IF YOU visit nutritionists often enough, they will tell you to sprinkle a little ‘flaxseed’, or alasi (in Hindi), over your morning bowl of cereal, making it sound as simple—and tasty—as drizzling honey or maple syrup over pancakes. Their subterfuge may be forgiven, as flaxseeds are considered by many in the know as ‘super foods’. As little as 30 gm a day is said to improve your cardiovascular health. Flaxseeds have been traced back to 3,000 BC and were supposed to be cultivated in Babylon. The seed moved on quickly, finding a home in China, Egypt and Georgia, before spreading far and wide. But it was in the 8th century that it got what can possibly be the earliest ‘celebrity endorsement’ when King Charlemagne decreed that all his loyal subjects must eat flaxseeds for their health benefits. The king’s foresight is today backed by convincing scientific research that indicates he was indeed right.
There are multiple reasons why the seed has so many benefits: it is high in fibre (both the soluble and insoluble kinds) and also helps lower cholesterol. Studies with human subjects have shown it is most effective with LDLs (low density lipoproteins). A further boost to its good influence on cardiovascular health is provided by the presence of Omega-3 essential fatty acids, ‘good’ fats that prevent blood clots, which can lead to heart attacks or strokes. And you thought Omega-3 was only available in fish? Isn’t this good news for vegetarians that a gram of flaxseeds has twice as much Omega-3 as a gram of fish oil?
Other research has shown that flaxseeds act as protective agents against cancers of the breast, prostrate and colon. For internal wellness and a healthy digestive system, too, flaxseeds are beneficial: they have a strong fibre content, including mucilaginous fibre that delays gastric emptying and improves absorption of nutrients by the intestines. It also facilitates the passage of food through the intestines.
But a cautionary note: flaxseeds are not meant for everyone. Pregnant women are dissuaded from consuming it. So are nursing mothers. Research suggests that if you have a bleeding disorder, you must refrain as well, as flaxseeds can increase the risk of bleeding. Furthermore, people with hormone-sensitive cancers or health conditions should stay away from it as well. Is it any wonder then that qualified nutritionists are best placed to recommend this wonder food?
Flaxseeds are readily available, either whole or ground. However, ground is the way to go because it can easily be digested—sometimes, the seeds pass through the body without being completely digested and hence the benefits are lost. Consuming flaxseeds is the easiest part: mix it in your breakfast cereal, as mentioned at the start of the article. You can also have it as nutritionists advise by kneading it into your flour. Should you not be able to find ground flaxseeds, buy the whole seeds, grind them at home and immediately refrigerate the powder. A cup of flaxseed powder lasts a week (two tablespoons a day) and should not be kept longer than that. Another option is flaxseed oil, but it is a highly perishable commodity and needs to be stored with care, preferably in an opaque bottle, and refrigerated. But since this oil is easily oxidised, it is not recommended for cooking. However, it may be drizzled over cooked food or salads. Usually, a tablespoon or two of ground flaxseed is enough for the day.
And for those not taken in by its myriad health benefits, flaxseed works well for outer beauty as well. People who are trying to lose weight can benefit hugely: the fibre content in flaxseeds gets heavier when consumed (it absorbs fluids and expands in size), thereby filling up the stomach for longer and cutting the appetite. It also helps in getting glowing and supple skin, thanks to the Omega-3.
Flaxseed is indeed a super food for internal and external health, but, as with all good advice, it’s always best to run it by your nutritionist just to check if your body is ready for its goodness!
Advaita Kala is a writer, most recently of the film Kahaani. She is also a former hotelier having worked in restaurants in India and abroad