Should You Be Eating Flaxseeds? The Health Benefits, Risks, and Nutrition
This seed is small, but it's packed with fiber and omega-3 fatty acids. Here are the health benefits and risks of flaxseeds you should know, plus how to add them to your diet.
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Packed with vitamins and nutrients, flaxseeds are a nutritional powerhouse with many benefits. They have been linked to helping with digestive issues and weight loss, as well as possibly reducing the risk of heart disease, cancer, and type 2 diabetes in some people.
Here’s everything you should know about this superseed, including health benefits, risks, and how to add them to your diet.
What are flaxseeds and where do they come from?
Flaxseeds are small, oil-based seeds, that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids and fiber. They come from the flax plant, which originated in the Middle East, and has been around since about 3000 B.C.
The flax plant was widely used in ancient Greek cuisine, as well as in ancient Roman medicine. It has historically been used as a laxative as well as for soothing irritated tissue in the body, as a cough remedy, and at times, for natural pain relief.
The plants were introduced in the U.S. by colonists who first used the fiber to make clothing.
There are two basic types of flaxseeds sold in stores—brown and gold, and both have the same nutrient makeup.
“You can also find pre-ground flaxseeds at most grocery stores, but I suggest buying them whole and grinding them yourself to preserve the omega-3 oils,” says Danielle Walker, New York Times best-selling cookbook author of Against All Grain.
While you can consume flaxseeds whole, they tend to pass through you mostly undigested, so you need to grind them up (in a coffee grinder, for example) to get the full health benefits.
They’re available as a seed, or can be made into oil, powder, tablets, and flour, says New York-based registered dietitian and virtual nutrition coach Chelsea Gold.
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Flaxseeds are loaded with fiber, protein, antioxidants, and omega-3s—which are all responsible for their many health benefits. They’re also a great source of vitamins and minerals.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, one tablespoon, which is the standard serving size, of flaxseeds contain the following nutrients:
- Fat: 4.3 g
- Sodium: 3.1 mg
- Carbohydrates: 3 g
- Fiber: 2.8 g
- Sugar: 0.2 g
- Protein: 1.9 g
- Calcium: 26.3 mg
- Iron: .6 mg
- Potassium: 83.7 mg
- Magnesium: 40.4 mg
- Manganese: 0.26 mg
- Zinc: .45 mg
Health benefits of flaxseeds
“Flaxseeds are extremely good for us,” says Gold. “They are so versatile and have been used for years and years in different culinary facets because of their many benefits.”
Some of these benefits include improved digestion, and a reduced risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer. They are packed with vitamins and minerals like thiamine, which help you use energy; magnesium, which has anti-inflammatory benefits, reduces insulin resistance, and can lower blood pressure; and phosphorus, which helps build strong teeth, helps you recover post-workout, and helps grow and repair tissues and cells.
“They are one of the richest dietary sources of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is an essential fatty acid and antioxidant that your body cannot produce on its own,” says Gold. ALA helps protect the body’s cells from damage, fights diabetes, and can help prevent cancer.
One of the most interesting benefits of flaxseeds is primarily for women. “Flaxseeds have something called lignans, which is a phytoestrogen,” says Gold. “Phytoestrogens are plant compounds that are very similar to estrogen, one of the female sex hormones. Lignans have been linked to reducing the risk of several hormone-sensitive cancers like breast and uterus cancer.”
Flaxseeds and weight loss
Because of the vitamins and nutrients packed into flaxseeds, not only are they a superfood, but they can also be very useful when it comes to weight loss.
“They contain soluble fiber which can help with cravings and feeling full,” says Gold. “They are a high fiber food, and provide protein, and omega-3 fatty acids.”
When you feel full longer, you’re less likely to overeat, which can help with weight loss.
Flaxseed risks and side effects
As with many high fiber foods, consuming too much, too quickly may cause gastrointestinal distress including bloating, gas, stomachaches, and diarrhea. And if you develop a reaction to flaxseeds, you may be allergic to them.
For most adults, consuming the typical daily serving size of about one tablespoon is safe. But, if you’re taking a blood pressure-lowering medication, you need to exercise caution since flaxseeds may help lower high blood pressure.
This interaction can lead blood pressure levels to drop too low, also known as hypotension. You may want to avoid flaxseeds if you take medication for diabetes. Flaxseeds are known to lower blood sugar levels, which can interfere with drugs intended to do the same. It’s always best to talk with your doctor.
Note: You may want to avoid or limit your intake of raw flaxseeds. Raw flaxseeds can have toxic compounds that are neutralized when toasted or baked.
Pregnant women may also want to avoid flaxseeds due to the phytoestrogens they contain, although there is limited research on their safety in pregnancy.
Best way to eat flaxseeds
There are many different ways to use flaxseeds. Flaxseeds don’t necessarily need to be prepared a certain way, but you will get the most omega-3s and ALA if you grind them fresh, or chew them really well, explains Walker.
“I don’t usually season them, unless I am adding them to my homemade granola, which contains spices such as cinnamon, vanilla or pumpkin spice,” she says. “Some of my other favorite ways to use them are adding a spoonful or two into a smoothie, sprinkling some over yogurt, as an egg replacement in vegan baked goods (known as a flax egg), or into homemade granola. You can also buy flaxseed oil from the grocery store and use that as a base for salad dressings.” Flax milk is also gaining popularity as a plant-based milk.
Want to give flaxseeds a try? Walker shared her homemade granola recipe.
Chocolate Berry Granola
Makes 4 cups
1 cup raw almonds
1 cup raw walnuts
1/2 cup raw pecan halves
1/2 cup raw hazelnuts
1/4 cup raw sunflower seeds
1 tablespoon golden flaxseeds
1 1/4 teaspoons sea salt, divided
1 cup honey
3 tablespoons coconut oil
2 tablespoons raw cacao
1 1/2 tablespoons pure vanilla extract
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1/2 cup shredded, unsweetened coconut
1/4 cup dark chocolate chunks
1/2 cup freeze-dried strawberries
Place all the nuts and seeds in a bowl. Add enough water to cover by one inch and stir in 1 teaspoon of the salt. Cover and let soak for 24 hours.
Drain the nuts and seeds and place on a paper towel to absorb the remaining water. Transfer to the bowl of a food processor and pulse the nuts until they’re the size of oats.
Place the honey, coconut oil, cacao, and vanilla in a small saucepan over medium heat until the cacao has dissolved. Add to the food processor with the cinnamon and remaining salt. Pulse twice to combine.
Pour the mixture into a bowl and mix in the coconut with a spoon. Turn the mixture out onto three parchment-covered dehydrator trays, spreading evenly into thin layers.
Dehydrate at 120 degrees F for 24 hours, turning the granola with a spatula twice. The granola may feel a little sticky but will crisp up after cooling.
Transfer trays to a wire rack and cool completely. Once cooled, stir in the chocolate and strawberries.
- Danielle Walker, New York Times best selling author of Against All Grain
- Chelsea Gold, MS, RDN, CDN, virtual nutrition coach based in Roslyn, New York
- USDA FoodData Central: "Seeds, flaxseed"
- Journal of Food Science and Technology: "Flax and flaxseed oil: an ancient medicine & modern functional food"
- National Institutes of Health: "Thiamin"
- National Institutes of Health: "Magnesium"
- National Institutes of Health: "Phosphorus"
- University of Rochester Medical Center: "Alpha Lipoic Acid"
- Vitamins & Hormones, 2005: "Phytoestrogens"
- Nutrients: Dietary Flaxseed as a Strategy for Improving Human Health