Chia and carb-loading: Make your carbohydrates last longer
Endurance athletes are familiar with the practice of loading up on carbohydrates before long exercises. It has been known since at least as early as the 1920s that carbohydrates fuel the body during prolonged exercise, allowing you to stay active for longer without experiencing fatigue. When we eat carbohydrates, they are converted to glycogen, which is stored in the liver and in muscles to be used later. When it is needed, glycogen gets broken down into glucose molecules, then the glucose molecules are oxidized, which makes adenosine triphosphate (ATP), and ATP is what muscles need to contract. It is because our bodies can store what’s needed for energy production that we don’t have to be eating every few minutes! If we couldn’t store glycogen, we would run out of energy very quickly and need to find more. Endurance athletes stock up on carbohydrates to make sure they are storing as much glycogen as they will need for their upcoming exercise. However, our bodies can only store so much glycogen. Long distance runners often have to consume sports drinks, candies, or gels while on the run in order to keep their glycogen stores full enough. Otherwise, they’ll fatigue. Here’s where chia seeds come in.
Enter, the chia seed:
Chia seeds have a peculiar compositional property that makes them key for carb-loading. Chia seeds have a polysaccharide coating that absorbs surrounding liquid – up to 10 times the weight of the chia seed! You’ve probably seen many recipes that use chia seeds in their “gelled” state, or have seen gelled chia seeds sold in drinks, like kombucha teas. Because of the absorbing capabilities, chia seeds can slow down the body’s absorption of carbohydrates. They essentially act like more storage space for carbohydrates in your body, because the carbohydrates are stored for longer, allowing them to be converted to glycogen later, when the glycogen stores need to be replenished. After all, the more you can store, the more time you have before becoming fatigued. A study done in the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Alabama found that marathon runners could perform just as effectively after consuming 820 calories of Gatorade plus 820 calories of chia as they could after consuming 1,636 calories of just Gatorade with no chia. For consuming half of the amount of simple carbohydrates, the athletes were able to perform just as well. Same gain for half the price! Eating chia seeds will allow more carbohydrate “storage space”, so athletes will be able to carry carbs to convert to glycogen once their glycogen stores become low. With chia, athletes shouldn’t need to consume additional sugar during their exercise (compared to the same exercise without chia) to replenish glycogen stores, because the chia seeds will have it already for the body to slowly absorb.
Cool, but what if I’m not an endurance athlete?
If extra carbohydrate storage (beyond what the body already stores in glycogen) isn’t needed for your exercise, chia seeds can still cut down the amount of carbohydrates you’ll need to consume before your exercise, because it makes a little sugar go a long way. In addition, remember when I mentioned that our bodies can only store so much glycogen? Well, if we intake more carbohydrates than our bodies can store as glycogen, the excess glucose gets stored as fat. Once the glucose is stored as fat in adipose tissue, the body cannot easily access it for immediate energy production the way it can with glucose from glycogen stores. Because chia seeds slow the body’s absorption of carbohydrates when taken together, eating chia seeds with carbs will give the body time to burn off the glycogen stores already present rather than inundating it with more glucose at once than it can handle. A slower absorption of carbohydrates can allow your body to use more of the glucose for ATP production rather than converting it to fatty acids. These facts about chia and carbohydrates are not just useful for carb-loading athletes. With chia, we can be more strategic about snacking on carbs!
Chia cookies for the sweet tooth
If you want a little snack, adding chia seeds can help your body to burn the carbohydrates more slowly, so that more of the carbohydrates get used for quick energy production rather than getting stored long-term in adipose tissue as fat. Audrey’s Chia Cookies makes this easy to do, as the chia seeds are packed right into the cookie. So, not only do you get all the nutritional value that chia seeds have, but you can enjoy delicious cookies with less worry about overloading your body with simple carbohydrates all at once. The chia seeds will slow the absorption rate of carbohydrates into the body, allowing you to burn more glucose and store more in glycogen stores.
Murray B, Rosenbloom C. Fundamentals of glycogen metabolism for coaches and athletes. Nutr Rev. 2018;76(4):243‐259. doi:10.1093/nutrit/nuy001
Hawley JA, Leckey JJ. Carbohydrate Dependence During Prolonged, Intense Endurance Exercise. Sports Med. 2015;45 Suppl 1(Suppl 1):S5‐S12. doi:10.1007/s40279-015-0400-1
Farrell, P. A., Joyner, M. J., & Caiozzo, V. (2011). ACSM's advanced exercise physiology: Second edition. Wolters Kluwer Health Adis (ESP).
Jensen TE, Richter EA. Regulation of glucose and glycogen metabolism during and after exercise. J Physiol. 2012;590(5):1069‐1076. doi:10.1113/jphysiol.2011.224972
Gordon B, Kohn LA, Levine SA, Matton M, Scriver WDM, Whiting WB. Sugar Content of the Blood in Runners Following a Marathon Race: With Special Reference to the Prevention of Hypoglycemia: Further Observations. JAMA. 1925;85(7):508–509. doi:10.1001/jama.1925.02670070028009
Travis G. Illian, Jason C. Casey, and Phillip A. Bishop. Omega 3 Chia Seed Loading as a Means of Carbohydrate Loading. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2011;25(1)/61–65.