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Pass the Flax, Please

Making a habit of eating flaxseed every day can help reduce your risk of heart disease.

By Tamara Schryver, M.S., R.D.

Nearly three out of four American adults are now either overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which means greater risk for heart disease in terms of the levels of total cholesterol and LDL (bad) cholesterol, triglycerides (the body's main method of carrying fat throughout the blood stream), blood glucose, and high blood pressure.

Losing excess weight can help clear up some of these risk factors, but, of course, that is easier said than done. And while medications can often abate these factors, they commonly have undesirable side effects, such as an upset stomach, diarrhea, and nausea.

However, some foods can help people of all weights control these risk factors. One such food is flaxseed. Flax has long been known to benefit various facets of cardiovascular health for people of normal weight, but new research suggests that it can also help overweight individuals. Researchers from the Phytonutrients Laboratory of the USDA recently fed obese and lean rats a high flaxseed diet for 26 weeks and compared various blood parameters against the same grouping of rats on a standard diet. They found that the obese rats on the flaxseed diet experienced a significant drop in their initially elevated levels of triglycerides, total cholesterol, and LDL cholesterol, compared with the rats on the control diet. "We feel that the beneficial effects of flax may be due in part to its phytochemicals—namely, lignans and alpha-linolenic acid [known as ALA]," says Sam Bhathena, Ph.D., a research chemist at the Phytonutrients Laboratory.

Similar in flavor to sesame seeds, whole flaxseeds have a nutty flavor and crispy texture. Grinding flax into flour removes the hard outer shell and releases the lignans and ALA. Adding flax to your diet is simple. Cereals and breads that contain flax can be found in most grocery and natural food stores. Flax flour is also a great addition to homemade muffins, cookies, granola, and desserts and can easily replace the fat content in many recipes in a 3:1 ratio (or use three tablespoons of ground flaxseed for every tablespoon of oil or butter). If you decide to grind your own flax, you can store any unused portion in the refrigerator to extend its shelf life. Flaxseed oil is also another good source of flax.

Although there are no recommended intake levels for flax, nutritionists generally suggest two to three tablespoons of ground flax daily, which equals about 70 to 105 calories, six to nine grams of fat, and four to six grams of fiber.

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