Q: I hear that incorporating flax into my eating plan is healthful. I see flaxseed oil, ground flaxseeds and whole flaxseeds available. Do they provide the same nutrients? What are ways to use them?
A: Let's sort through the facts on flax.
Flaxseeds are the seed of the flax plant, which grows in cooler climates, such as in Canada and the northern United States. The seeds are a bit larger than sesame seeds and range from dark reddish brown to deep gold.
The calories in flax, like most seeds, come mainly from fat with a tad of protein. The big reason people are told to consume flax is because of the type of fat it contains: mainly omega-3 polyunsaturated fat. Much of the omega-3 fat is alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), one of the two essential fatty acids we must eat to make other fats the body requires.
Flaxseeds contain, relatively speaking, a good bit of dietary fiber. They're also rich in lignans, which are phytoestrogens. Phytoestrogens imitate the action of the hormone estrogen, but much more mildly. Some research has shown that phytoestrogens might play a role in the prevention of some cancers and heart disease.
It's these nutrition components of flax that constitute its purported health benefits. Several years ago omega-3s became the shining star of fats. This catapulted flax to fame as well. However, the research on omega-3 fats has been mixed, with their benefits, especially from omega-3 supplements, not packing the expected health punch (as has often been the case with supplements).
The biggest health benefit of flax is its omega-3 content, which has beneficial effects on total cholesterol and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. The fiber in flax plays a role here, too, as it binds onto cholesterol, helping us excrete more and leaving less to be absorbed.
But is flax your most potent source of omega-3 fats? No. Eating two servings of fatty fish each week, the recommendation from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the American Heart Association, offers a bigger health bang than eating plant-based omega-3 sources such as flax. Then again, there's no reason not to do both.
Flax has been associated with other health benefits, such as reducing chronic inflammation, decreasing hot flashes and ovarian cysts in women, reducing the risk of some cancers, such as breast cancer, and treating heart disease. But according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health, there's not enough research to recommend flax for these health benefits.
“A form of flax isn't on the top of my must-do list, but it's within my top five I suggest for its general anti-inflammatory and heart-health benefits,” says Susan Moore, an Alexandria, Va., dietitian. But, Moore notes, “I first zero in on the person's whole nutrition picture. If someone isn't eating enough fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods, adding flax to an otherwise unhealthy eating plan isn't worth it.”
Flax is available in several forms: whole seeds, ground flax meal, oil and capsules. Two types of ground flax meal are available: golden and brown. Brown has a nuttier taste and grinds more coarsely. But neither variety is more healthful than the other.
If you purchase whole seeds, grind them prior to use. Eating large amounts of whole seeds with insufficient water could cause an intestinal blockage. Plus, they won't get digested, so you'll forfeit their nutritional benefits.
“One source of flax isn't better than another. It's about finding easy ways to fit it in,” Moore says.
Use the oil on salads with vinegar or in a homemade salad dressing. Drizzle it on sweet potatoes or vegetables to enjoy its buttery flavor. Add a few drops in a smoothie. Don't cook with the oil. It has a low smoke point and quickly breaks down.
Here are some ways to fit in a few teaspoons of ground flax meal every day:
— Sprinkle over dry cereal.
— Mix into yogurt.
— Top a bowl of fresh fruit.
— Add to healthful muffins and breads you bake.
— Mix it into pancake or waffle batter.
— Sprinkle on salads.
— Use as a topping mixed with bread crumbs for casseroles.
How much flax to use? Although we have no specific need for flax, we do need a certain amount of alpha-linolenic acid. According to the Dietary Reference Intakes set by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, the “adequate intake” for ALA is 1.1 grams per day for women and 1.6 grams per day for men. One tablespoon of ground flax or one teaspoon of flax oil will more than meet this need. Keep in mind that flax is not your only source of ALA.
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Calories Fat (g) ALA (g) Fiber (g)
Flax oil 120 14 8.0 0
Whole seeds 55 4 n/a 3
Ground flaxseeds 37 3 1.8 2
Safeway organic golden flaxseed meal 35 5 n/a 2
Bob's Red Mill whole ground flaxseed meal 30 2 n/a 2
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Warshaw, a registered dietitian nutritionist and certified diabetes educator, is the author of numerous books published by theAmerican Diabetes Associationand of the blogEatHealthyLiveWell, found on her Web site, www.hopewarshaw.com.