Pick up a variety of natural foods from your grocery shelves and there’s an increasing chance you will see the word “flaxseeds” on the ingredient label. Is this a good thing? Absolutely! But how good is it? What should you know about flaxseed and its components and the health benefits that can come from consuming flaxseed in its various forms, both as a food or a supplement?
I invite you to spend a few minutes to discover the advantages of including flaxseed in your diet. It’s a tiny seed that could make a big difference in your health.
Flaxseed (aka, linseed) is derived from the flax plant (Linum usitatissimum) and is a native of Egypt, although it is now grown around the world. The seeds have a nutty flavor and can be eaten as is, ground into a flour or crushed and cold pressed to obtain flaxseed oil.
Flaxseed has been elevated to the status of a super food because of its wide-ranging health benefits. That status is attributed to three features of flaxseed:
- Omega-3 essential fatty acids. These are among the good, healthy fats that are beneficial for cardiovascular health, among other benefits. Typically omega-3 fatty acids are found in certain fish, but flaxseeds are among the few plant-based sources of these important fats. One tablespoon of ground flaxseed contains about 1.8 grams of omega-3 fatty acids. (Compare with nearly 3 ounces of salmon.)
- Fiber. Flaxseeds are rich in both soluble and insoluble fiber. Many people don’t get enough fiber in their diet, so including flaxseed can be a convenient way to improve its intake. Because flaxseed is so versatile, it can easily be added to recipes. A mere tablespoon contains nearly 2 grams of fiber.
- Lignans. Lignans are plant components in a class called polyphenols. Lignan precursors (substances from which lignans are formed) are found in many plants, but flaxseeds are the richest dietary source of lignin precursors. Others include pumpkin and sesame seeds, berries, beans, whole grains (e.g., oats, rye, barley), and wheat bran. Research suggests lignans have a role in the prevention of osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, and hormone-related cancers.
Health benefits of flaxseed
Why should you be sprinkling flaxseeds on your yogurt and salads, enjoying them as cereal, whipping them up in your smoothies, and adding them to your baked goods? Because they may:
Flaxseeds Protect Against Cancer
The omega-3 fatty acid called ALA found in flaxseed has been shown to inhibit tumor incidence and growth in animal studies. In both animal and human studies, flaxseed has demonstrated qualities associated with a reduced incidence or risk of colorectal cancer.
When it comes to breast cancer, scientists report in a recent review that in both animals and humans, the lignans have been shown to help decrease tumor cell growth. Some clinical trials indicate that flaxseed can have a role in reducing the risk of breast cancer, mostly in postmenopausal women. The antioxidant abilities of other components in flaxseed also may contribute to protection against the development of cancer.
Flaxseeds Help Prevent Cardiovascular Problems
The omega-3 fatty acids in flaxseed are helpful in a variety of ways when it comes to your heart health. For example, flaxseeds can:
- Help lower blood pressure, which appears to be due to both the omega-3s and amino acids in flaxseeds.
- Assist in preventing hardening of the arteries by reducing the accumulation of plaque in the blood vessels.
- Lower cholesterol levels. Levels of bad (LDL) cholesterol has been associated with a higher risk of heart disease and related conditions including obesity, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes. Eating flaxseeds daily could lower these risks, as demonstrated in a study of nearly 200 menopausal women. Those who consumed 4 tablespoons of flaxseed daily for one year showed a decline in LDL particle size and a rise in healthy heart indicators (apolipoproteins). These benefits are believed to be the result of the combination of lignans, omega-3s, and fiber.
Could flaxseeds help with diabetes? Some evidence suggests this is true. Preliminary studies suggest daily consumption of lignans in flaxseed may slightly improve blood glucose levels in adults who have type 2 diabetes. In one study, daily intake of lignans resulted in a significant improvement in glycemic control without having an impact on insulin sensitivity, fasting glucose or lipid levels.
Flaxseeds Fight inflammation
Both the lignans and the omega-3s in flaxseed have been named as helpful in reducing inflammation that goes along with asthma, Parkinson’s disease, and other inflammatory conditions. That’s because the omega-3s and the lignans prevent the release of certain agents that promote inflammation. When flaxseeds help reduce inflammation that is associated with the accumulation of plaque in the arteries, it is one way they help prevent cardiovascular conditions.
How to Enjoy Flaxseeds
Flaxseeds can be enjoyed whole, ground (i.e., milled), or as an oil to be used in food or in supplement form. Here are a few ideas:
- Breaded foods: add 2 tablespoons of milled flaxseed per cup of bread crumbs.
- Thickener: add ½ teaspoon of milled flaxseed per ½ cup of the food you want to be thickened. Mix well and let stand for a few minutes to allow the flaxseed to thicken the food, which could be anything from applesauce to gravies, soups, oatmeal, sauces, or stews.
- Instead of bread crumbs: For recipes that call for a small amount of bread crumbs (e.g., ¼ cup) as a binder, you can substitute milled flaxseed for the entire amount. For greater quantities, try substituting ¼ of the requested amount with flaxseed.
- Smoothies: Add 1 to 2 tablespoons of flaxseeds per serving of a smoothie.
- Topping: Whole and milled flaxseeds are great toppings for salads, yogurt, cereals, nut butter sandwiches, fruit compotes, and soups.
- Hummus: Stir 2 tablespoons of whole or milled flaxseeds per cup of hummus.
- Instead of butter or other oils: Substitute flaxseed oil in salad dressings, for dunking bread (add some herbs and spices), or drizzling on vegetables. Flaxseed oil will easily go rancid if heated, so stick to cooler foods to ensure it stays fresh.
- Condiment booster: Mix in ½ to 1 teaspoon of whole or milled flaxseed into mayonnaise, mustard, or other condiments.
Bottom Line on Flaxseeds
Flaxseeds are an important addition to your regular diet for some very good reasons. How are you going to incorporate flaxseeds into your daily routine? Feel free to share any of the ways you include flaxseeds in your diet.
[Editor's Note: Barlean's offers a variety of flax formulas including a Seriously Delicious Flax Strawberry Banana flavor supplement as well as flax oil and ground flaxseed. There are a lot of options to incorporate more flax into your diet.]
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