If you’re interested in improving the quality of your diet, adding small amounts of flaxseed to your favorite foods is a quick and tasty way to accomplish your goal.
The flax plant is the source of fiber from which linen is woven, and it also yields edible seeds and oil. Flax has been part of the human diet for thousands of years, and for just as long, it has been valued for its health-promoting properties.
Flaxseed is a rich source of a number of beneficial nutrients, including vitamins, minerals and protein. With about 3 grams of fiber per tablespoon, flaxseed is a good source of roughage.
Adding more fiber to your diet can lower blood sugar and cholesterol levels, reducing the risk for heart disease and stroke. The combination of oil and fiber in flaxseed make it an excellent laxative and an effective remedy for sluggish bowels and chronic constipation.
Flaxseed contains plant estrogens called lignans. These natural compounds have been found to possess anti-tumor properties and appear to be especially beneficial in reducing the risk of breast and colon cancer.
In the body, lignans act as weak estrogens. Because their chemical structure is similar to the structure of the hormone estrogen produced by the female body, they’re capable of binding to the same cellular receptors.
When hormone-sensitive cells, including those of the breast and uterus, are occupied by the weak plant estrogens in flaxseed, they appear to be less susceptible to the cancer-causing effects of human estrogen.
While consumption of flaxseed is believed to help prevent breast cancer, researchers from the University of Toronto found that it also may be useful in the treatment of the disease. For their study, the Canadian scientists asked postmenopausal women who had been recently diagnosed with breast cancer to eat either a plain muffin or a muffin containing 25 grams of flaxseed every day for four weeks.
Women who ate the flaxseed muffins showed a significant reduction in the rate of tumor growth, as well as an increase in the death of cancerous cells. Based on their findings, the researchers concluded that dietary flaxseed has the potential to reduce tumor growth in women with breast cancer.
As plant estrogens, the lignans in flaxseed can help alleviate some symptoms of menopause.
Scientists at the Mayo Clinic found that postmenopausal women who consumed 40 grams of crushed flaxseed daily for six weeks experienced a welcome 57 percent reduction in the frequency and severity of hot flashes.
The women also reported noticeable improvements in mood, as well as reductions in joint and muscle pain. Combined, the benefits of consuming flaxseed significantly improved their health-related quality of life.
Flaxseed is an important source of an essential omega-3 fatty acid known as alpha-linolenic acid. Because essential fatty acids cannot be manufactured by the human body, they must be obtained from the diet.
Hundreds of scientific studies performed over the last decade suggest that most Americans don’t get enough omega-3 fatty acids for good health. Increased consumption of these beneficial fats has been shown to reduce the risk for heart disease by lowering cholesterol levels and decreasing the clotting potential of the blood.
The essential fatty acids in flaxseed have been credited with improving symptoms of dry eyes, psoriasis and eczema. Omega-3 fatty acids are known to possess potent anti-inflammatory properties, making flax a popular remedy for arthritis and other inflammatory diseases.
Flax is available at many supermarkets and most health food stores. Whole flaxseed can be eaten alone or added to other foods, but because the seeds may not be fully digested, other forms may be more beneficial.
Ground flaxseed is easier to digest and simple to use: You can add a tablespoon or two of ground flaxseed to hot or cold cereals or to a cup of yogurt. Adding a quarter-cup of ground flaxseed to recipes can boost the flavor and nutritional quality of baked goods, including muffins and breads, as well as meatloaf, chili and casseroles.
Flaxseed oil is best used as an ingredient in cold preparations, such as salad dressings and smoothies. While the oil is a good source of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, it doesn’t contain the protein, fiber or lignans found in the seeds of the flax plant.
Adding a sprinkle of ground flaxseed or a dash of flaxseed oil to your favorite foods is a simple way to improve the quality of your diet. It’s also a smart strategy to enhance your overall health.
Rallie McAllister is a board-certified family physician, speaker and the author of several books, including “Healthy Lunchbox: The Working Mom’s Guide to Keeping You and Your Kids Trim.” Her website is http://www.rallieonhealth.com. To find out more about Rallie McAllister, M.D., and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at http://www.creators.com.