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“Wherever flaxseeds become a regular food item among the people there will be better health.”
Mahatma Gandhi


When was the last time you thought about seeds?

When you were planting tomatoes?

Or maybe munching on a snack?

Let’s face it… seeds are not always ‘top of mind’ when it comes to plant-based eating.

But they definitely should be. Because seeds (and very specifically the flaxseed) are little jewels of nutritional magic.

Seed: Just Another Name for Flaxseed?

When we talk about seeds, we are often really talking about one seed—the flaxseed.

In fact, the vast bulk (90%) of research on seeds has focused on only the flaxseed. This is because flaxseeds really stand out of the crowd when it comes to their extraordinary nutritional content in the following areas:

  • Omega-3. Flax has 25% more omega-3 fatty acids than chia seeds and 150% more than walnuts; this is important because omega-3s are well known for promoting cardiovascular health.
  • Lignans.  While less well-known than omega-3s, lignans are famous for their anti-cancer properties. And flax has 100 times more lignans than any other plant in the world.
  • Fiber. Flaxseeds are brimming with fiber, adding to this seed’s overall ‘good health’ profile. (It should however be noted that chia seeds beat out flax in the fiber content contest).

Since flaxseed is really the superstar seed, together let’s take a closer look…

Flaxseed and the Omega 3 Factor

In terms of plant-based omega-3 essential fatty acids, there are three main sources: walnuts, chia seeds and flaxseeds.

And while the common wisdom is that walnuts are nature’s best source of omega-3s, this might not actually be the case.

When selecting your best omega-3 source, you need to evaluate each option by its entire nutritional profile, including energy density.

As we have discussed in other articles, energy density measures the amount of energy in a given weight of food. High energy-dense foods have a high energy count (calories) in a small amount of food while low energy-dense foods have far fewer calories for their weight.

So let’s do a few calculations as we compare walnuts, chia seeds and flaxseeds as your omega-3s source…

The upper limit of the recommended Adequate Intake (AI) for omega-3s is 1.6 grams. To meet this upper limit you’d have to eat the following:

  • 18 grams of walnuts = 118 calories.
  •  9 grams of chia seeds = 44 calories.
  • 7 grams of flaxseeds = 37 calories.

So if you take into account the energy density, flax wins again (although chia is a close second).

Plus the reality is that you are much less likely to binge on flaxseeds versus walnuts given the ‘addictive’ quality of nuts.

In the final analysis, it is far better for your health (and your waistline) to simply get your essential fatty acids from flaxseed.

Flaxseed as a Formidable Fighter of Chronic Disease

When it comes to fighting chronic disease, flax is the gold medal winner–in large part due to those lignans we talked about earlier.  To be specific, flaxseed is extremely effective in fighting the following:

  1. Breast Cancer. In a clinical trial of breast cancer patients, flax appeared to reduce tumor growth in just a few weeks. And it seems to lessen the risk of the cancer appearing in the first place; a study of 6,000 women showed a 20%-30% reduction in breast cancer risk among women who ate flaxseed or flax bread. Flax was also shown to be 50% more effective than the drug tamoxifen on inhibiting the inflammatory molecules that lead to breast cancer – without the hefty side effects.
  1. Prostate Cancer. Would you believe $10 worth of flaxseeds could be just as effective as a much-prescribed, $300 pharmacological treatment for enlarged prostate? And for patients with active prostate cancer, adding dietary flaxseed decreased the subjects’ PSA levels and cellular proliferation rates.
  1. Hypertension. High blood pressure is one of the top killers in the world today. And a systolic blood pressure over 115 puts you at the top of the risk list. In a study where hypertensive people were ‘blindedly’ given ground flaxseeds every day for 12 weeks, their systolic pressure dropped by about 10 points. (The lower number (diastolic) dropped by about 7 points). That’senough to cut heart disease risk by 29% and stroke risk by 46%!
  1. Type 2 Diabetes. Early, nonrandomized tests seemed to show a drop in Hb A1C levels as well as fasting blood sugar levels. These results are encouraging but not yet conclusive. However it does look as though flax could very well improve insulin sensitivity in diabetics.

The Happiness Factor

Serotonin, the “happiness hormone” is largely responsible for regulating our mood and sleep.

It appears that eating seeds–particularly sunflower, pumpkin and sesame seeds–can actually boost serotonin levels in our brains. This is because these seeds contain high levels of tryptophan, an amino acid that has been shown in several studies to improve well-being in people who suffer from anxiety and mood disorders.

But How Do I Use Flaxseed?

So we’ve established that flaxseed is good for you.

But you may be wondering how to prepare and eat it? 

For starters, you can use either golden or brown flaxseeds (they are nutritionally equivalent).

In terms of preparation, to get the nutritional benefits of flaxseed you  must grind it because whole flaxseed will pass through the body undigested.

It is better to grind your flaxseeds at home versus buying it from the store. To create your own flaxseed meal, simply grind the flaxseeds in a high speed blender or a coffee grinder.

To preserve the natural oils and nutrients, place the flaxseed meal inside an air tight container and store in your refrigerator for up to two weeks.

While finding new and tasty ways to incorporate flaxseed in your diet might take a little digging, here are a few basic ideas of how you can start using flaxseed:

  • In Smoothies:  Adding flaxseeds to your green smoothies increase satiety and thickens the mix to slow down consumption.  And it’s a great way to combine three of the Four Foods in a single glass – i.e. greens, berries and seeds!
  • In Cereal: It’s the easiest thing in the world to add ground flaxseed to your bowl of cereal. Just keep it on hand and add 1-2 tablespoons to your morning routine.
  • For Baking: Flaxseed gives a nice flavor and texture to muffins, breads and other baked goods. And as an egg replacer, nothing beats flaxseed.

The truth about seeds, whether it’s chia, sunflower, pumpkin, sesame or the mighty flaxseed – is they are truly extraordinary gifts from Mother Nature, brimming with nutrients and fiber. Even better, they are so easy to integrate into your diet.

And while less ‘top of mind’ than other ingredients to a plant-based lifestyle, seeds very much deserve their place on the list of the Four Foods list.

Rosane Oliveira, DVM, PhD

President & CEO, Plant-Based Life Foundation | Dr. Rosane Oliveira combines a lifelong passion for nutrition with 25 years of genetics research to create programs that help people develop healthy habits on their journey towards a more plant-based lifestyle. She is a Visiting Clinical Professor in Public Health Sciences and was the founding director of the first Integrative Medicine program at the UC Davis School of Medicine. She completed her postgraduate studies in Brazil and did her postdoctoral training in immunogenetics and functional genomics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.