The Tiny Superfood You Can Sprinkle Onto Pretty Much Anything

chia seeds
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Once upon a time, chia seeds were known to most people thanks to the pointless -- but fun! Undeniably fun! -- '80s toy, the Chia Pet. Today, they're everywhere: in smoothies, granola, yogurt, and your mom's cabinet because she read they're a good source of protein and meaning for empty-nesters. You can even make a pudding out of them, since they absorb up to 12 times their weight in liquid when soaked. They're practically magical.

OK, "magical" might be a stretch. But they are considered a superfood, and it's thankfully much easier to work them into your diet than it is to grow them into chia-sprouted Donald Trump hair. Here's what you need to know about the big power of these tiny seeds.

People have been eating them for thousands of years

Chia grows near the equator, in countries like Mexico, Bolivia, and Ecuador, says dietitian Amy Stephens. The Aztecs and Mayans were eating them long before health nuts started adding them to their fancy kombucha drinks.

So they're not a newfangled health food -- just a newfangled health trend. They grow from a flowering plant, and come in black or white. Classic colors.

Chia gives you a good bang for your buck

Make no mistake, these tiny little seeds aren't a replacement for eating a varied, healthy diet. (Moderation, people. Don't jump on some crazy Silicon Valley Soylent train.) But they do have a lot of powerful nutrients that tend to be found in pricier items. For instance, 1tbsp of chia seeds has nearly 5g of omega-3 fatty acids, which are usually found in salmon and other fish. "Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats, meaning you have to get them from food," says dietitian Alissa Rumsey. While they may seem a little pricey at first glance, compared with what you'll pay for salmon -- plus the fact that they expand in water -- they're a pretty good omega-3 value, especially for vegetarians.

Speaking of vegetarians…

Chia is a great source of protein. Two tablespoons have 3oz, or as much as an egg. But chia seeds aren't just a great substitute for herbivores -- they're also convenient for people who avoid dairy. Those same 2tbsp contain 177mg of calcium; one cup of milk has 300.

They help keep you regular

With 5g of fiber per tablespoon, chia seeds offer a super-efficient way to get things moving when you're backed up. If euphemisms aren't your bag, how's this: Chia seeds help you poop. But proceed with caution! Don't overdo it: Stephens says eating too much of the stuff can actually have the opposite effect, leaving you bloated and backed up. One to two tablespoons is plenty.

Adding them to your diet is super easy

It's easy enough to buy an expensive smoothie or juice with chia mixed in, but Stephens suggests approaching pre-made items with caution. "Ready-made chia foods can have lots of added sugar, and more calories than you think," she warns. Instead, DIY is the way to go.

Luckily, making your own chia foods is as simple as simple gets. "Chia seeds have a neutral taste and texture," says Rumsey. "Their mild flavor makes them very easy to add to foods and beverages." Breakfast is a good place to start. Sprinkle them into smoothies, yogurt, and oatmeal. They also add a nice crunch to savory meals like stir-fry and salad.

Or try Stephens' recipe for chia seed pudding: Combine 2tbsp of chia with 3/4 cups of almond milk. Put it in a sealed container and let it sit in the fridge for 40 minutes, or overnight. The seeds will puff up to a gel-like texture. You can add vanilla extract and maple syrup for sweetness, and top it with fruit.

Everybody now… ch-ch-ch-CHIA!

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Kristin Schwab writes about health, fitness, and the arts. She misses those ch-ch-ch-chia commercials dearly. Follow her on Twitter @kkschwab.