The Controversial Flax Seed: Benefits Your Health or Not? (Part 1 of 3)

Flax was one of the first crops domesticated by man. Initially, flax was used as linen for making clothes, fishnets and other cloth products. In fact, the Egyptians used flax linen in some of their earliest mummies and tombs. Flax was not utilized in food until around 1000 B.C. when people in the areas of Jordan and Greece used it for baking bread. In the United States, commercial production of fiber flax began in 1753. However, flax production began to decline in 1793 with the invention of the cotton gin. It wasn’t until as recently as the 1980s, with the increased concern for environmentally-friendly products, that flax began to be commercially produced for human use on a large scale once more. And in the mid-1990s, food products containing flax seed started being marketed due to its nutritional value and health benefits.[1] 

Despite its vast history, the use of flax today remains a highly controversial issue. Why? While many research studies have confirmed the positive health benefits of consuming flax regularly, some physicians have questioned if flax may actually be harmful… so harmful that it promotes the growth of certain cancers! So, who’s right? Is flax good for you or not?

Flax Seed Benefits:

Many epidemiological studies have shown that regular consumption of flax seeds and flaxseed oil may be helpful for heart disease, diabetes, arthritis and a variety of other health problems.[2] The healthy plant chemicals found in flax seed include:

  1. Fiber – Flax seed contains both the soluble and insoluble types of fiber. In fact, flax seed often acts as a laxative because of its fiber content.
  2. Protein – Flax seed is made up of 22% high-quality protein and contains all 9 essential amino acids.
  3. Lignans – Lignans are unique fiber-related polyphenols that provide us with antioxidant benefits, fiber-like benefits, and also act as phytoestrogens, meaning they have plant estrogen qualities. Among all commonly eaten foods, researchers now rank flax seeds as the #1 source of lignans in human diets. Flax seeds contain as much as 75-800 times more lignans than other plant foods.
  4. Vitamins & Minerals – Aside from the antioxidant lignans found in flax seeds, they also contain many important vitamins including vitamin E, folate (B9), thiamin (B1), niacin (B3) and vitamin B6 as well as the minerals calcium, magnesium and zinc.
  5. Essential fatty acids – Each tablespoon of ground flax seed contains about 1.8 grams of plant omega-3s. Most of the oil is alpha linolenic acid (or ALA), a type of omega-3 that is a precursor to the fatty acids (EPA and DHA) found in salmon and other fatty cold-water fish. Because not everyone is able to easily convert alpha linolenic acid into EPA and (especially) DHA, it is best not to rely solely on flax for your omega-3 intake.

A healthy diet contains a proper balance of omega-3, omega-6 and omega-9 fatty acids. The primary difference between one fatty acid and another comes down to tiny molecules determined by the number of carbon atoms they contain. But, the chemistry of the fatty acids is not important – what is important is that you have a healthy ratio in your diet. Omega-3 fatty acids help reduce inflammation, while some omega-6 fatty acids actually promote inflammation. Unfortunately, the typical American diet contains 14 to 25 times more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids, mostly in the form of unhealthy vegetable oils such as corn oil.  In fact, many scientists today believe the main culprit behind the high incidences of chronic illness such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity and cancer is the extremely imbalanced intake of omega-6 and omega-3 fats. Researchers agree that the optimal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is somewhere between 2:1 and 4:1.  So, one of the most efficient ways to improve your health is to consume more omega-3 fats, which can be achieved through consuming the alpha linolenic acid found in flax seeds.

You might be asking, since there seems to be so many flax seed benefits, how could they possibly be deleterious for you?  The truth is that in some cases, they are harmful, especially in women.  Don’t begin taking flax until you learn why – be sure to read Part 2 of 3 on this important topic.


[1] Alternative Field Crops Manual from Purdue University Online.

[2] Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, “The Benefits of Flax Seed.” WebMD, 2009.

Originally published on June 25, 2012.

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