heart disease

Chia seed pudding & the scoop on omega-3 fatty acids for vegans

I recently went on a camping trip and my dedicated adventure buddy surprised me with some chia seed pudding for our two mornings spent out on the trails. First of all, that was very nice of her. Second, it reminded me to talk about plant-based omega-3 fatty acids!

You can buy pre-made chia seed pudding at the store for about $4 a carton, but it’s much cheaper to bone up and buy a bulk bag of chia seeds (I spent about $9 on 1 lb) because a little goes a long way. I used a 1:4 ratio of chia seed to liquid, which worked out perfectly.

The fun thing about chia seed pudding is that you can put whatever you want in it. I personally like berries, kiwis, bananas, cinnamon, cacao nibs, and maybe some peanut butter if I’m feeling saucy. I was thinking it would be fun to purée up some berries and coconut oil and mix that into the pudding. The world is your oyster with this stuff.

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It definitely did not take me twenty minutes to perfectly stage this pudding.

Here’s the cool thing about chia seeds: they’re one of the best plant sources of alpha-linolenic acid (“ALA”), which is an essential omega-3 fatty acid and absolutely necessary in anyone’s diet. The body can’t synthesize ALA on it’s own, which is why it’s called an “essential” fatty acid. It is extremely important for vegans to be eating enough ALA. This acid will be converted to the longer-chain eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and possibly to the even longer docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), two non-essential omega-3 fatty acids. They’re non-essential because we can make them from another source — ALA. All cell membranes, especially the ones in our brains, are dependent on DHA/EPA.

Omnivores will get their omega-3s from fatty marine life (particularly salmon) for the most part, but plant-based folks need to make sure we’re hitting our quota of ALA. Unfortunately, it’s not easy for our bodies to convert ALA to EPA/DHA, so you may want to consider a supplement. Research shows vegans and vegetarians can be very low in ALA in the blood. But you can get these fatty acids from where the fish themselves get them — algae! Just look for algae-based EPA/DHA supplements in the stores. As a bonus, lab-grown algae should be free of mercury, and you’ll avoid that nasty fish breath.

Other sources of plant-based omega-3 fatty acids include walnuts, flaxseed, algal oil, and hemp oil.

Why do we care about omega-3 fatty acids? Research suggests that the anti-inflammatory omega-3s may help to protect against cardiovascular disease, dementia, and lower cholesterol, blood pressure, and triglycerides. Chia seeds in particular are high in fiber, magnesium, calcium, iron, and have about 5 g of protein in 1 oz.

The other polyunsaturated fatty acids, omega-6 fatty acids, are also essential for the human body, but Americans don’t have a problem ingesting enough omega 6s. They’re concentrated in cottonseed, soybean, and safflower oils — and these oils are typically abundant in processed foods. They’ll oxidize pretty easily in your body, which is why omega 6 fatty acids are dubbed the “inflammatory” ones. Grain-fed meat will be high in omega-6 fatty acids.

How to Make Chia Seed Pudding:

Use a 1:4 ratio of seeds to liquid.

1. Mix 1 cup chia seed with 4 cups almond/soy/hemp/rice milk.

2. Add 1 tsp vanilla, and 1 tbsp sugar or syrup if desired. Alternatively, you could use a sweetened milk.

3. Stir periodically, making sure no clumps are forming.

4. Stick it in the fridge for 1-8 hours — mine was ready to go after about an hour but had an even better consistency the next morning. Keep it in an air-proof container in the fridge.

5. Portion out as you choose and add whatever topping you like!

Controversy: to break the fast or not?

There’s some big news out in the land of nutrition today, folks. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (AJCN), one of the staple academic journals used in my profession, has released a definitive article stating that there has never been concrete evidence to say that eating breakfast promotes weight loss. As you might imagine, the commentary from the public has been fiery, and reflects confusion, anger, bad science, and a downright “told-ya-so” attitude.

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For my entire life, I’ve been taught that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. I myself am a breakfast eater and am liable to faint if I don’t get something in my stomach first thing in the morning. In fact, I eat the exact same thing for breakfast every day: oatmeal with crunchy peanut butter and some coconut sugar. Bam, done, on to the rest of my day.

When I counseled patients during my rotations at hospitals and community clinics, though, I found that many of them couldn’t stand the thought of eating something in the morning. Even though it was hard for me to put myself in their shoes, I always respected what their body was telling them and simply encouraged them to try something small, or to eat within a couple hours of waking up.

What bothers me about this article is that it is framed by the goal of weight loss. Once again, the American people are spoon-fed the “ultimate goal” — to lose weight, look great, and forget about what’s going on inside your body. Because this article “proves” that eating breakfast isn’t necessary to drop pounds, it gives the public justification to skip breakfast, even though eating breakfast carries benefits that have nothing to do with your weight. For example, a cohort study of over 29,000 men followed for 16 years showed that those who skipped breakfast had a 21% greater risk than breakfast eaters of developing Type 2 Diabetes. Breakfast is also a great opportunity to help reach your daily fiber goal and keep your “bad” cholesterol in check, which is just another way of being nicer to your heart.

Again — I am an intuitive eater, and I respect others’ choices about what they want to eat, when they want to eat it. For me personally, eating breakfast means that my blood sugar remains stable throughout the day. It means that I have enough glucose in my body to start my day and focus on my tasks at hand. It means that I have enough fuel in my body to bike to work. I will still recommend a balanced breakfast to my patients, as they can tolerate it.

I think what would be more helpful to the public is not whether breakfast will help you to lose weight, but further studies on how it helps to regulate blood sugar and stave off chronic disease. I also wonder how Big Breakfast will respond to this news: will we see a major PR initiative promoting the protein content of bacon and eggs à la Jimmy Dean breakfast sandwiches? Readers, you already know my opinion on that, and I would encourage you to choose a breakfast that doesn’t come frozen out of a box.

I welcome your comments about this topic!