Flaxseed: Little Seed, Big Benefits

How and why you should be adding flax to your diet
flax seed added to salad

“Superfoods” go in and out of fashion faster than you can press “start” on your blender. For example: flaxseed. But hold on. Just because social media influencers may have left flax behind doesn’t mean you should.

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“Flaxseed has many nutritional benefits,” says dietitian Julia Zumpano, RD. “There are so many reasons to add it to your diet.”

Flaxseed benefits

Why do dietitians love flaxseed? Let us count the ways:

  1. Omega-3 fatty acids. Flaxseed (its closest friends call it “flax”) is chock-full of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a type of fatty acid that benefits heart health. Fish is famously the best source of omega-3s, but some plants also pack an ALA punch. Flax happens to be the richest plant source of ALAs in the North American diet, making it a great choice for vegetarians and omnivores alike. 
  2. Lignans. These are a type of phytoestrogen, a group of compounds that are linked to a reduced risk of developing osteoporosis, heart disease and breast cancer. Lignans also have antioxidant properties. “Antioxidants protect cells from damage,” Zumpano explains. A lignan-rich diet may help ward off diseases such as heart disease and cancer. And flax happens to contain 75 to 800 times more lignans than other plant foods.
  3. Fiber. Flax is an excellent source of soluble fiber, which absorbs water and slows down digestion. Soluble fiber can help lower cholesterol, stabilize blood sugar levels and lower the risk of heart disease.
  4. Protein. Flaxseed is a good source of high-quality plant protein, comparable to soybeans.
  5. Potassium. Potassium is a mineral that’s important for cell and muscle function and helps maintain normal blood pressure. But many Americans don’t get enough. Enter flaxseed, which has more potassium than (the famously potassium-rich) bananas.

How to shop for flaxseed

Flax comes in several forms. Here’s what you need to know before you start using this superseed.

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  • Whole flax has the longest shelf life, but it’s hard for your body to break down. You’ll have to grind it in a food processor or coffee grinder first, Zumpano says. Otherwise, all those nutrients will go in one end and out the other.
  • Pre-ground or milled flax can save you time, but it does have a shorter shelf life than whole seeds, Zumpano says. Check expiration dates and only buy as much as you can use before they expire. You can also store flax in the fridge to ward off spoiling. (Past its prime, flax becomes rancid. It will have a sour smell and bitter taste.)
  • Flax oil is full of fatty acids, but it lacks the fiber of flaxseed. It’s a convenient way to boost your omega-3 intake but doesn’t contain all the goodness of ground flax. And it has an even shorter shelf life, Zumpano says, so keep an eye on the use-by date.

How to enjoy flaxseed

Ready to start reaping the benefits from this little seed? Zumpano recommends aiming for about 2 tablespoons of seeds a day. But you might not want to start with that amount right out of the gate. Like any high-fiber food, it can make you feel a little bloated if you’re not used to it. “I suggest starting with a teaspoon a day and working your way up to 2 tablespoons,” she says.

Flax has a mild, nutty flavor. Often, you can’t even taste it when you mix it into other foods. And you can add it to just about anything, Zumpano says. These are some of her favorites:

  • Sprinkle flax on yogurt, cottage cheese or oatmeal.
  • Add a spoonful to your salad.
  • Stir flaxseed into sauces or soups.
  • Scoop some flax into smoothies or protein shakes.
  • Add flax to baked goods such as muffins or pancakes. You can even use it as a flour substitute: Swap up to 3/4 cup of the flour in the recipe for flax. (If a recipe calls for 1 cup of flour, for example, use half flour and half flax.)
  • Replace an egg. For a plant-based egg substitute, mix 1 tablespoon of flax with 3 tablespoons of water. Let it sit until it forms a gel. Use it in recipes in place of eggs. It’s great for making vegan-friendly recipes and can help you cut cholesterol from your diet.

Is flax right for you?

Most people can benefit from adding flaxseed to their diets. But there are a few cases where Zumpano recommends caution. Talk to your doctor first if you have:

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  • Kidney disease or other problems that affect potassium levels, since flax is high in potassium.
  • Hormone-related cancers, such as ovarian or breast cancer, since flax contains phytoestrogens. (While flax can be beneficial in preventing cancer, check with your doctor if you’re being treated for these cancers.)
  • If you have diverticulitis or diverticulosis you may need to avoid flaxseeds – specifically whole flaxseeds, but ground or finely milled flaxseed may be tolerated. Flaxseed oil is good option if you want to avoid the seeds completely especially in a flare up.

Most people, however, have good reason to get friendly with flax. Need more proof that flaxseed is worth the effort? It’s so good for you that its nutritional benefits outweigh its calories, Zumpano says. “Flax has only about 60 calories per 2-tablespoon serving. I suggest people don’t count them if they’re logging calories,” she says. “It’s so beneficial that the calories don’t matter.”

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