Flaxseed may be one of humanity’s oldest allies.
The superfood has been cultivated for millennia, with origins in ancient Babylon as far back as 5000 B.C., before spreading to central Europe, China, and India by 3000 B.C. Also known as linseeds, this product of the flax plant was used to make linens before ever being used as food—but with the dense nutrition packed into each tiny morsel, it’s no wonder that early civilizations quickly began to incorporate flaxseeds and flaxseed oil into their diets.
In fact, by the 8th century, King Charlemagne so believed in the power of flaxseed that he passed laws requiring the entire Frankish Empire to consume it. Of course, Charlemagne’s faith wasn’t based on much science, but modern studies now confirm what Charlemagne already knew 1,300 years ago.
The alpha-linolenic acid, fiber, vitamin E, and lignans in flaxseeds have been linked to all sorts of benefits including cardiovascular health as well as prevention of various types of cancers and lung disease. Although the research is not yet conclusive, the potential health benefits, nutritional profile, and virtually non-existent side effects are convincing many modern people to start incorporating flaxseed back into daily diets.
What’s in flaxseed?
Flaxseed has a pretty remarkable nutritional profile. For every 30 gram serving, you’ll receive:
- 5.49 grams of protein
- 8.2 grams of fiber
- 6.84 grams of alpha-linolenic acid
- 6.17 milligrams of vitamin E
- Large amounts of magnesium, manganese, thiamin, and selenium
To put this into better perspective, every tiny 30 gram serving of flaxseed provides 10 percent of your daily protein needs, 27 percent daily dietary fiber, and more than 200 percent of recommended daily doses of magnesium, manganese, thiamin, and selenium—all for only 150 calories. Even without any of the purported cancer or heart disease–fighting abilities, sprinkling a little flaxseed on your next meal may not be a bad idea for overall nutrition.
Even better, recent science does seem to indicate that four of the main nutrients in flaxseed have particularly helpful health benefits:
- Alpha-linolenic acid: Known as ALA for short, this is one of three types of omega-3 fatty acids, and the only one that is derived from plants. The other two types, EPA and DHA, are primarily absorbed from fish and other marine sources.
- Lignans: These polyphenolic compounds are native to plants and can act like both anti-inflammatories and antioxidants in the human body and have been associated with activities in treating human diseases.
- Dietary fiber: Most people only get half the daily recommended intake of fiber; yet, a proper amount has been associated with such positives as controlling blood sugar levels.
- Vitamin E: This fat-soluble antioxidant is particularly adept at protecting cell membranes from oxidative damage and signs of early aging.
Flaxseed oil, sometimes known as linseed oil, also contains ALA and vitamin E but not any of the other dietary nutrients.
The benefits of flaxseed
There are three major health benefits that have been associated with flaxseed: Improving cardiovascular health, reducing the risk of some forms of cancer, and gleaning the positive effects of fiber.
In 2010, the “Canadian Journal of Cardiology” published a comprehensive analysis of several studies centering on ALA, which found it was closely associated with improvement in a variety of indicators of heart disease. Most significantly, the study found that ALA levels were inversely correlated with both fatal and non-fatal myocardial infarction. In other words, those with higher levels of dietary ALA intake were less likely to suffer both fatal and non-fatal heart attacks.
The scientists behind these studies theorized that ALA acts as an anti-inflammatory agent that aids in the prevention of arteriosclerosis, which is a buildup of plaque in the artery walls.
The study also found an association between dietary ALA intake and decreased risk of both carotid and cerebral strokes. The effects were rather remarkable. A mere 0.06 percent increase in ALA content in phospholipids, which are the main building blocks of cell membranes, decreased the risk of stroke by 28 percent. Furthermore, 0.13 percent increase in the level of ALA in the bloodstream, decreased the risk of stroke by 37 percent.
The same study also looked specifically at the effects of flaxseed on blood cholesterol and found further positive results, discovering that bad LDL cholesterol was lowered by 10 percent without impacting changes to levels of good HDL cholesterol. Another study focusing on dietary supplementation from lignans in flaxseed showed another 24 percent reduction in LDL cholesterol. Combined, these studies suggest that flaxseed has real cholesterol-lowering abilities.
Reduced risk of cancer
Though there have been several studies on the effects of ALA and lignans in various types of cancers, the results remain largely inconclusive. In animal studies, there have been indications that the compounds found in flaxseed decrease the incidence of growth factors that create tumors. There were even findings these dual nutrients may have a synergistic effect, working in tandem with medications used to treat breast cancers.
When it comes to humans, scientists think that flaxseed could have an effect on cancer risk through another, simpler mechanism—reducing body fat.
Excess body fat has been identified as a cause in eight different cancers:
- Colon and rectum
However, large amounts of dietary fiber, found in foods like flaxseed, have been shown to help with weight maintenance because fiber provides a feeling a satisfaction and fullness, which eliminates cravings that could lead to overeating.
More positive effects of fiber
Flaxseed is extremely high in fiber. With 8.2 grams in just one serving, having some every day goes a long way to meeting the daily recommended intake of 25 to 30 grams.
Aside from the weight maintenance discussed above, fiber has been shown to have many other positive benefits, including:
- Normalizing bowel movements, which decreases the chances of constipation and loose stools.
- Preventing the development of both hemorrhoids and diverticulitis, small pouches in the colon that can cause inflammation of the digestive tract.
- Working with colonic bacteria to protect the gastrointestinal system. Scientists know that some fiber is fermented in the colon by naturally occurring bacteria, though they don’t know what effect the fermentation has on the body just yet. Some theorize that the fermentation produces compounds that protect the colon from cancer.
- Lowering blood cholesterol, specifically bad LDL cholesterol.
- Slowing down the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream, leading to healthier glucose levels and reducing the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
- Lowering the risk of stroke and hypertension, which leads to better overall heart health.
How to incorporate more flaxseed into your diet
Flaxseeds pack some powerful nutrition into tiny little packages, so it’s encouraged to add them into your daily diet. Next time you go shopping, look for two different kinds of these edible seeds—golden and brown. Both have similar nutritional value and the same mild, nutty flavor. The only difference really is in the color, and the golden ones are easier to camouflage in foods if you are trying to supplement a child’s diet.
Before eating, flaxseeds need to be ground or finely chopped in order to get the full nutritional benefits because our bodies don’t have the capability to break down the fibrous outer hulls. A coffee or spice grinder will do the trick just fine.
While you may be tempted to buy pre-ground flaxseeds, resist the urge. Because of their high unsaturated fat content, flaxseeds can spoil and go rancid pretty quickly if in an adulterated form. It’s best to buy them whole and spend 30 seconds grinding a handful when you need it.
The easiest way to get more daily flaxseed intake is to add a couple tablespoons to regular foods you eat. Even just a small amount will provide a protein and fiber boost. Try them in:
- Muffin batter
- Pancake batter
- Bread dough
And though your kids may object to trying anything that looks even remotely healthy, you can mix some ground flax into their snacks without them ever knowing. It works well in:
- Ice cream
- Cottage cheese
Cooking with flaxseed oil is another option. Though it doesn’t have the fiber or protein of the whole seed, it is extremely high in hearty healthy ALA and the antioxidant vitamin E. Flaxseed oil does have a low smoke point, but the nutty flavor makes it a good extra virgin olive oil substitute in quick applications such as salad dressings, popcorn flavorings, and drizzling over cooked vegetables.
Photo credit: Veganbaking.net via Flickr