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Flaxseed: The Incredible Health Benefits (and One Drawback) of Flaxseed and Flaxseed Oil

Tiny seeds known as flaxseeds have been sprouting up on health food store shelves and in cupboards of health-minded people for years now, but they're still relatively unknown to most Americans.

Flax, the plant, dates back to the Stone Ages and was used in both ancient Greece and Rome for cooking and medicinal purposes, but the seeds fell largely out of favor after the fall of Rome.

Flaxseeds may be tiny, but they pack a powerful nutritional punch.

In modern times, flaxseeds have earned a name for themselves as a tiny seed that packs a powerful punch. In terms of appearance they're not that unique; they're a little bigger than a sesame seed with a shiny shell that ranges in color from amber to reddish brown.

On the inside, however, is a complex blend of essential fatty acids, phytoestrogens, fiber and more, that has the capabilities of fighting off everything from inflammation to heart disease to cancer -- with only one slight drawback.

Flaxseeds and Omega-3 Fat

If you have heard of flaxseeds, chances are it was in association with the term omega-3. That's because flaxseeds are rich in alpha linolenic acid (ALA), a type of omega-3 essential fatty acid. Just two tablespoons of flaxseed will give you over 140 percent of the recommended daily value of ALA.

However, you've also probably heard of omega-3 fats in fish oil, cod liver oil and krill oil. These animal-based omega-3 fats are called DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), and it's these two forms of omega-3 that seem to be responsible for most of the benefits, such as helping to prevent heart disease, cancer, diabetes, depression, Alzheimer's disease and more.

Getting back to flaxseeds, ALA is a precursor to EPA, which means it is converted to EPA in your body. When converted, it can provide the benefits that EPA has to offer, BUT only a small percentage actually gets converted. Why? This process requires the presence of a certain enzyme -- delta-6-destaurase -- that is less active in some people. Having diabetes and consuming saturated fat and/or alcohol can also inhibit the activity of this enzyme.

So, in order to receive the same benefits of the omega-3 in fish oil, cod liver oil or krill oil, you would need to take in A LOT of flaxseeds. This is the drawback that we've referred to, as flaxseeds are often -- and somewhat misleadingly -- thought of as a superior form of omega-3 fat.

Though not the best source of DHA and EPA, flaxseeds do have a number of other redeeming qualities.

Ward Off Cancer, Heart Disease, Inflammation and Diabetes

The omega-3 fats that flaxseeds do contain can help to reduce the formation of blood clots, which then reduces the risk of heart attack and stroke.

They're also useful for preventing and treating diabetes, because omega-3 fats help produce flexible cell membranes. This helps to let nutrients in and waste out, unlike a stiffer membrane that can result from eating too many trans fats.

This is essential for the health of everyone, but becomes even more crucial with diabetes. A flexible cell membrane makes it easier for cells to respond to insulin and absorb glucose.

Omega-3 is also thought to protect colon cells from toxins, which reduces the risk of colon cancer.

In addition, omega-3 fats help to reduce inflammation, which is present in osteoarthritis, asthma, rheumatoid arthritis and migraine headaches.

Good news for women; flaxseeds may help to balance your hormones.

Again, flaxseeds do not contain as much of the beneficial omega-3 fats EPA and DHA as fish oil, cod liver oil and krill oil, but every little bit helps.

Women, Flaxseeds Fight Hormone-Related Cancers and Promote Hormonal Balance

Flaxseeds contain phytoestrogens called lignans. These compounds are converted into two hormone-like substances that appear to fight breast cancer and other hormone-related cancers. Researchers also believe that ALA and lignans may work together to prevent disease.

Flaxseed contains more lignans than any other plant source known -- with about 500 times more lignans than wheat bran, rye, buckwheat, millet, soybeans and oats.

Further, the lignans also help to promote normal ovulation and lengthen the second half of the menstrual cycle. It is during this time that progesterone is the dominant hormone, and lengthening this period provides a number of beneficial effects that ultimately help to restore hormonal balance.

Lots of Fiber

Flaxseeds are also loaded with beneficial fiber, which helps to:

  • Relieve constipation
  • Lower cholesterol levels
  • Protect the colon from cancer-causing chemicals
  • Stabilize blood sugar levels in people with diabetes

How to Get Your Flaxseed

Flaxseeds are available in three distinct forms:

  • Ground seeds
  • Whole seeds
  • Flaxseed oil

Flaxseeds are highly perishable, and while ground seeds are convenient, the whole seeds will stay fresh longer. To use whole seeds, first sniff them to make sure they haven't gone rancid (rancid flaxseeds will smell like oil-based paint). You will then need to grind them using a coffee or seed grinder or mini food processor. Only grind as much as you plan to use up immediately.

If purchasing pre-ground seeds, be sure to store them in an airtight container in the refrigerator or freezer. Whole seeds should also be stored this way. Because the seeds are so perishable, you should only purchase ground seeds that are stored in the refrigerated section of the store.

Flaxseed oil is the most perishable form of all. It should only be purchased in opaque bottles that have been kept refrigerated, as otherwise the oil could easily be rancid. Flaxseed oil should not be used for cooking -- only for cold foods or added to hot foods after they've been cooked. Remember that if you use flaxseed oil, you will not get the beneficial fiber found in the ground or whole seeds.

Cooking With Flaxseeds

Flaxseeds have a nutty flavor that lends itself well to muffins, breads, pancake mixes, cookies and more. They can also be added, in ground form, to cereals, smoothies and vegetables. If you'd like to introduce flaxseeds to your family, try out the two tasty recipes below!

Flaxseed Muffins

1 cup flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup ground flaxseeds meal
1/2 cup quick oats
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup egg substitute
1 cup buttermilk
4 tablespoons honey
2/3 cup raisins

  1. Mix all dry ingredients together in a bowl.
  2. Combine liquid ingredients in a separate bowl; keep raisins in reserve.
  3. Stir liquid ingredients into dry ingredients all at once, add raisins and stir until thoroughly moistened but the batter still appears lumpy.
  4. Fill muffin tins lined with paper or foil cups about two-thirds full. Bake at 400°F for 20 to 25 minutes.

Makes 12 muffins.
Source: iVillage Recipe Finder

Flax Oatmeal Cookies

1 1/3 cups butter
1 1/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups lightly packed brown sugar
2 1/3 cups flaxseed, ground
3 large eggs
1 1/2 tsp vanilla
3 1/2 cups unbleached white flour
1 Tb baking soda
3 cups oats, rolled, regular old fashioned

  1. In bowl, cream butter and sugars; add flaxseeds.
  2. In another bowl, beat eggs and vanilla together.
  3. Combine with flax mixture.
  4. Sift together the flour and baking soda. Mix in oatmeal and combine with other ingredients.
  5. Form dough into 1-1/2" round logs. Place in freezer and chill. Preheat oven to 350°.
  6. Slice dough logs into 1/4" medallions. Place on parchment lined baking sheet leaving about 2" space between cookies.
  7. Bake 13-15 minutes. Remove from sheet and cool on wire rack.

Makes approximately 108 cookies.
Source: Bob's Red Mill



World's Healthiest Foods

Whole Health MD

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