Although flaxseed has been cultivated for centuries, it's recently become extremely popular because of its numerous health benefits. This tiny seed packs a big nutritional punch! Although flaxseed has been touted to cure just about every disease from diabetes and heart disease to cancer, the full effects of flaxseed in the human body are still not completely known and more studies are needed. What is known for sure is that flaxseed is rich in several important compounds including omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, and phytochemicals, all of which have very important health benefits and should be included in a nutritious diet.
Flaxseed can be purchased at most natural foods stores or health food stores and comes whole, ground (milled) or as an oil. It also comes in golden or brown varieties but there's no nutritional difference between the two. Whole flaxseed has a tough exterior, which makes it difficult to digest, so it tends to pass through the body without giving you much of its nutritional benefits. The ground form is absorbed better by the body and provides much more health benefits. Pre-ground flaxseed however, has a short shelf life so the best idea is to buy it whole and grind it up in a coffee or spice grinder as you need it. You can store unused flaxseed in a cool, dry place or in the refrigerator.
Flaxseed is high in protein and can be sprinkled on many foods like yogurt or oatmeal. It also can be stirred into hot soups, stews and pasta sauces. It can even be used in baking and can be incorporated into cakes, cookies and muffins. It's also a great addition to smoothies to add extra fiber and protein. To reap all of the health benefits of flaxseed, it's recommended that you eat 1-2 tablespoons a day.
There are 3 main components that make flaxseed so good for you:
Fiber: Flaxseed is high in soluble and insoluble fiber. A diet high in fiber has several health benefits including helping to reduce cholesterol levels, regulate blood pressure and promote heart health. Fiber also helps to regulate blood sugar levels. It's also really important in maintaining bowel integrity and regularity. It may also play a role in preventing colorectal cancer but the evidence is mixed.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Omega-3 fatty acids are essential compounds that our bodies need to function. However, because we don't naturally produce omega-3s, we must get them from our diet. Flaxseed contains high levels of alpha linoleic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fatty acid that is partially converted to the omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) that are mainly found in fatty fish like salmon. Omega-3s have been shown to have incredible health benefits. They reduce the risk of death from cardiovascular disease by several different mechanisms including lowering triglycerides and reducing blood clotting. They also are important for neurologic development, especially in fetal development and young children. They may help reduce the risk of dementia in the elderly but more studies are needed. Because they work to reduce inflammation, omega-3s may improve symptoms in diseases such as arthritis and asthma. Other good food sources of ALA are canola oil, soybean oil and walnuts.
Phytochemicals: Flaxseed is packed with phytochemicals, which are compounds found in plants that are beneficial to the body. They are an especially rich source of lignans, which are compounds that mimic the action of the hormone estrogen in our bodies. Lignans also have strong antioxidant properties. The lignans in flaxseed may provide some protection against cancers that are sensitive to hormones such as breast cancer. Lignans also have an anti-inflammatory effect, which plays a role in preventing certain diseases like asthma. Lignans help reduce inflammation associated with plaque build-up in the arteries, thereby helping to prevent heart attacks and stroke.
Of note, flaxseed oil contains omega-3s but does not have the fiber and lignans found in the rest of the seed.