Step aside, salmon. Scoot over kale. Make room for flaxseed, a rightful member of the healthiest foods club. It has even been shown to ease arthritis, especially in rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and Raynaud’s phenomenon.
“Although flaxseed has been used for a long time – Hippocrates ate and wrote about it in 500 B.C. – it’s only been in the past 10 years that researchers have focused on flaxseed’s health benefits,” says Jocelyn Mathern, a registered dietitian and member of the Flax Lignan Information Bureau Advisory Board, a consumer education organization in Minneapolis.
Just two tablespoons of ground flaxseed contain more than 140% daily value of the inflammation-reducing omega-3 fatty acids and more lignans, a cancer-fighting plant chemical, than any other plant food on the planet. To understand this nutritional star, take a look at what’s inside.
Essential fatty acids. Fifty-seven percent of the total fatty acids in flaxseed oil is alpha-linoleic acid (ALA), one of three omega-3 fatty acids. When consumed, ALA is converted into the other, more powerful omega-3s, docosahexaeonic (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic (EPA) acids. Ground flaxseed has ALA, but flaxseed oil contains the highest amount. In a study where volunteers consumed flaxseed oil for four weeks, the ALAs significantly decreased pro-inflammatory compounds.
Lignans. Found in flaxseed hulls, these plant chemicals convert to plant estrogen in the digestive tract. Research suggests they may protect against several forms of cancer, prevent heart disease and alleviate menopause symptoms. Whole flaxseed must be ground or bought as meal for lignans to be absorbed by the body. Once opened, a package of flaxseed should be stored in airtight containers in the refrigerator to keep it from going rancid. Flaxseed oil does not have the lignans of whole or ground flaxseeds, so look for brands that have added lignans.
Flavonoids. These compounds are found in all flaxseed and lower levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or “bad” cholesterol. High LDL levels have been linked to a greater risk of heart disease.
Fiber. Dietary fiber accounts for 28%of ground flaxseed’s composition. Soluble fiber has been shown to lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of cancer, while insoluble fiber can help prevent digestive problems.
Note: Flaxseed oil should be avoided by those taking blood-thinners because it may increase bleeding; it should be taken with care by those taking cholesterol-lowering medication because it could lower cholesterol levels too far.
8 ways to Get Your Flaxseed
Stir 1 Tbsp. ground flaxseed into oatmeal, cereal and smoothies.
Use ground flaxseed as a topping for salads.
Make vinaigrette with 1 Tbsp. Dijon mustard, 1 Tbsp. vinegar and 3 Tbsp. flaxseed oil.
Mix 1 Tbsp. ground flaxseed into tuna, chicken and egg salads.
Add 1/4 cup whole or ground flaxseed to bread recipes.
Toss 1/2 lb. cooked pasta with 2 Tbsp. flaxseed oil.
Coat and roast vegetables in equal parts flaxseed and olive oils.
Replace half the oil or butter in baking recipes with flaxseed oil.