New Report: Flax Benefits Are Best from Seeds, Not Oil

Omega-3 fats in flax lower cholesterol and decrease inflammation, but it seems to work best if you get it from seeds.

July 28, 2009

Sprinkle some flax on those flakes, but make sure they're ground.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—A recent meta-analysis of 28 studies found that flaxseed—in the right form—can significantly lower cholesterol levels, particularly among postmenopausal women. The research appears in this month’s American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

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THE DETAILS: Researchers set out to see how flaxseed products affected cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Combing through 28 existing, peer-reviewed studies on flax, they found that use of flaxseed, not flaxseed oil, lowered levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol, generally without altering HDL (good) cholesterol levels. The cholesterol-lowering effects, which ranged from about 10 to 20 percent, were most apparent in women, particularly postmenopausal women with high cholesterol to begin with. This doesn’t mean men should shy away from flax. Most of the studies looking at flax in men’s diets used flax oil, which apparently doesn’t lower cholesterol the way flaxseed does.

“Flaxseed is a delicious way and a great option for those who do not like fish, or are looking for an alternative food choice to lower their risk for heart disease, help prevent some forms of cancer, relieve constipation, and improve blood sugar control of diabetes,” explains Toby Smithson, RD, registered dietician with the Lake County Health Department in Illinois and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. “Flaxseed contains three beneficial elements, which include omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, and phytochemical lignans, plant chemicals that are helpful in the prevention of chronic disease.”

WHAT IT MEANS: Flax is a source of omega-3 ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), which your body can partially convert to the more usable omega-3s DHA and EPA, which are also found in fatty fish. While you can buy flaxseed oil, current research points to the seeds offering the best benefits.

Here’s what you need to know about flax:

• Go for ground seeds. Look for milled flaxseed at your chain grocery store or at specialty food stores, or buy whole flaxseed and grind it in a coffee grinder before you use it. Eating whole flaxseeds can add crunch and color to your food, says Smithson, but it can pass through your body undigested, so make sure you take it ground up. Sprinkle the flax into cereal, yogurt, or salads.

• Add gradually. Smithson recommends eating 8 grams (1 tablespoon) of milled flaxseed daily. This will provide 1.8 grams of ALA. Because flax is also high in fiber, make sure you start with a smaller amount and build up to the 8 grams, to avoid constipation. Make sure you drink plenty of water, too. The fiber in flaxseed may decrease your body’s ability to absorb medication, so try not to consume flax at the same time you take your medicine,” warns Smithson. Flax is also being added to many food products, so be sure to factor that into your daily total.