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Flaxseeds, Chia Seeds and Hemp

Sesame, poppy, sunflower and pumpkin have long been among the most popular seeds. But in recent years they’ve been overshadowed, at least in many health-food stores and on the Internet, by some much-ballyhooed “super seeds,” notably these three, which are turning up in all sorts of products.

Flaxseeds flex their muscle

Flax is an ancient and useful crop, yielding linen fibers for cloth, as well as seeds and oil. Besides alpha-linolenic acid (an omega-3 fat), the seeds are rich in lignans, which are also found in sesame and pumpkin seeds and many other plant-derived foods. When you eat lignans, bacteria in your digestive tract convert them into estrogenlike substances, which may reduce (or possibly increase) the risk of certain cancers. Lignans also act as antioxidants.

The operative word for the health benefits of flaxseeds is “may.” It is too early to say that high intakes of substances in flax can prevent or treat any kind of cancer, or to rule out that they might, under some circumstances, promote cancer. Research on flaxseeds’ effects on blood cholesterol, blood sugar, blood pressure and heart disease in general, as well as on hot flashes, has produced promising but inconsistent results. The intact whole seeds pass through the body undigested. So unless they’re being added to foods that will be well chewed, consider buying the seeds milled. Or, better yet, grind them at home in a food processor or coffee grinder just before using.

Chia seeds: from warrior food to chia pets

The near-forgotten chia plant (Salvia hispanica), indigenous to Mexico and Central America, has made a comeback in the last few years: its tiny gray seeds are promoted as a super source of alpha-linolenic acid and fiber. One of the four staples of the Mayan and Aztec diets—along with beans, maize, and amaranth—chia seeds were also used medicinally. Chia seeds can be used whole or ground into flour.

By forming a gelatinous mass when digested or mixed with a liquid beforehand, chia seeds may slow the absorption of sugar, help remove cholesterol from the body and make you feel full—similar to soluble fiber supplements such as psyllium. That’s the theory, at least. But research has been inconsistent. Two of the better studies, done at Appalachian State University in North Carolina, found that people eating an ounce or two of chia seeds daily for 7 to 12 weeks did not lose weight or have improvements in blood pressure, cholesterol, inflammation or other cardiovascular risk factors.

Hemp hopes and hype

People have been eating seeds of the Cannabis sativa plant for at least 3,000 years. The hulled seeds are called hemp hearts. This is the same plant from which marijuana is made, but the varieties bred and grown for seeds have only trace amounts, if any, of the psychoactive ingredient (THC). Still, the crop is illegal in the U.S. (some states are trying to change this). Hemp can be imported from Canada and elsewhere, provided the seeds have been heat-treated to prevent germination.

Hemp companies make all kinds of claims—that the seeds aid weight loss, help digestion and diabetes, ease arthritis, reduce inflammation and lower blood pressure, for example—with little or no human research to back them. A few small studies found that hemp had no significant effect on blood cholesterol, blood pressure or other markers of cardiovascular health. Typically, websites cite animal studies, unspecified research and/or testimonials.

Bottom line: These seeds are fine choices if you like them, but they aren’t necessarily more healthful than more common types.

Flaxseeds, Chia Seeds and Hemp Sesame, poppy, sunflower and pumpkin have long been among the most popular seeds. But in recent years they’ve been overshadowed, at least in many health-food stores

The Benefits Of Flaxseeds Are Actually Super-Legit

Sprinkle that stuff everywhere.

Okay, has anyone else noticed that every. damn. thing. has flaxseed these days? Oatmeal! Vegan muffins! Even cereal! Seriously, is it really that great?

According to Amy Shapiro, R.D., founder of Real Nutrition it kind of is, and she recommends adding flaxseed to your diet, stat. Luckily, that’s pretty easy, since flaxseed is very versatile. “You can sprinkle flaxseed or meal on cereals, in oatmeal, top off salads with them, add to baked goods instead of eggs, put it in your smoothie, add to your soups, or even to your water.”

Shapiro recommends adding a tablespoon to your diet daily—especially for vegans and vegetarians, as those mighty little seeds contain some nutrients that can be harder to come by with meatless diets, including omega-3s and protein.

Just keep in mind, you may get more nutritional benefits from eating ground flax vs. whole seeds because, “the outer hull is so tough that it will pass through you undigested and you won’t receive the benefit of the healthy fats,” says Desiree Nielsen, R.D. (Kind of like undigested corn. Sorry for the image.)

But back to flaxseed—what else makes it worthy of starring in so many health foods?

1. Flaxseed may boost cognition.

“They’re high in omega-3 fatty acids, a plant-based source, which is important for vegans or individuals who do not eat seafood,” says Amy Shapiro, R.D. “This type of fat helps to protect the brain.”

2. It helps you poop.

“They are a fantastic source of dietary fiber, which means they’ll keep your digestion regular, flushing toxins and excess fats out of the body,” says Shapiro. “They contain both soluble and insoluble fiber so they are truly a powerhouse, as these types of fiber also keep your gut microbiome in healthy balance.”

3. It’ll keep you from getting hangry.

“It’s a good source of protein and will help you stay full and satisfied,” says Shapiro. In fact, one tablespoon of flaxseed contains two grams of protein. And when combined with all that fiber, it’ll keep you super-satiated.

Hot tip: Mix one tablespoon of ground flaxseed with three tablespoons of water to replace an egg in any baked goods recipe.

4. It reduces cholesterol.

“Roughly 20 to 40 percent of flaxseed’s fiber is soluble, which forms a gel in the gut that binds to cholesterol in the gut and removes it from circulation,” says Nielsen.

And, FYI: Not all cholesterol is bad—flax helps boost the kind you need, and flushes out the kind you don’t, says Shapiro.

Flaxseeds contain all kinds of nutritional benefits, from ample fiber, to omega-3s, and more. Here's what you need to know about flaxseeds and all their benefits.