Fabulous Flax

Flaxseeds provide a hefty dose of nutrition.

Good things come in small packages. Flaxseeds are tiny in size, but large in nutritional value. These powerful seeds are loaded with omega-3 fatty acids, lignans, and fiber. They have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and stroke. Some evidence even suggests that flax can help regulate hormones, boost mood, and promote weight loss.

But, what exactly are flaxseeds and how can you incorporate them into your diet?

Flaxseeds

Flaxseeds are versatile, nutritious seeds that are slightly larger than sesame seeds and range in color from golden to reddish brown, depending on the variety. They have a subtle nutty flavor and a crunchy texture when eaten whole, although they are most often ground before they are consumed in order to promote optimal absorption of nutrients.

Ironically, the scientific name for flaxseeds—linum usitatissimum—means “most useful,” which is an ideal description for these tiny seeds, as their nutrient levels far surpass their size.

Nutritional Benefits

Flaxseeds have a dense nutritional profile. They are an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, lignans, fiber, and vitamins and minerals, including vitamin B, magnesium, and manganese.

Omega-3: Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fatty acids that reduce inflammation, reduce the risk of disease, and promote optimal brain function. Omega-3 fatty acids are critical to human health, but the body cannot make these essential fatty acids—we have to consume them through our food. Fish oil is one of the most popular sources of omega-3 fatty acids, but fish oil only contains two omega-3s, EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid).

Flaxseeds are a plant-based source of the third omega-3 essential fatty acid, ALA (alpha-linolenic acid). The body converts ALA to EPA and DHA, but ALA also has benefits of its own—it has been shown to enhance cognitive function and reduce cholesterol.

Lignans: Lignans are naturally occurring phytochemicals that can balance hormones and act as antioxidants. Lignans promote fertility, reduce menopausal symptoms, and may help prevent diabetes. In addition, mounting evidence indicates that lignans have anti-cancer properties.

When ground, flaxseeds are one of the richest sources of lignans. (Whole flaxseeds pass through our system without absorption of fiber or lignans.)

Fiber: Commonly known as bulk or roughage, fiber is the part of plant foods that our bodies cannot digest. There are two types of fiber, soluble and insoluble, and flaxseeds contain them both. Flaxseeds are an excellent source of fiber. They can reduce cholesterol levels, relieve constipation, and stabilize blood sugar levels. Because flax has such a high fiber content, it’s important to introduce it to the diet slowly. (To learn more about fiber, see The Facts about Fiber.)

Enjoying Flaxseeds

Flaxseeds are easy to incorporate into your diet—sprinkle them on salads and cereals, blend them in smoothies, or use the oil in salad dressings.

Flaxseeds can be used whole, ground, or in oil forms—and each of these forms offers a slightly different nutrient profile. Flaxseed oil is high in the omega-3, ALA, but does not contain fiber or lignans. Whole flaxseeds provide a dose of fiber. Ground flaxseeds are probably the most nutrient-dense option—grinding the seeds allows the digestive tract to absorb the omega-3s, fiber, and lignans.

A Few Facts about Flax:

  • Flax is extremely sensitive to light and heat. Store in an airtight container in a cool place.
  • Once ground, flax will go rancid more quickly. Refrigerate ground flax.
  • If possible, it’s best to “grind as you go,” grinding small amounts of flax at a time to preserve the nutritional qualities. The easiest way to grind flaxseeds is in a coffee grinder.
  • Flaxseed oil must be refrigerated at all times.
  • Heating flaxseeds or oil will compromise its nutritional value. It is best used in salads or sprinkled over cooked dishes after they have cooled a little bit.