If you’re looking to slip more nutrition into your diet without even trying, you might want to befriend flaxseed.
“Flaxseed is widely available and is sold in its whole or milled form,” says registered dietitian nutritionist Heather Shasa. “Opt for the milled, ground, or crushed options as the milling process helps to unleash the power from the flaxseed, giving you access to its amazing nutrients.”
And those amazing nutrients do a lot.
Flaxseeds are good for your heart, hormone, and gut health, plus they are a plant-based omega-3 food, says Amanda Sauceda, M.S., R.D. As Sauceda notes, if you buy flaxseeds in whole form, you can use a coffee grinder to pulverize them before consuming the seeds.
But before going all-in on flaxseeds, take note of this advice from Sauceda: “Flax is so fiber-packed that your gut may not be a fan of it at first,” she says, advising to add flaxseed into your diet slowly and to drink more water.
As Sauceda says, if you eat whole flaxseeds, you may see whole flaxseed appear in your stool (wee!) due to its fibers making it harder for you to digest. “This shouldn’t be a problem as long as you don’t find a lot of undigested food in your poop and your gut is tolerating the fiber,” says Sauceda.
But there’s much to explore about flaxseed, too, like what flaxseeds actually are, why they’re so healthy, and the sort-of-complicated nature of those omega-3s.
Here’s what nutrition experts have to say about all that—and more.
What are flaxseeds?
“Flaxseeds are the edible seeds of the flax plant and are used to make flaxseed, or linseed oil,” says Shasa, noting that flaxseeds have a slightly nutty flavor. “Flaxseed is among the richest sources of lignans, a compound naturally found in plants. Lignans can act as an antioxidant, which may reduce damage to our cells, decrease inflammation, and help reduce your risk for certain diseases.”
Are flaxseeds healthy?
Here’s the nutrition breakdown: “Two tablespoons of ground flaxseed is roughly 15 grams and that would give you almost three grams of protein, three grams of ALA fatty acids (a type of omega-3 found in plants), and 3.5 grams of fiber,” says Sauceda, referencing the USDA’s FoodData Central. A two-tablespoon serving of ground flaxseed has approximately 75 calories.
And flaxseeds provide a variety of health benefits. First, they’ve got good-for-you fat. Flaxseed is an excellent source of alpha-linolenic acid—the aforementioned ALA—which is an omega-3 essential fatty acid, said Shasa.
That said, the levels of omega-3 fatty acids in flaxseeds pale in comparison to fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines—so take label language on flaxseed products with a grain of skepticism.
“The fiber found in flaxseed may enhance its lipid-lowering effects,” Shasa says. “Research shows that 30-50g of flaxseed daily reduces total cholesterol by 5% to 15% and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol by 8% to 18%. Evidence from small clinical studies with individuals with prediabetes and diabetes shows a modest decrease in fasting blood sugar and insulin levels. The potential health benefits don’t end there. Preliminary clinical research shows that flaxseed may affect the prostate by reducing markers of prostate cancer levels, specifically prostate-specific antigen (PSA) and may also help slow the growth of prostate cancer cells.”
As previously mentioned, flaxseeds’ lignans content is also a boon for health. “There’s an interesting paper that discusses a connection with lignans interacting with our gut microbiome and being converted into a compound that has anti-cancer properties and possibly impacting our brain health as well through the gut-brain axis,” says Sauceda.
Lastly, flaxseeds may play a role in supporting cardiovascular health. “While ground flaxseed might be easier to digest, there is also research looking at the benefits of whole flaxseed on heart health,” says Sauceda. “Whole flaxseed has been found to positively impact total cholesterol and the ‘bad’ cholesterol a.k.a. LDL.” She also notes flaxseed oil may also have some anti-inflammatory effects.
How do you eat flaxseeds?
While they aren’t something you’ll want to eat as a snack, flaxseeds can be added to a variety of dishes. It bears repeating: “The best way to eat flax seeds is ground because you will get more of their nutrition that way. Whole flaxseeds are hard to digest and grinding them makes it easier for your body to access its nutrients,” says Sauceda.
A couple of ways Sauceda suggests using flaxseeds is to sprinkle ground flax into your morning bowl of oats or in your smoothie. “Ground flax can also be used as your crumb for chicken tenders,” she said. “Because flax seeds have a lot of fiber they can also be used as a thickening agent like in a creamy salad dressing.”
Shasa also highlights that you can use flaxseed as a vegan replacement for eggs in baked goods. Just combine one tablespoon of flaxseed with three tablespoons of water, letting the mixture thicken for five to 10 minutes.
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