bowl or mason jar, mix together chia seeds, milk, and honey or maple syrup. If you’re using a mason jar, you can put the lid on and shake the mixture to combine everything.
Once the chia pudding mixture is well combined, let it sit for 5 minutes, give it another stir/shake to break up any clumps of chia seeds, cover and put the mixture in the fridge to set for minimum of 20 minutes or overnight.
The chia pudding should be nice and thick, when done. If it’s not thick enough, add more chia seeds, stir, and refrigerate for another 20–30 minutes. When ready to serve, divide the mixture into two servings, add the berries and the coconut, and enjoy.
Gluten-Free Flax Spice Muffins
These muffins are high in protein, healthy fats, and dietary fiber. Enjoy them as a high protein snack on the go, as a well-balanced breakfast, or as a little treat to end your day.
- 1 cup flax meal
- 1 cup almond flour
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon ground cardamom
- 1 tablespoon fresh grated or ground ginger
- Pinch of sea salt
- 1/2 cup coconut oil (softened)
- 4 eggs (or egg replacement)
- 1/2 cup maple syrup
- 1/2 cup filtered water
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Mix the dry ingredients in one bowl including salt and spices. Mix the wet ingredients in the other. Mix each bowl well.
Combine the two bowls slowly blending with a hand blender, ensuring there is a smooth blend.
Oil muffin tins with a coating of coconut oil and place batter into muffin tins.
Bake for 20 minutes (or until a toothpick comes out clean). Allow the muffins to cool. Enjoy.
Both chia seeds and flaxseeds are a potent nutrient-dense ingredient to consider including in your diet. While they do have their subtle differences, both have a wonderful array of health benefits to offer—including being a solid source of plant-based protein, fiber, and omega-3 fats that will boost the nutrition of any meal.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.
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