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Flaxseed Joins the Gentlemen’s Club

Incorporating flaxseed into your diet may help reduce prostate cancer risks

Focused on Health - September 2009

By Rachel Winters

“Our studies show compelling evidence that flaxseed might play a role in prostate cancer prevention and control,” says Wendy Demark-Wahnefried, Ph.D., R.D., professor of behavioral science at M. D. Anderson and head researcher for a recent study on flaxseed’s exciting role as a power food.

Flaxseed, a sometimes forgotten plant-based food, is nutritious and low-cost. Flaxseed comes from the seed of the flax plant and is less than a quarter of an inch long with a nutty flavor.

During the Middle Ages, people ate a lot of flaxseed because it was used in many breads and cereals. As people moved from the country into cities, they stopped using flaxseed because it spoiled quickly. For the next few centuries, flaxseed was cast in the shadow of corn, wheat or rye.

Today, people use the stalk of the flax plant mostly for its fiber to make linen. Flaxseed also has begun to appear on grocery store shelves. Stores sell the seed in bulk, retailing for only a few dollars a pound, and as an ingredient in crackers, chips and baked goods.

Nutritionists attribute flaxseed’s comeback to the fact that it is full of fiber and rich in nutrients, such as B-vitamins, omega 3 fatty acids and lignan (a family of compounds that have broad anti-cancer activity). It is the omega 3 fatty acids and the lignan that led researchers to look at flaxseed’s prostate cancer prevention properties.

“Cancer cells migrate by attaching onto other cells. Omega 3 fatty acids keep cells from binding together and attaching to blood vessels,” Demark-Wahnefried says. “Prostate cancer is linked to the hormone testosterone. Lignan may reduce testosterone, and more active forms of this hormone. In turn, lowering testosterone levels may reduce a man’s chance of getting prostate cancer.”

How to prepare and store flaxseed

Although the idea of eating a product used to make your favorite summer pants might sound unappetizing, flaxseed’s mild, nutty flavor is relatively easy to add into your diet. It is sometimes difficult to digest in its whole form, but easily can be ground-up and used in a variety of dishes. Try using a coffee grinder or a blender to grind flaxseed. The European way to prepare the seed is to soak it in water until the seeds break. 

Grinding flaxseed makes it more digestible and increases the amount of nutrients absorbed. While the inside of the seed is the nutritional powerhouse, the outside provides most of the seed’s fiber. Research shows that cancer risks, including the risk for prostate cancer, may be reduced by 30 to 40% if people ate a more plant-based diet. This healthy diet includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds – including flaxseed.

If you have unused portions of ground flaxseed, put them in a tightly sealed container and keep it in a cool, dark and dry place, like the refrigerator or freezer, to keep it from spoiling. Whole flaxseed can be stored for at least a month. When the seed is ground, it is best to use within a few days.

Incorporating flaxseed into your diet

If you’re going to start eating flaxseed, great! But remember to drink plenty of water because flaxseed is high in fiber. Fiber absorbs water, which helps the fiber move smoothly through your system. 

When using flax in your recipes, keep an open mind. The more open you are to using flax in creative ways, the easier it will be to make it a part of your daily diet.

Here are some favorite ways to get going with flaxseed:

  • Try crackers or tortilla chips with flaxseed baked in – they have a pleasant nutty taste
  • Add ground flaxseed to cookies, muffins or cornbread recipes. Its mild and nutty flavor tastes great in peanut butter cookies, or in almost any baked good
  • Add ground flaxseed to yogurt or cottage cheese
  • Sprinkle flaxseed over your salad, or mix it into salad dressing
  • Sprinkle flaxseed over oatmeal, cold cereal or grits
  • Mix flaxseed into pancake or waffle batter. It also perks-up your maple syrup
  • Stir ground flaxseed into juice, water, sports drinks or smoothies
  • Sprinkle flaxseed over soup
  • Stir flaxseed in applesauce, jellies and jams
  • Mix flaxseed in with low-fat mayonnaise before putting it on a sandwich

Don’t be afraid to get into the kitchen and get creative with flaxseed. Try some of these fantastic recipes.

Research supports flax

Demark-Wahnefried and her team learned about the potential cancer-reducing benefits of flaxseed during a study with 161 men. The men had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, but had not started treatment. Each participant ate three tablespoons of flaxseed a day.

“While our study used three tablespoons a day, men who don’t have cancer but want to try flaxseed, probably don’t need that much,” Demark-Wahnefried says. “One tablespoon a day should be fine.”

Only three weeks into the study, researchers found that cancer cells in the study participants using flaxseed were not multiplying as quickly as in the men not using flaxseed.

“Our findings support the idea that flaxseed might reduce prostate cancer risk,” Demark-Wahnefried says. “More research on a larger group of men needs to be done, however, before we can say for sure that flaxseed has a beneficial effect on controlling prostate cancer.”

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Focused on Health - September 2009

Incorporating flaxseed into your diet may help reduce prostate cancer risks

© 2014 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center