For something so small, flaxseed has big benefits. Recent studies have shown that flaxseed, known to the world for thousands of years, may aid in lowering cholesterol, stabilizing blood sugar, reducing bone loss, promoting weight loss, increasing immunity, and fighting cancer, says clinical nutritionist Stella Metsovas of Laguna Beach, Calif.

Flaxseed is high in:

  • Vitamins and minerals, including most of the B vitamins, magnesium, and manganese
  • Fiber, both soluble and insoluble
  • Phytochemicals, including many powerful antioxidants such as lignans. In fact, because it's a plant, flaxseed is one of the best sources of lignans around, Metsovas says.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids, key to fighting inflammation. Flaxseed is a mega-source of the plant version of omega-3 called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Flaxseed oil is about 50 percent ALA - five times more than walnut oil or canola oil, which are the next highest sources of ALA.

Flaxseed Benefits

Flaxseed may:

  • Lower blood cholesterol and blood sugar levels. The soluble fiber in flaxseed has been shown to lower cholesterol, helping to prevent the buildup of plaque, which can clog arteries and lead to high blood pressure, stroke, or heart attack. Fiber is also believed to lower blood sugar levels, which is important for people who have type 2 diabetes.
  • Reduce bone loss. A study of diabetic rats showed a delay in bone loss after they were fed flaxseed, thanks to its concentration of fatty acids.
  • Help with weight management. Flax expands when ingested, making you feel fuller. You might want to take flax 30 minutes before meals to control your appetite.
  • Improve digestive health. The fiber in flaxseed can help relieve constipation and make you more regular.
  • Increase immunity. ALA has been shown to decrease inflammation, which allows your immune system to function better. Preliminary research suggests that flaxseed can help relieve autoimmune and inflammatory disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, and lupus.
  • Fight cancer. Studies show that flaxseed may have a role in fighting cancer, particularly colon and breast cancer. The benefit is based on its high concentration of lignans, which are believed to inhibit tumor growth.

Flaxseed Cautions

Metsovas says that, despite all the good research about flaxseed benefits, false claims about flaxseed do exist and more research is needed. She also thinks that fish oil, and its omega-3s, are more beneficial. "Although I hold flaxseed in high regard when it comes to fiber and colon health, I do not believe plant sources of omega-3s are as beneficial as fish oils," she says.

There are other cautions. "People who have inflammatory bowel conditions, like Crohn's disease, should avoid flaxseeds due to their laxative effects,"says Metsovas. Women who are pregnant and mothers who are breastfeeding should not consume ground flaxseed either. Studies also show that women who have issues like fibroids, endometriosis, and polycystic ovary disease should not eat flaxseed. And, Metsovas adds, men who have an increased risk of prostate cancer should avoid ALA. If you are taking medications, check with your doctor before adding flax to your diet.

Buying and Using Flaxseed

Grown in Central Asia, North America, and Europe, flax is found on the shelves of many conventional and health food stores as ground flaxseed, as whole seed, or flaxseed oil. Flaxseed oil comes from cold-pressing the flaxseed. Flaxseed oil is available as organic or conventional. The difference is the way the flax is grown. Flaxseed oil - the fat part of the plant - is richer in ALA than whole flaxseed.

Metsovas suggests buying it whole, then grinding it before you use it. "Because flax is a seed that contains fat, purchasing a product that is already ground could make the fat prone to oxidation," she says. You can easily grind it in a coffee grinder, food processor, or blender, and decide on coarse or fine - it's a matter of preference (although most recipes call for it to be finely ground). Kept at room temperature, whole flaxseed should last more than a year. Ground flaxseed should be kept in an airtight container in the refrigerator; it should be good for about 90 days.

For most healthy adults, Metsovas recommends 1 tablespoon a day, and no more than a quarter teaspoon a day for young children. Because flaxseed is high in fiber, when adding it to your diet, start with small amounts and increase it slowly. A tablespoon of ground flaxseed has about 36 calories while a tablespoon of whole flaxseed has about 50 calories.

How to Get More Flaxseed in Your Diet

Flaxseed has a light, nutty taste. Here are some ways to add it to the foods you already eat and enjoy:

  • Sprinkle flaxseed on your cold cereal or hot oatmeal at breakfast.
  • Add a teaspoon of ground flaxseed to the mustard or mayonnaise that you spread on your sandwich at lunch.
  • Blend flaxseed into juice or smoothies.
  • Sprinkle on salads or in soups.
  • Mix a tablespoon of ground flaxseed into your yogurt.
  • Add flax to tomato sauces or to casseroles.
  • Add flaxseed to meatballs or meatloaf.

Flaxseed is a great way to get fiber and important nutrients into your diet. Experiment with it in your favorite recipes to boost their nutrition profile.