Make room in your diet for tiny flaxseeds
Not so long ago, flaxseed was trending high on the health food scene. If this superfood has fallen off your radar in recent years, now’s the time to bring it back and find room for flax in your diet and your pantry.
This tiny seed is mighty in nutritional value and is associated with several health benefits. “Flaxseeds provide dietary fiber, omega-3 fatty acids and phytoestrogens called lignans, all powerful components for good health,” according to Patricia Bannan, MS, RDN, author of From Burnout to Balance. They also happen to be versatile, affordable and tasty.
The Latin name for flaxseed, known as linseed in Europe, is Linum usitatissimum, which means “very useful.” One of the oldest cultivated crops, flaxseed was utilized by ancient civilizations as both food and medicine to treat things like intestinal issues.
The two varieties available today are brown and yellow (or golden). Both are sold as whole flaxseeds, milled flaxseed meal or flour, and flaxseed oil. Flaxseeds provide the most nutrition when they’re ground.
(In the U.S., linseed oil, which is derived from flax, is an ingredient in paints and varnish and is used to treat wood. It’s not safe for human consumption.)
A one-tablespoon serving of ground flaxseed provides a variety of important vitamins and minerals, including thiamin, copper, manganese and iron.
A single serving of this tiny seed also delivers healthy fats, protein, health-promoting plant compounds, as well as two grams of dietary fiber (about 5% of the recommended daily value for men and 8% for women).
Each seed contains two types of dietary fiber, soluble and insoluble, which help promote healthy digestion. Soluble fiber slows digestion, which may help regulate blood sugar levels and help lower cholesterol. Insoluble fiber increases bulk to the stool, which may help prevent constipation and support regular bowel movements.
Flaxseeds are the richest plant source of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fatty acid that research shows may have a positive impact on the heart and help prevent cardiovascular disease.
It’s also one of the richest plant sources of lignans, a type of phytoestrogen that is being studied for its antioxidant and anticancer potential.
Flaxseeds, due to their composition of omega-3 fatty acids, lignans, protein and soluble fiber, may reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases (CVD).
According to a review of studies published this year in the journal Healthcare, flaxseed supplementation significantly lowered total cholesterol, LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and triglycerides, while increasing HDL (“good”) cholesterol.
The same review cites studies that support the role of flaxseed in lowering blood pressure, another risk factor for CVD.
A rich source of dietary fiber, flaxseeds have been shown to improve digestive health, including preventing constipation and promoting regularity. Even flaxseed oil, from which fiber has been removed, may play a role in constipation prevention, research shows.
The soluble fiber in flaxseed may also have a beneficial effect on gut microbiota, particularly in the prevention of overweight and obesity, due to increased excretion of fecal fat, as well as weight management by reducing feelings of hunger and overall appetite.
Flaxseed lignans, which have antioxidative and anti-inflammatory properties, may play a role in the prevention and treatment of several types of cancers, including breast cancer, colorectal cancer and prostate cancer. They have been linked with the reversal of early cancer and the inhibition of tumor growth and disease progression.
How to enjoy flax
Because flaxseed in all forms is high in omega-3 fatty acids, it can turn rancid when exposed to heat, light or air. It’s best to refrigerate or freeze the seeds or meal for best quality and longest life. Store oil in an opaque container in a cool, dry place.
For optimal nutrition, grind whole flaxseeds with a spice or coffee grinder before using. Or simply purchase it already milled into flax meal or flour and keep it in the refrigerator.
In this way, it can be used the same way as other seeds and flours. Flaxseed is also a star ingredient in whole grain breads and crackers, cereals, energy bars and snack foods.
Bannan recommends enjoying its nutty flavor by mixing a tablespoon of ground flaxseed into warm or cold cereals, adding them to baked goods — like muffins, pancakes and cookies — and blending them into a smoothie or yogurt.
Try flaxseed oil, which is pressed from whole flaxseeds, to make salad dressing, pesto and dips, or as a finishing oil for vegetable side dishes. (Flaxseed oil has a very low smoke point, so it’s not ideal for cooking.)
While it’s a good source of omega-3s, flaxseed oil does not have the fiber, lignans and the variety of nutrients that are in the whole seed.
Reprinted with permission from Environmental Nutrition, a monthly publication of Belvoir Media Group, LLC, 1-800-829-5384, EnvironmentalNutrition.com.
© 2023 Belvoir Media Group. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.