The garden apothecary and diabetes

Chia is an annual herb, which originated in Mexico and was cultivated by the Aztecs. Chia literally means “oily.” Chia (phonetic pronunciation KEE-ah) seeds are well known for sprouting the fast growing “hair” on little clay Chia Pets. Now, more and more people are beginning to eat the nutty-flavored grains.

Chia reportedly contains more omega-3 fatty acids than flaxseed, more fiber than bran and more protein than soy. It also contains calcium, magnesium, iron and antioxidants. The whole grain is harvested from Salvia hispanica, a member of the mint family that grows in Mexico and South America. Preliminary data shows that type 2 diabetes patients who eat 37 grams per day of a variety of chia, called salba, for three months will see drops in blood pressure, hemoglobin A1c and other cardiovascular risk factors.

The chia craze has taken off since its debut on the Oprah show. Some people take chia oil supplements, and others eat the seeds whole or use them to make bread, muffins, drinks, soups and other treats. Chia seeds can be added to a lot of foods, including smoothies, yogurt, cereal and desserts, to enhance the nutritional value of what you’re eating. You can grind chia seeds in a pepper mill, coffee grinder or nut grinder. There’s even a chia cookbook available for purchase on the Internet, as well as many recipes on Web sites. Chia can be found in many nutrition bars, baked goods and snack foods. Salba Smart Natural Products already has a line of foods made from ground salba, including salsa, chips, tortillas and pretzels.

Is eating chia seeds “heart healthy?” Chia seeds are a good alternative to replace other grains in a balanced diet, but you should look for the salba variety. People with high triglycerides should keep tabs on their lipid levels. Chia contains a high concentration of alpha-linolenic acid, and this might increase triglyceride levels, potentially worsening high triglycerides. However, clinical research with a specific variety of chia called salba, shows that it does not significantly increase triglyceride levels.

What about chia’s effect on prostate health? Some research suggests that high dietary intake of alpha-linolenic acid might increase the risk for advanced prostate cancer. This is a theoretical risk. Until more is known, men with prostate cancer or with a high risk for prostate cancer should avoid consuming large amounts of chia or any product containing high concentrations of alpha-linolenic acid.

If you have diabetes, remember that treatment is a lifelong commitment of blood sugar monitoring, healthy eating, regular exercise and, sometimes, diabetes medications or insulin therapy. Consult your doctor or a diabetes management program if you have questions or concerns about your diabetes treatment plan.

Kahn is a pharmacist in the Blount Memorial Hospital pharmacy department.

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