Most people can stand a boost of omega 3’s and fiber, so adding seeds like chia, flax, and hemp seeds may seem like a good idea for gut health.
When comparing chia vs flax vs hemp, however, there is more to the story than meets the eye.
In this post, learn about which of the seeds are best for your digestive tract and how to prepare these seeds so that they truly are super-seeds as they are touted. Also, see how these seeds compare to fish oil in terms of omega 3’s and health benefits.
Table of Contents
Chia vs Flax vs Hemp: Overview
Seeds are gaining a lot of popularity in diets as people are trying to make conscious choices about their health and also about sustainability.
At face value, adding these seeds seems like a great plan.
But, you may want to put the brakes on until you know a little more. This is because many people have innocently tried to add these seeds into their diet and ended up with a big gut ache!
The “superseeds” then sit on your shelf permanently, never to be picked up again. I know because this has happened to me and many of my clients.
The other important thing to know about these seeds is that they impact your digestion in quite different ways depending on how you prepare them and the current health of your belly.
Digestive distress can be the end result if you aren’t careful!
How Do Chia vs Flax vs Hemp Stack Up?
For a quick overview, here is these super seeds compare:
- Chia seeds win for fiber content
- Flax seeds have the highest omega-3 content
- Hemp seeds shine for protein content
But this is far from the whole story. Read on to find out why each seed has its own special considerations.
Traditionally, chia seeds were ground into flour or pressed for oil in Aztec diets. Of all the seeds for gut health, chia are my personal favorite because they contain fibers that are easy on the gut: soluble fiber and mucilage.
This means that when you soak the chia seeds, they form a slurry where you can see the soluble fiber hydrate right before your eyes.
Mucilage helps to protect the lining of the gut while also providing bulk to the stool, making it a great choice to help with regularity. In just 2 tablespoons of seeds you get 6 grams of fiber.
Black and white chia seeds are almost identical in nutrition content [R].
High in minerals and omega-3 fats
Per gram, chia seeds have over double the nutrient content of minerals over grains like wheat, amaranth, and rice. This includes magnesium, calcium, and phosphorus.
Chia seeds have a whopping 2.2 grams per 10 grams of plant omega 3’s, also called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). This means that the seed itself is right at 22% omega-3 fatty acids by weight!
The ratio of omega 3:omega 6 in chia seeds is 4:1, which is impressive for a seed. ALA is an essential fatty acid that most people don’t get enough of.
Health benefits of chia
Long used by athletes for their energy, chia seeds are a great addition to most diets because they have zero net carbs and lots of minerals, making them a nutritious addition to any diet, even keto diets.
How to improve gut health with chia seeds
When eating chia seeds you will get a lot of great prebiotics. Prebiotics support the health and the diversity of your microbiome.
However, I don’t recommend eating them without first soaking them because they are so high in fiber that they can upset the gut if you don’t first soak them and then, preferably, ferment them.
Tip: Make sure to soak these little seeds. It only takes a few minutes! This helps the seeds to form a mucilage.
Take it a step further and allow these to sit for a while, which then can let these little seeds ferment.
The fermentation will further increase your body’s ability to absorb the minerals from these seeds. Simply mix up some chia seeds with coconut yogurt, refrigerate them overnight, and you will have a tasty, fermented, gut-healthy breakfast.
By fermenting chia seeds, they become like a super prebiotic because they will also contain probiotics.
Protein in chia: does it count?
You will find essential amino acids in chia seeds, without a doubt.
However, it’s not fair to consider chia seeds a good source of protein because, per reasonable serving size, about 2 tablespoons, you will only get 4 grams of protein [R]. This is around the equivalent of half of an egg for comparison. Chia also falls short in essential amino acids.
So, while many websites tout chia seeds for their protein content, this tends to be a little misleading, as a healthy adult needs around 60 grams a day or more just to maintain muscle.
Still, chia seeds score highest for mineral content of all the seeds, so don’t worry about the little stuff.
When it comes to gut health, flax seeds are a little more heavy-duty and require some special considerations.
Flax seeds are, of the three seeds compared here, the very highest in omega-3 fats. This is great, especially if you are vegetarian or vegan.
A big helping of flax seeds will have almost 3 grams of Omega-3 fats as ALA per 2 tablespoons, making this seed above 22 percent ALA by weight. The ratio of omega 3:omega 6 is over 4:1, making this a great anti-inflammatory food.
These healthy flax seeds aren’t quite as high in fiber as chia seeds, but the fiber they DO contain is rich in both soluble and insoluble fiber and prebiotics. Flaxseed fiber content is 5.75 grams per 2 tablespoons [R].
But, I feel like that is usually too much flax seed for beginners. A reasonable amount to start with is about a tablespoon a day.
Flax seeds side effects
While not a lot of research is devoted to the side effects of flax seeds, over my career, many clients and even I have had some bad abdominal pain when eating flax seeds. This can be due to many factors, including allergies, eating too much of it at once, or perhaps the anti-nutrients that tag along with these seeds.
My suspicion is that it has something to do with the tough cell wall of the flax.
Flax contains the following tough fibers: cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin with the not-so-tough pectin.
For me, flax seed was a no-go in my diet until I eliminated another crucial food intolerance: gluten. Once I did begin a gluten-free diet, I can now easily tolerate flax seeds. This is probably because eliminating gluten helped heal my gut.
