Like swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano in the spring, Chia Pets begin appearing every December on late-night television and in the gift aisles of many stores. (Full disclaimer: I bought one for the Yankee Swap at Harvard Health Publication’s annual Christmas party.) Water these ceramic figures and they sprout a green “fur” from seeds embedded on the surface. Silly? Sure, that’s why they are such a hit. What you might not know is that the seeds may someday be a real gift for people with diabetes.
Chia seeds come from a plant formally known as Salvia hispanica, which is a member of the mint family. It gets its common name from the Aztec word “chian,” meaning oily, because the herb’s small, black seeds are rich in oils. It was a staple food for the Aztecs, and legend has it that their runners relied on chia seeds for fuel as they carried messages one hundred or more miles in a day. Chia seeds contain more healthy omega-3 fats and fiber than flax or other grain seeds. They are also a good source of protein and antioxidants.
Some preliminary research indicates that chia seeds could—I stress the “could”—help people with diabetes control their blood sugar and protect their hearts. Studies in animals show that a chia-rich diet lowers harmful LDL cholesterol and triglycerides while increasing beneficial HDL cholesterol. And a white-seeded variant of chia, called Salba, helped diabetic volunteers control their blood sugar, as well as their blood pressure and new markers of cardiac risk, such as C-reactive protein. The results were published in the journal Diabetes Care.
Before you rush out to buy Salba, which is sold online and in health food stores, keep in mind that it worked only slightly better than wheat bran (which is less expensive and easier to find). In addition, the study was small (20 volunteers), lasted for just 12 weeks, and the results haven’t yet been replicated.
The real message of this work is that cutting back on highly refined grains (white bread, white rice, etc.) and embracing more whole grains (whole-wheat bread, brown rice, oatmeal, quinoa, chia, and more) is good for people with diabetes and almost everyone else. Numerous studies show that eating more whole grains and foods made from them and cutting back on highly refined grains is an excellent way to fight heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic conditions. Coupling that with the stress reduction you get from watching a Chia Pet’s fur grow could really make a difference!