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We need essential fatty acids, namely the linoleic acid “LA” and the alpha-linoleic acid “ALA”, as they form the building blocks for the cells that make up our bodies. They are vital in regulating the functions of our brain, organs and nervous system. If deficiency in either one occurs, problems will arise such as vision and learning impairment, dry and irritated skin, mood and behaviour changes, fertility issues and heart disease.
LA and ALA are converted into omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids respectively by our bodies which perform more important tasks in regulating blood clotting, platelet aggregation, blood pressure and cell proliferation.
The World Health Organisation suggests an ideal ratio of omega-6:omega-3 fatty acids as 2:1 to be maintained. The average American diet contains way too much omega-6 and insufficient omega-3. Even for vegans and vegetarians, the scale is tipped towards omega-6 because more processed foods containing more omega-6 than omega-3 is consumed.
But it’s important to keep LA and ALA in balance because both are competing for the enzymes needed to convert into omega-6 & 3.
Sources of Omega-6 and Omega-3
Vegans and vegetarians can obtain LA easily from processed oils such as sunflower, corn, grapeseed, seeds, walnuts and grains which convert readily to omega-6. But it’s more difficult to balance omega-3. Other than the fact that the conversion is less efficient, the sources for ALA are decreasing as food processing often removes the unstable ALA.
All is not lost though as vegans and vegetarians can still increase their omega-3 intake by eating unprocessed seeds. All seeds provide good sources of essential fatty acids.
Flaxseed is the best source
Of all seeds, flaxseeds (the seeds of the plant Linum usitatissmum) have the highest ALA and lowest LA, thus can help improve the imbalance in essential fatty acids. Therefore, flaxseeds should form an important part of a vegan or vegetarian diet.
As mentioned above, ALA has many benefits, one of them is to protect the heart in two ways – through improvements in abnormal heart rhythms and a reduction of blood platelet stickiness. ALA also reduces LDL or “bad” cholesterol and lipoprotein levels for the prevention of heart attacks and stroke.
ALA also keep blood pressure at normal level by inhibiting inflammatory effects on blood vessels, thereby preventing formation of plague on blood vessels which cause poor circulation.
Flaxseeds contain approximately 28% fiber, soluble and insoluble. The insoluble fiber helps to relieve constipation, improve colon health and may prevent colon cancer. The soluble fiber comes primarily from mucilage fiber, which is also a great stool softener when consumed with lots of fluid. It also prevents toxicity which results from constipation.
In addition, mucilage fiber slows down sugar absorption into the body, thereby stabilizes blood sugar and control cravings. It helps those who are obese, diabetic or hypoglycemic to overcome overeating and carbohydrate addiction.
Flaxseeds contain the highest level of lignans among all plants. Lignans are phytoestrogens which resemble human hormone estrogens. Despite being much weaker than human estrogens, they nevertheless help to balance hormone levels in the body and may protect against breast, colon, prostate and skin cancer.
A study involving 50 women with breast cancer showed that 25 women who were fed with 25g of milled flax daily before surgery had slower-growing tumors than the other 25 women who were not fed milled flax at all.
Lignans may also have antioxidant properties and hence may reduce cell damage caused by free radicals. Thus, it could help to delay the onset of Type 1 and 2 diabetes.
Brown or golden flaxseeds do not differ much in nutritious content though some say golden ones have lighter nuttier flavor and brown ones can be a little bitter.
You can choose whole flaxseeds, grounded flaxseeds or flaxseeds oil but whole flaxseeds are the most economical because they are the least expensive and they keep fresh for longer periods. Just a blender and you can prepare ground flaxseeds in seconds.
To enable the maximum absorption of the nutrients by the body, it is best to ground the flaxseeds before consumption. Just one or two tablespoon daily of ground flaxseeds are sufficient to meet your dietary requirements.
Substitute for eggs – you can mix one tablespoon of ground flax seeds with three tablespoon of water, let the mixture sit for two to three minutes to thicken it. This mixture can replace eggs in recipes such as pancakes, muffins or cookies.
Substitute for fats – replace one tablespoon of fats with three tablespoon of ground flaxseeds. You can use the flaxseeds to replace margarine, butter or shortening in a recipe. Note that flax causes baked food to brown more quickly, so be sure to adjust the baking times.
Even after processed into flaxseed oil, it retains much of essential fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Flaxseed oil is available in bottles, in gel capsules or blended with other oils.
If you prefer bottled flaxseed oil, you can add a spoonful to your salads, baked potatoes, rice or vegetables to replace margarine, yet enhance the taste and texture of foods. You can even add to juices and drinks. Add the oil after the food is cooked as high heat will reduce the oil’s nutritious value.
Alternatively, you can consume gel capsules as dietary supplements though it will cost more.
As flaxseed oil is prone to spoilage, I suggest you keep flaxseed oil refrigerated.
While flaxseed and flaxseed oil share the same source, flaxseed oil contains only the ALA component of flaxseed because lignans and fiber are removed during extraction.
About The Author
Laura Ng is passionate in providing quality nutritional facts and health tips, plus recommending 100% toxic-free vegan recipes to anyone who cares about his/her health. Join her iOneHealth Club now to receive more health secrets and freebies available to her members only. You'll gain plenty but lose nothing. Promised. Visit http://www.ionehealth.com now.
A pilot study of postmenopausal women at the Mayo Clinic suggests that ingesting crushed flaxseeds can decrease the incidence and intensity of hot flashes.
It appears to work because flaxseed contains phytoestrogens, or plant-based estrogen compounds.
Flaxseeds are also rich in lignans, an antioxidant with weak estrogen-emulating characteristics.
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