Chia pets may have been the greatest gag gift of the 20th century, but apparently those tiny little chia seeds have been hiding a much more powerful ability than just growing green “hair” on a terracotta porcupine.

It turns out those tiny little seeds may be one of nature’s most powerful superfoods. And the secret to many athletes’ super performance.

Known as the “Indian Running Food,” the power of chia seeds is mentioned throughout the New York Times best-seller by Christopher McDougall, “Born to Run,” where he tells the story of the barefoot ultra-endurance athletes of Mexico’s Copper Canyons, the Tarahumara Indians. McDougall claims chia seeds were responsible for these athletes’ superhuman endurance and fitness levels, allowing them to run incredibly long distances without rest or food.

In his book, McDougall says:

“A tablespoon of chia is like a smoothie made from salmon, spinach and human growth hormone. As tiny as those seeds are, they’re super-packed with Omega-3s, Omega-6s, protein, calcium, iron, zinc, fiber, and antioxidants. If you had to pick one desert-island food, you couldn’t do better than chia, at least if you wee interested in building muscle, lowering cholesterol and reducing your risk of heart disease. After a few months on the chia diet you could probably swim home.”

An “Almost Perfect Food”

Researchers have called chia seeds, also known as Salvia hispanica, an “almost perfect food” featuring numerous health benefits, including the ability to energize, rejuvenate muscles, hydrate, improve cardiovascular health, support detoxification, augment strength, bolster endurance, stabilize blood sugar, induce weight loss and aid intestinal regularity.

Photo: Health Warrior

And according to a Wall Street Journal article, chia seeds were also a staple of the Aztecs’ diet, and might be behind their reputation as fierce warriors.

All this is what lead Nick Morris and Dan Gluck, competitive runners and former Division 1 college athletes, to add chia seeds to their diets. And the remarkable results they saw and difficulty they had finding quality product, pushed them to found Health Warrior in 2010, to bring premium chia seeds to the market.

You can get the unprocessed, slightly nutty-tasting seeds (they really have very little flavor at all), in a one-pound pouch to sprinkle on your cereal, yogurt or into power shakes. The seeds take on a gel-like consistency when they get wet, and don’t alter the taste of what they are put in. Or, if you need energy on the trail or at the gym, grab one of their Peanut Butter Chocolate, Acai Berry or Coconut bars.

Photo: Health Warrior

Just a tablespoon a day is all that’s recommended to get these results and benefits. And it’s not just runners and health nuts who have made chia seeds a regular part of their diet. The Wall Street Journal article also says that professional athletes are jumping on the chia seed bandwagon.

Fuel for Pro Athletes

Baltimore Ravens Pro Bowl running back, Ray Rice is a devotee, using Health Warrior’s chia seeds as a part of his fitness regimen. He even turned teammate and future Hall of Famer, Ray Lewis on to them, who says, “I put (chia seeds) in my shake every morning.”

I personally gave Health Warrior chia seeds and bars a try, and in all honesty, they live up to the hype. Since I started stirring a spoonful into some yogurt midmorning, I’ve stopped experiencing that late afternoon drag. And eating a chia bar before regular workouts really has given me the energy to power through them. Even when I’m not in the mood. I’m not a runner, but I am a regular cyclist, and I have been steadily adding mileage lately.

As for the overall health benefits? Check back with me in a few months when I have my next physical. But my take on chia seeds is this: There is some good research behind it, both scientific and anecdotal — and bottom line: I’m not gonna be the guy to tell Ray Lewis he’s wrong.

For more, follow me @thebachelorguy.

[Chia head image: sameold2010 via Creative Commons licence. Bodybuilder image: sgroi via Creative Commons licence.]