Flax seeds are everywhere these days. Buying bread from the health food store? It better have some flax seeds in it! Wanna health up your salad dressing? Make sure you pour on some flax seed oil! Eating oatmeal for a healthy breakfast? You should probably ground up some flax seeds and toss ‘em in there, then!
But why are we so convinced flax seeds are so super-healthy? Why, they’ve got those magical omega-3 fatty acids, of course!
Yeah, except… they kinda don’t.
Are Flax Seeds a Good Source of Omega-3?
Okay, okay. I lied. Flax seeds do boast some pretty good amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. But there’s a catch.
The omega-3′s in flax seeds are actually the alpha-linolenic variety of O-3 fatty acids. Alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA, is supposed to be beneficial because it converts to EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) or DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), which are the types of omega-3 fatty acids the body can actually use.
Except, humans are terrible at converting ALA into EPA or DHA. ALA is mostly wasted in a human body (source). So if you think your flax seeds are providing you with any supposed benefits of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation, you’re probably wrong.
Potential flax seed dangers
Because the body can’t effectively convert ALA into EPA/DHA, the excessive ALA floating around can be problematic. Men with high blood levels or high intake of ALA have been shown in clinical studies to be at a greater risk of developing prostate cancer. Flax is high in ALA, and actually flax oil leads to even higher blood levels of ALA than the seeds do.
So… probably not the best choice for the guys. But what about prostate-less women?
Well if you’re pregnant, avoiding flax is a pretty good idea considering it’s been shown to quadruple the instances of premature labor in women who take flax oil.
I think that’s probably because of the high levels of phytoestrogens in flax, which aren’t good for anybody, pregnant or not.
Phytoestrogens mimic estrogen, which by the way, is not a hormone that males or females need in excessive amounts because it leads to the production of excess serotonin — which by the way, is not the “happy hormone” you might think it is. Phytoestrogens aren’t good. They’re a big reason why we’re not too keen on soy around these parts. But get this — flax has a higher phytoestrogen content than soy!
As if this all isn’t reason enough to ditch the flax, I’ve got another beef with this ornery little seed. Flax is high in yet another substance real foodies aren’t fond of — phytic acid. Yeah, that stuff in grains that we work so hard to soak, sprout, or ferment into oblivion? Flax is loaded with it. Given all this, I’m pretty surprised that the WAPF is so seemingly okay with flax. But, that’s probably because they’re only trying to promote omega-3 consumption.
Do we even need omega-3, anyway?
Since the omega-3 content seems to be the main reason why people are adding flax to their diet to begin with, I thought I’d put my thoughts here on omega-3 supplementation in general. I personally am not a big advocate of intentionally supplementing omega-3′s at all. I think it’s a much better solution to cut out as many omega-6 PUFA fats as you can.
That said, if you’ve eaten a typical diet in recent years containing PUFAs, they will still be stuck in your cells. It might be a good idea to temporarily boost your ratio just by eating more animal-based foods that contain EPA and DHA, which are the only truly viable forms of omega-3, such as fatty fish.
But if you’re interested in supplements, instead of taking flax seeds/oil (which doesn’t provide true omega-3 and could be harmful), or highly-processed and oxidized, rancid fish oil capsules, I’d recommend fermented cod liver oil. I don’t take it for the omega-3s, I take it for the fat-soluble activators and high levels of natural vitamin D. But it does contain a significant amount of omega-3 EFA’s, if that’s something you’re interested in.
You can find fermented cod liver oil online here.
What do you think about flax seeds?
Do you take flax for omega-3? Maybe you’re rethinking that now! Share with us in the comments.