Although many people are just learning about the benefits of flax, these seeds are hardly newcomers around the world.
For centuries, flax has been cultivated in Europe, where the plant's fiber was used to make linen and the seeds were pressed to make oil for home and commercial use. Its' old name is linseed oil. Today, flax is recognized as a source of three important nutrients: healthy fiber, protective lignans and essential fats.
The seeds (not the oil) contain the soluble fiber known to lower cholesterol, regulate blood sugar and reduce the risk of some forms of cancer. Flax also contains generous amounts of insoluble fiber, which is needed to regulate elimination.
Is there a difference between brown and golden flax? Not at all, according to the Flax Council of Canada. Both seeds contain the same nutritional value and are a complete protein source.
For the highest quality seeds, shop for whole organic seeds and store them in the refrigerator or freezer. Although pre-ground flax meal is convenient, there is a high risk of rancidity once the seeds have been ground. For that reason it's best to grind your flax fresh for immediate use. The seeds need to be ground to release the nutrients inside.
The pleasant, nutty-tasting ground seeds can be added to smoothies, juices, salads and cereals. In baking bread and muffins, lower heat methods (below 300 degrees) are recommended to retain most of the value.
Andrew Weil, integrative physician, recommends both men and women add ground flax daily to foods like yogurt or applesauce. As little as two tablespoons a day of ground flax seeds slower tumor growth in women with breast cancer in a study conducted by Canada's Princess Margaret Hospital. Early studies with flax and men showed decreased PSA levels with three tablespoons of ground flax, along with a low-fat diet.
There has been some negative research concerning flax oil (not the seeds) for men regarding prostate cancer, because of the higher ALA content in the oil, which is why Dr. Weil recommends only the seeds, not the oil, for men. Seeds contain a smaller amount of ALA, but higher fiber than the oil.
The "good" fats found in flax are called alpha linolenic acid or ALA. They belong to the same family of oils found in fish. Flax seeds provide the most basic Omega 3, ALA, which the body can convert into the two other Omega 3 fats,
EPA and DHA. Fish oil, however, provides both EPA and DHA directly. Which one you take is a matter of personal preference. You may respond differently to each. Some people convert ALA into EPA and DHA more readily than others. These oils are believed to fight inflammation, improve concentration, provide cardiovascular protection and reduce depressive disorders.
Flax oil requires refrigeration to avoid rancidity. Freezing extends the shelf life. Do not fry or heat flax oil because high heat destroys the Omega 3s.
Lignans, a component of flax fiber, are phytonutrients being studied for cancer-fighting benefits. Flax contains more lignans than any other food. The seeds are the most reliable source. Lignans are phytoestrogens and protective against hormonally-induced cancers such as breast and prostate. They function as antioxidants that bind with toxins and help eliminate them.
Women receive the most benefits. Flax can be considered natural hormone therapy. Regular flax consumption may relieve hot flashes, mood swings and dryness and reduce breast tenderness during perimenopause. Many women also report healthier looking hair, skin and nails.
Flax oil and seeds help the body burn fat and speed up metabolism, explains nutritionist Ann Louise Gittlemen.
In her bestseller, "The Fat Flush Plan," she includes a daily flax/cranberry "cocktail" plus additional flax oil to stimulate production of bile, crucial to the breakdown of toxins stored in fat cells. She believes weight gain occurs when liver function is sluggish.
The facts about flax can be simply put: good fats, plus healthy fiber, plus fat-burning equals big benefits from these tiny seeds.
The information in this article is for educational purposes. Consult your physician if you have a medical condition.
Margot Bennett is a licensed nutritionist at Mother Nature's Pantry, located in the Garden Square Shoppes, 4513 PGA Blvd. in Palm Beach Gardens. Call her at (561) 626-4461.