How to Eat Flax Seeds (and Why You Want To!)
Flax seeds are one of the OG superfoods. They’re cheap, they’re packed with omega 3 fatty acids, they’re on my high fibre food list, and they’re easy to find at the supermarket. They’re also tiny brown seeds that you can’t exactly pop a handful of…so maybe you’re wondering how to eat flax seeds, yes? I’ve got you! Just read on.
What is flax seed?
Flax seed, or linseed, is a tiny plant powerhouse that contains fibre, omega 3s and other important phytochemicals. The flax plant is also famous for another type of fibre – linen! – although the plant we grow for flax seed is a different varietal than the one that produces good linen cloth.
The best form of flax seed to buy
You can buy flax as either whole seed, ground flax seed, or flaxseed oil. If you are willing to grind it yourself in a coffee grinder, whole flax seed is the least expensive and has the best shelf life – up to a year in the freezer. You don’t want to really eat it whole, though, as you won’t get the same benefit of the omega 3s and lignans. So if you’re not down with grinding flax at home, the best way to buy your flax is already ground! I’m a wee bit lazy, so that’s what I do.
How to Store Ground Flax Seed
Why does it matter that you grind up your flax? Compared to the whole flax seed, ground flaxseed has been milled to break up the seed coat barrier that protects all the nutrients found in the center of the seed. This process makes it easier to digest and absorb the nutrients in flax, whereas whole flax seed would need to be very finely chewed and broken down before digestion in order to reach those omega 3s and lignans. And honestly, we simply don’t chew that carefully to make that realistic so opt for ground flax seeds to maximize nutrition.
The downside to grinding flax is that it’s also more prone to spoilage, as the light- and heat- sensitive omega 3 fatty acids are exposed. However, I typically recommend you store your flax in the fridge or freezer anyways…so I buy ground flax and just toss it in the freezer for safe keeping. Ground flaxseed can be stored in an airtight container in the fridge or freezer for up to 6 months to prevent any oxidation of the seed.
How to Store Flax Seed Oil
Flaxseed oil is even more delicate than ground flax, as it contains the highest amount of the omega 3 ALA. It can also make you a bit queasy if you overdo it, so stick to 1 tsp of oil when you are starting out. Store flax oil (which should always be packaged in a light proof dark bottle) in the fridge where it can last up to 6 months. It’s important to check your flax oil before using to make sure it hasn’t gone rancid – if it smells strongly like paint thinner, it’s time to toss.
How to eat flax seeds
Flaxseeds are really easy to use, and super versatile! Here are just a few ways you can incorporate them into your daily diet.
- Shake it on: add ground flax to your cereal, oatmeal, yogurt, smoothie or soup (after heating!). Ground flax has a nutty taste and a bit of a sandy texture so start with 1 tsp and work your way up to 1 tbsp as you enjoy.
- Egg replacer: a great way to go egg free in baking while boosting omega 3 fats is to make a ‘flax egg’: for each egg, substitute 1 tablespoon of ground flax, mixed with 2 tablespoons of warm water. The way to do it is to mix the flax and water in a separate bowl and let it sit for 5 minutes to gel before mixing in according to recipe instructions. The soluble fibres in eggs make an excellent binder.
- Baking: you can also just add ¼ cup of ground flax to many cookie, muffin, and quick bread recipes. Adding more than that, because of the gelling ability, might change the texture of your recipe.
Flax Seed Recipes
I’ve got a whole bunch of recipe links for using omega 3 rich seeds like chia, hemp and flax, but here are a few that will help get you started on that flax life!
- Flax Seed Crackers
- Peanut Butter Flax Seed Pancake By Minimalist Baker
- Banana Almond Smoothie with Flax from Cookie + Kate
- Banana Oat Chia Muffins (uses a flax egg!) from The Full Helping
- Overnight flax oatmeal (sub non-dairy milk in this one obv!)
