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Flax appeal

One of the newest healthy diet trends may indeed be one of the oldest. The seeds from flax, a blue-flowered plant used to make linen and fine papers, were consumed as long ago as 9000 BC. Even Hippocrates wrote about the benefits of flax for treating abdominal pain.

Today, we know flaxseed is rich in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an essential fatty acid that converts to omega-3s, the heart-healthy type found in walnuts, cold-water or fatty fish and fish oil. Like other omega-3 fatty acids, ALA may help lower heart disease risk, boost the immune system and reduce arthritis’ inflammation. Some research suggests that omega-3s can help improve cholesterol; lower blood pressure; and decrease risk for arrhythmia, blood clots and stroke.

Flaxseed is also low in saturated fat and contains both soluble and insoluble fiber, protein, zinc, iron, vitamin E, calcium, potassium and phytoestrogens called lignans, which may help protect against some cancers.

How much is enough?

Although the Institute of Medicine, which establishes nutrient requirements, hasn’t set a recommended daily intake for omega-3 fatty acids, it does suggest adequate intake amounts of between 1.1 grams (g) and 1.6 g a day for adults. One tablespoon of ground flaxseed provides 1.6 g of omega-3s.

Adding flaxseed to your diet

Most nutrition experts recommend ground flaxseed because the nutrients are located inside the seeds, and unless you chew them thoroughly, they may pass through your intestine undigested. You can purchase raw flaxseed—whole or ground—at many grocery and health food stores. Whole seeds can be ground in a coffee grinder or food processor and then refrigerated in an airtight container for several months. Flaxseed oil also contains ALA but doesn’t have the beneficial fiber, lignans and protein that the seeds have.

Known for its nutty flavor, flaxseed can be added to many foods. Try some of these ways to flax your diet’s muscle:

  • Add a tablespoon of ground flaxseed to your hot or cold cereal.
  • Replace some of the flour with ground flaxseed in recipes for cookies, muffins, breads and other baked goods.
  • Substitute ground flaxseed for eggs, butter or margarine in baked goods. For fat, use a ratio of three to one, such as 1½ cups flaxseed for ½ cup butter. Swap one egg in a recipe for one tablespoon flaxseed plus three tablespoons water.
  • Stir a teaspoon of ground flaxseed into mayonnaise or mustard when making a sandwich.
  • Blend a tablespoon of ground flaxseed into yogurt or a smoothie.
  • Buy breads, cereals, tortilla chips, trail mix, energy bars and pancake and waffle mixes that list flax as an ingredient.
  • Add one to two teaspoons of flaxseed oil to a smoothie, shake, marinade or salad dressing.