Is flax healthy? Most of the information regarding flax seeds is positive. They’re a health food.
However, when I started the GAPS diet this was, in part, called into question. I learned that flax should be eaten in moderation and I plan to share with you why.
Since that time, four years ago, I have also read accounts and studies about flax that raise a few more red flags. Let’s look at 5 reasons to exercise caution and moderation when it comes to flax.
There are 5 main points of concern when it comes to consuming flax:
- Is flax an efficient form of fatty acids?
- Does flax cause changes in hormone levels?
- What are the phytate levels in flax?
- Does flax actually reduce inflammation?
- How is flax grown?
Years ago, when I was a vegetarian, I put two heaping tablespoons of flax seed meal on my morning granola every day. Reminiscent of the wheat bran that was marketed as healthy in the 1980’s, I was adding this supplement to my food, trying to get extra omega-3 fatty acids into my diet.
MYTH- FLAX IS A GOOD SOURCE OF OMEGA-3 FATTY ACIDS
As Chris Kresser explains,
Fish contain a variety of fatty acids, but the ones that are believed to confer the majority of the benefits are the long-chain omega-3 fats eicosapentanaenoic [sic] acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These omega-3 fats are found exclusively in seafood and marine algae… it is also possible for the body to synthesize EPA and DHA from the short-chain omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). ALA is found in plant foods such as flax… However, research clearly indicates that the conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA is extremely limited. Less than 5% of ALA gets converted to EPA, and less than 0.5% (one-half of one percent) of ALA is converted to DHA. (emphases mine)
The human body does not produce EPA and DHA on its own and flax consumption cannot meet the body’s need for these vital fatty acids. Consuming fresh fish, and some forms of algae to a lesser extent, are the recommended means of obtaining these nutrients. (Refer to this post if you’re trying to get more fish into your diet.)
NEXT QUESTION- WHAT ARE YOUR ESTROGEN LEVELS?
Flax contains phytoestrogens called lignons. As a result, flax can increase estrogen levels and have a blood-thinning effect, lengthening one’s menstrual cycle or causing mid-cycle bleeding. Those who already have high levels of estrogen, who then consume regular amounts of flax seeds or flax oil can experience symptoms including fibrocystic breast tissue, depression, and the aforementioned bleeding.
Many women report heavy periods while consuming gluten-free flax crackers or flax baked goods, unaware of the correlation. Those with low or moderate levels of estrogen may not be affected at all by regular consumption of flax.
Another example of how flax affects hormone levels is seed cycling, a natural method for women to intentionally support the different stages of their cycle. In this scenario flax is used from the 1st day of menstruating until ovulation, to support the body’s production of estrogen. Up to 2 T. daily is recommended. We can see why eating the same volume of flax seeds throughout one’s cycle would cause an hormonal imbalance.
Like all seeds (and nuts) flax contains phytates. This compound can be neutralized by soaking with most seeds and nuts but flax becomes sticky and soaking isn’t effective. Ranking high in phytate content, flax should be eaten in moderation to prevent mineral depletion, the result of eating a high-phytate diet.
DO FLAX SEEDS REDUCE INFLAMMATION?
All omega-3s reduce inflammation. But as we’ve discussed above, very little omega-3 fatty acid is derived from flax seeds. Therefore, touting flax as a major anti-inflammatory is misleading. Nonetheless, the soluble fiber in flax can help reduce inflammation to some extent.
ORGANIC FLAX- A CROP
Lastly, as with all purchases, our consumerism affects the supply of goods. Buying organic flax, boycotting the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, is a priority for me. Here’s why:
Flax is a popular crop for farmers to choose to grow. With flax oil now being recommended by practitioners and flax seeds being put in many commercially made cereals, not to mention being used by more home cooks than ever before (and as a food supplement), flax demand is on the rise.
Buying organic flax sends a message of demand to farmers that it’s a safe crop to grow, (in lieu of conventional flax)– that they will be able to sell their product come harvest time.
While it’s convenient to grab a bag of Bob’s Red Mill flax from Trader Joe’s, I recommend looking twice. If it’s not organic, what kind of farming is your purchase supporting?
The Weston A. Price foundation does acknowledge the health benefits of flax, recommending up to a 1/2 tsp. flax seed oil daily, the equivalent of which is 1 1/2 tsp. flax seed meal daily. Tim Boyd writes, “Flax oil is fine if it is a good quality and in small amounts… People are taking too much flax oil…Remember to always store flax oil in the refrigerator.”
I personally appreciate baking with flax seed meal. It is one of several ingredients I use in my grain-free baked goods to achieve a certain texture and moistness. So I am not down on flax.
But I do value understanding it as a complex food— both one from which we can derive benefits and one which I will not exalt to a higher nutritional platform than is accurate.
I am also aware of my hormone levels and prefer to eat flax during the first half of my cycle, as I know personally I have a tendency toward estrogen dominance and flax does affect me adversely if eaten too often or universally throughout my cycle.
What about you? What are your experiences with this charming seed that, while truly healthy, must not be misunderstood or over-consumed?
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