Flax seeds nutritional value
Now that you know how to eat flax seeds…maybe you want a little more info on why they are so good for you? Ground flax, as I mentioned, has a lot of omega 3 fatty acids alongside unique compounds called lignans, so let’s talk a bit more about those.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Flax is famous because it contains high amounts of an omega 3 fatty acid called alpha linolenic acid (ALA). One tablespoon of ground flax seed contains 1.6g of omega 3 fatty acids – 100% of your daily omega 3 need. For the record, a woman needs 1.1g of omega 3 fatty acids daily, and a man needs 1.6g.
Omega 3 fatty acids are known for their anti-inflammatory properties and supporting heart health. Health Canada even put out a statement in 2014 stating that eating 40 grams (about 6 tablespoons – so that’s kind of a lot) of ground flaxseed spread out throughout the day, can help lower blood cholesterol, which is a risk factor for heart disease.
Lignans – What you need to know about phytoestrogens and flax
Of the three omega 3 rich seeds – hemp, chia and flax – flax is unique in that it contains lignans.
Flaxseed lignans are non-steroidal phytoestrogens with a similar structure to the estrogen found in our bodies. Now before you get freaked out by the term phytoestrogens…let me explain!
The main lignan in flaxseed is called secoisolariciresinol diglucoside, and yes that’s a mouthful so let’s call it SDG. This SDG is the part of the flaxseed known to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory potential, but it isn’t actually active until our gut bacteria metabolize it. Once in our gut, this SDG will be metabolized into enterolignans, which are the compounds with estrogenic potential.
Eating flax seed isn’t like taking hormone replacement though. Typically, phytoestrogens are thought of as weak estrogens, meaning that they don’t bind the estrogen receptors in our body as strongly as our own estrogen does. Because of this, it is possible that phytoestrogens in flax have hormone moderating, or even anti-estrogen effects.
SDG has been studied in various animal models to have shown protective effects against some cancers, by blocking tumor formation, and increasing self-destruction of some cancer cells. But this kind of research isn’t exactly applicable to humans in the real world. Human clinical trials are still in early stages, mostly with a focus on breast cancer. In the limited trials we have, there is some suggested benefit of taking lignan-rich flax seeds to support hormonal health and breast cancer risk.
After reading the research and looking at the evidence available, I think that flaxseeds are a safe and nutrient-dense whole food that is a beneficial part of an anti-inflammatory diet.
Of course, as with soy, I don’t recommend supplementing with isolated lignans or eating abnormal doses of flax (such as ½ cup a day) as we are unsure of the effects of extremely high doses of flax. Instead, adding 1-3 tablespoons of ground flaxseeds to your meals is a great way to increase your intake of omega 3s, lignans (antioxidant), and fibre!
Other Nutrients in Flax Seeds
Flax packs a lot of nutrition into a tiny package. Alongside omega 3s and lignans, one little tablespoon of flax seed also contains the following:
- 1.3 g protein
- 1.9 g fibre – including both soluble and insoluble fibre
- 28 mg magnesium for your bones and nervous system
- 58 mg potassium for your heart
- Small amounts of selenium, zinc, folate and iron
Flax seed and Breast Cancer
The most studied areas of flaxseeds effect on human health has been around cardiovascular health, cancer, and its antioxidant capacity because of the lignans and omega 3s.
I think that ground flax is absolutely a healthy plant-based food. However, I wanted to take the opportunity to share some resources in case you are thinking about eating flaxseed with a history of, or current diagnosis of estrogen-related breast cancer.
Read these professional statements for background and then ALWAYS talk to your doctor before making any changes to your diet.
Academy of Dietetics Oncology Dietitians Group
BC Cancer Agency Nutrition for Breast Cancer Resource
Sloan Kettering Flaxseed Summary
A big thank you to Year 5 Dietetic Student Natalie Sousa for helping me put this article together! Photo by Monika Grabkowska on Unsplash