Chia seeds fail to boost athletic performance but athletes ‘should still include them in their diet’


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Image: © iStockPhoto / Karisssa
Image: © iStockPhoto / Karisssa

Related tags: Omega-3 fatty acid

Runners adding chia seeds to their diet in the belief that it will boost athletic performance may be disappointed to hear that the ‘superfood’ may not enhance their performance, says a new study from the Appalachian State University.

Despite a lack of positive effect in a study with 24 runners, athletes should still include chia in their diet because the seeds are a rich source of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), fiber, vitamins and minerals.

“Our research shows that any athlete taking in chia seed oil during or before a run should not expect a benefit,”​ said David Nieman, DrPH, lead author of the study. “The ALA in chia seeds is not used by the working muscle during intense exercise. The muscles prefer carbohydrate.”

“It is all a bunch of hype and hope mixed together,”​ said Dr Nieman, who is a veteran marathon runner.

Running and running and running

Chia seeds are known as the food of long-distance runners like the ancient Aztec messengers and Tarahumara Indians of northwestern Mexico. The media and marketing has spread the belief that consuming chia seed is the reason for their ability to run hours and even days at a time.

However, new data published in Nutrients​,​ did not support these claims. Dr Nieman said that the diets of the Aztecs and Tarahumara are very are high in carbohydrates with 90%. “This is an ideal diet for runners.”

Study details

Dr Nieman and his co-workers recruited 24 male and female runners aged between 24 and 55 to participate in their randomized, crossover study.  Participants reported to the lab twice after an overnight fast two weeks apart. The runners were randomly assigned to consume either 0.5 liters flavored water alone or 0.5 liters of water with chia seed oil. Since ALA from the chia seeds enters the bloodstream through the intestine within two hours after ingestion, the athletes waited a half hour before providing a blood sample and then running to exhaustion at a marathon pace.

Blood sample analysis showed that blood ALA levels spiked three times higher than normal when the athletes consumed chia seed oil in water, but that run time to exhaustion, other performance indicators, and exercise-induced inflammation did not differ when the same athletes drank flavored water.

“When the athletes were running near marathon race pace, we found absolutely no effect on performance when they had the chia seed oil,”​ said Dr Nieman. “Some think that omega-3 asserts anti-inflammatory effects, and we found no influence from chia seed oil on exercise-induced inflammation either.”

ALA blood levels

The ALA-boosting activity of chia is in-line with a previous study from Dr Nieman’s group, published in Plant Foods for Human Nutrition​.

Data indicated that 25 grams per day of milled chia seed for seven weeks were associated with 138% increases in levels of ALA and 30% increases in eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) levels.

This study was conducted in partnership with funding from the Dole Nutrition Institute (DNI). The finding that the bioavailability of ALA in chia seed only occurs in milled seed prompted the food company to reformulate its line of chia products to incorporate the milled seed to enhance the nutritional value for Dole customers.

“Dole was very excited about the potential of chia seed to provide a plant-based source of omega 3 fatty acids to the human diet,”​ said Nicholas Gillitt, PhD, VP of nutritional research and director of the DNI, “but there is lots of hype surrounding chia seed. We feel our consumers deserve the truth. So we looked for it.”

Source: Nutrients
2015, Volume 7, Number 5, Page 3666-3676; doi:10.3390/nu7053666
“No Positive Influence of Ingesting Chia Seed Oil on Human Running Performance”
Authors: D.C. Nieman, N.D. Gillitt, M.P. Meaney, D.A. Dew

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1 comment

Interesting Article

Posted by Steve,

Thanks for this, it's an interesting study and article. Chia seeds are one of my favorite foods and I also do a lot of running as it helps to keep me from putting on weight!

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