ch-ch-ch chia

You remember the Chia pet ads. The kitschy, half cat, half pig-looking planter that with little care, promises the instantaneous growth of a green mop. Well, it turns out that 80’s fad was on to something: the power food of the next millennium.

I have to partially credit my “clean eating” mom with this one. Always one step ahead of me when it comes to healthy trends (even with my obsessive reading of websites, magazines, and newspapers), she informed me of this wonder seed in the fall. Before even trying it, a 12.6-ounce container had graced my Christmas stocking—the perfect kick-start to a new year, a new city, and my third triathlon season.

Then, chia made a second appearance: in the pages of Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall. After seeing the acclaimed writer on the Daily Show, I was intrigued by his account of the Tarahumara, a northern Mexican tribe with incredible long-distance running prowess. I received the book for Christmas, and as far as inspiration goes, it’s already right up there with my tri guru’s cycle classes.

I was reading McDougall’s friendly prose one afternoon when I came across an anecdote from one of his research trips to Mexico:

The cup was full of gooey slime that looked like rice pudding without the rice, lots of black-flecked bubbles I was pretty sure were frog eggs in mid hatch … “Great,” I said, looking around for a cactus I could dump it behind. “What is it?”


I poured the iskiate into a hip bottle that was half full of water I’d purified with iodine pills, then tossed in a couple of extra pills for good measure … I wasn’t desperate enough to risk a yearlong bout of chronic diarrhea from waterborne bacteria.

He continues to learn from the Tarahumara, who live in the Copper Canyons in the province of Chihuahua and regularly run up to 100 miles for fun. The story is full of characters so wacky they seem fictional, interspersed with the gripping history of ultrarunning in the U.S. The journey is personal, too, as McDougall travels between the U.S. and Mexico, struggling between discovering the secret of the “running people” and letting them be. But he makes a few discoveries along the way; and one of them is this chia:

Months later, I’d learn that iskiate is otherwise known as chia fresca—“chilly chia.” It’s brewed up by dissolving chia seeds in water with a little sugar and a squirt of lime. In term of nutritional content, 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 just one desert-island food, you couldn’t do much better than chia, at least if you were 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. Chia was once so treasured, the Aztecs used to deliver it to their king in homage. Aztec runners used to chomp chia seeds as they went into battle, and the Hopis fueled themselves on chia during their epic runs from Arizona to the Pacific Ocean. The Mexican state of Chiapas is actually named after the seed; it used to rank right up there with corn and beans as a cash crop …

Even with the medicinal after-bite from the pills, the iskiate went down like fruit punch with a nice limey tang. Maybe the excitement of the hunt had something to do with it, but within minutes, I felt fantastic.

– Christopher McDougall, Born to Run. Random House, 2009. p. 43-44.

And then, lo and behold, chia made another appearance—this time at my local food coop Glut. (Which, by the way, I am completely in love with.) There it was in the bulk section, at a mere $6-something per pound. (At Costco, it costs somewhere around $13 for under a pound.)

So as I adjust to the energy demands my new life in D.C. is already bringing, I know I’ll rely on chia seeds for a Tarahumara-style kick every now and then. And even if I can’t yet tell if it’s making a difference, at least I know it’s good for my body. And since the lime fresca mixture didn’t really do it for me, I’ll stick to sprinkling it on salads, oatmeal, and granola, and blending it up in smoothies and muffin batter.

And maybe one day I’ll be able to run 4 marathons in a row too.

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