Flax as a regular part of the diet
Prairie flax is a high quality food. It contains the essential omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids - alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and linoleic acid respectively; fibre; and lignans. Health experts encourage the regular use of flax in the diet for better health.
Omega-3 fatty acid
About 42% of the flax seed is oil, and more than 70% of that oil is of the healthful polyunsaturated fat. Too much of the diet today is composed of saturated and trans fatty acids. The flax seed oil component contains 57% of the important omega-3 fatty acid, ALA. A unique feature of flax is the high ratio of ALA to linoleic acid (omega-6 fatty acid).
Nutritionists consider these two polyunsaturated fatty acids as essential because the body cannot manufacture them from any other substances. This means they must be eaten as a part of the diet. While other plant seeds — corn, sunflower, peanuts — contains the omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acid, flax contains much more of the essential omega-3 fatty acid.
Flax seed contains soluble and insoluble fibre. Soluble fibre can lower blood cholesterol levels, while insoluble fibre moves the stool through the colon more quickly, helping with regular bowel movements. What makes flax stand out above other whole grains is its mix of fibre. Rather than containing large amounts of one type of fibre, flax seeds contain generous quantities of both soluble and insoluble fibre.
Most of the soluble fibre in flax seeds is mucilage, a thick, sticky substance. Few studies have looked at the direct effects of mucilage on health. But studies show that eating flax (baked into muffins and breads) can lower blood cholesterol levels. Since it is well known that soluble fibres — fruit pectin, oat bran or mustard seed mucilage — are effective cholesterol-lowering agents, it's likely that the soluble fibre in flax seeds is no exception.
Not surprisingly, studies show that the insoluble fibre in flax, like that in wheat bran, is helpful for regulating bowel movements and preventing constipation. Because flax's insoluble fibre components have the capacity to hold water, they help soften the stool and allow it to move through the colon more quickly.
Flax seed is also one of the richest plant sources of lignans, providing up to 800 times more lignans than most other plant derived foods. Lignans are phytoestrogens – compounds that have been shown in laboratory studies of animals to help protect against certain kinds of cancer, particularly cancers of the breast and colon, by blocking tumour formation. When bacteria in the digestive tract act on plant lignans these compounds are converted into potent hormone-like substances. Research with animals suggests that the newly formed compounds may be capable of blocking the action of certain cancer-causing substances in the body, substances that can contribute to the formation of tumours.
Currently , scientists are trying to determine how effective lignans and other chemicals in foods (phytochemicals) are at preventing cancer. They are also looking over evidence that suggests the omega-3 fatty acids in flax are potential anticarcinogens.
Health Benefits of Flax
The omega-3 fatty acids have a balancing role in the diet. They correct imbalances in modern diets, such as from eating foods high in saturated and trans-fatty acids that can lead to health problems. Nutritionists caution that the amount of omega-3 fatty acids eaten in North America no longer meets our bodies’ requirements. You can balance your consumption of fatty acids by adding flax to your diet. Current research shows eating flax seed provides health benefits.
A lower risk for heart disease
Nutritionists advise paying attention to the kinds of fats eaten. They suggest you eat less saturated and trans-fatty acids, and more polyunsaturated fatty acids – which flax provides. Studies show a diet high in ALA reduces the risk of heart disease by lowering cholesterol and by preventing the buildup of harmful deposits in arteries. In other studies, where scientists studied large groups of people to find disease trends, increasing the ALA content of the diet corresponded to a decrease in risk of stroke and heart disease.
In a St. Boniface Hospital/University of Manitoba joint research study on the impact of 30grams of flaxseed consumed daily by half of 110 study participants for a period of six months, blood pressure levels dropped sufficiently to decrease the risk of a stroke by 50% and the risk of a heart attack by 30%. Thirty grams is equal to about three heaping tablespoons of flax.
Prevention of some forms of cancer
The link between diet and cancer is well-known. As flax contains dietary fibre and the omega-3 fatty acid in the form of ALA, it can reduce the risk of cancer. Studies showed the ALA in flax slowed inflammation which led to cell growth in cancer. Another study on women newly diagnosed with breast cancer showed a slowing of tumour growth with the addition of flax to their diet.
Treatment of immune disorders
The lignans and ALA in flax help prevent inflammation that affects the body’s immune system. Flax in the diet may be useful in the treatment of such immune disorders as rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis and lupus.
Studies show flax lowers blood glucose levels in healthy, young adults. The effect of flax in the diets of people with Type 2 diabetes is currently being investigated.
Relief from constipation
Studies in older adults show flax consumption helps increase the frequency of bowel movements.
Antioxidants help to stabilize the polyunsaturated fatty acids in vegetable oils and limit the production of free fatty acids which are known to enhance cancer growth. Antioxidants like those in flaxseed are important to our immune system and may help us lower the risk of certain diseases including heart disease and cancer.
It is recommended to consume 1-2 tablespoons of flaxseed a day to supplement your diet. To get the most value out of the flax seed it needs to be milled as whole raw flax seed tends to pass through the digestive system intact. Keep milled flax seed in a cool, dry place or your freezer. If kept cool it has an average shelf life of one year.
For more information on the nutritional value of flax seed consult the Flax Council of Canada website at http://www.flaxcouncil.ca