Just the Flax – Why This Grain is an Important Component of a Healthy Diet

A relative of mine once bought one of those exercise contraptions with wires and electrodes from the shopping channel. It was supposed to tone the abdominal muscles by stimulating them with a mild electrical current, while he ate potato chips on the couch and watched Hockey Night in Canada. Within six months, of course, it was sitting in a cardboard box in the basement marked “Garage Sale.”

Most of us realize these days that there are no short-cuts on the road to a healthier lifestyle. Time and again the latest trumped up exercise fad, whether it be kickboxing, high energy yoga, Pilates or (shudder) pole dancing, are cast aside in order to make way for the next big thing. Of course, the same is true of all diets from high fibre to low carbohydrate. With the elegant perfection of all mathematical formulas and physical laws, the equation that leads to good physical health is brilliantly simple: get lots of exercise, and eat a well balanced, moderate and varied diet. Decades of consistent nutritional research have pointed-out the fact that the best possible diet for the human body is one that is built around moderation and variety. A healthy weekly food intake encompasses plenty of vegetables, fruits, grains, proteins, and fats. It can include soybean pods and meat loaf, arugula and Brie.

It is therefore with some trepidation that I take up the latest nutritional buzz, and jump on the flax bandwagon. The fact is, though, that flax is cheap, tasty, and absolutely one of the healthiest food items available to us. It has been shown to help protect against cancer and heart disease, as well as promote regularity. It is also an incredibly versatile food.

For those of us not familiar with this grain, a good place to acquire some primer knowledge is that the web site of the flax council (www.flaxcouncil.ca), where you’ll discover that flax is “a blue flowering crop grown on the Prairies of Canada for its oil rich-seeds.” The small, flat seeds, which people have eaten “since ancient times,” have a “pleasant, nutty flavour.”

Personally, I have been baking with flax seed for about fifteen years now, making flax seed muffins and banana bread. It is, besides barley, my favorite grain. A few years ago, after an organic farmer friend of mine told me about some of its health benefits, I also began incorporating flax seeds into beef stews and stirring them into my homemade salad dressings after crushing them with a mortar and pestle.

Why is flax so healthy? According to the flax council website, the seed is high in protein, but “research suggests that its health benefits probably have more to do with its fatty acid and fibre profile.” Flax, it turns out, is extremely rich in polyunsaturated oils, the kind that help keep cholesterol in check. “In fact,” the site goes on to point out, “a unique feature of flaxseed is the high ratio of alpha-linoleic acid (an omega-3 fatty acid) to linoleic (omega-6 fatty acids). Nutritionists consider these two polyunsaturated fatty acids as essential because the body cannot manufacture them from any other substances.”

Getting away from the science, one of my favorite ways of using flax is a recipe for chocolate chip flax muffins that my farmer friend passed on to me several years ago. (If anybody would like this recipe, please let me know.) Of course, flax is by no means a nutritional magic bullet. But, it may just be one piece of the puzzle in putting together a healthier way of life.

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