High in antioxidants with health benefits
They are also a good source of vitamin E and contain a good amount of B vitamins and minerals like magnesium and calcium.
Eating flax seeds helps blood pressure according to an analysis of 15 studies in Clinical Nutrition [R]. However, flaxseed oil was not effective for blood pressure compared to eating flaxseed powder.
How to get the most from flax seeds
You are going to want to, first and foremost, grind these flax seeds up before you use them. This will help you absorb the nutrients better.
Another gut-healthy step: Ferment the seeds. Simply add the ground flax seeds to filtered water, about a 1:4 ratio. Add a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar or sauerkraut juice to help speed up the fermentation process.
Leave this mixture on the counter for several hours, then add it to various baked goods if desired. You can also mix it into yogurt and refrigerate it overnight.
If your belly hurts at all with ground flax seeds, consider cutting back the portion size and make sure you don’t have any other underlying belly issues with your doctor.
And remember: start slow! A tablespoon is more than enough if you are new to this food.
Learn more about food intolerance, with special consideration for the autoimmune protocol diet.
Protein in flax seeds: does it count?
Like chia seeds, flax seeds would have to be eaten in larger-than-reasonable quantities to add up much protein content.
Each tablespoon will only give you about 2 grams of protein-not enough to even tally. If the seeds aren’t ground up, you really aren’t going to get protein due to difficult absorption either.
Tip: don’t count flax seeds as a primary protein source, but count them as a helpful omega-3 and antioxidant source.
Also known as hemp hearts, hemp seeds have long been used as a nutritious source of protein and nutrients.
Most hemp seeds on the market today are hulled, which removes the fibrous coating on the seed. These hulled seeds are called hemp hearts.
Of all the plant seeds, hemp seeds are the best source of protein.
Less omega 3’s and fiber, but high in nutrients
Hemp seed oil fatty acid content is also rich in omega 3 fats like flax and chia, but hemp seeds don’t quite have the same oomph when it comes to omega 3 fatty acids as the other seeds.
They contain about 1.3 grams of omega 3 per 2 tablespoons and have an omega-3 to omega-6 ratio of 1:3. This is still a better ratio than most Westernized foods. Hemp hearts also contain the anti-inflammatory fat called GLA or gamma-linoleic acid and CLA, also known as conjugated linoleic acid [R].
Hulled hemp seeds, the most common form, aren’t as high in fiber as chia or flax, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing: that way, you can amp up your protein intake with a larger volume of hemp. You can do this without getting a gutache!
Nutrients in hemp seeds shine with their high magnesium and potassium content and also they are a good source of vitamin E.
How to get the most from hemp seeds
When you buy hemp seeds or hemp hearts, the hulls are usually removed. This means that the nutritious center is left. Because of this, you can’t sprout them, but you can soak them if you wish.
Take it even a step further to ferment them for gut health. Simply soak the seeds in water at room temperature for about a day and then drain them.
Or you can add them to a yogurt mixture and soak them overnight in the fridge.
If you want to buy hemp seeds that have the hull, you can sprout them too.
Protein in hemp seeds: does it count?
Yes! If they are hemp hearts, that is.
A reasonable serving size of hemp seeds is ¼ cup and this will give you about 12 grams of protein with all the essential amino acids.
However, hemp falls short in an essential amino acid called lysine, so it can’t technically be considered a complete protein [R].
|Needs special preparation|
|Best fiber for digestion|
|Most omega 3 fats|
|Low in protein|
|High in vitamins and minerals|
How Do the Super Seeds Compare to Fish?
Comparing seeds to fish is not like comparing apples to apples. The oils in super seeds contain omega 3’s but they are in a different and inactive form called ALA as described above.
The oils in fish, in contrast, contain DHA and EPA, which are activated omega 3’s. These fats have more potent anti-inflammatory effects in the body than ALA from seed oils.
The health benefits of each food has their own attributes, so for most omnivores, it’s a smart idea to eat both fatty fish and seeds too.
Fatty fish like sardines contain high amounts of minerals and antioxidants, but their profiles are unique compared to chia seeds, flax seeds, or hemp seeds.
In contrast, seeds are going to give you a lot of fiber and also minerals and antioxidants.
For a comparison of how to compare fish oils, check out Cod liver oil vs Fish oil vs Krill Oil.
The nutritional benefits of adding seeds are clear, but make sure you prepare them properly to help your digestive health. This means soaking the seeds, grinding them, and even fermenting or sprouting when possible.
As with anything, start with a small amount and gradually increase them as tolerated.
If you are looking for more protein, choose hemp seeds and when you want to add soothing fibers, choose chia seeds. For the best omega 3’s grab some flax seeds, but make sure to start with a very small amount and grind them.
Make sure to stay well-hydrated when adding more fiber to your diet.
If you experience any gut pain, remove the seeds from your diet and consider exploring food intolerances.
Heidi Moretti, MS, RD is The Healthy RD. A registered dietitian for 23 years as well as a book author of the new book Gut Fix and The Whole Body Guide to Gut Health, Heidi has a passion for functional nutrition and natural medicine. She has researched supplements and natural medicine throughout her career. One of her biggest loves is helping people gain function and vitality by tackling the root causes of illness.
The information on this website has not been evaluated by the Food & Drug Administration or any other medical body and is shared for educational purposes only. Consult your doctor or healthcare provider before making changes to your supplement regimen or lifestyle.