Adding This One Ingredient to My Breakfast Bowl Made Me More Regular
In an era where most of us are trying to self-motivate just enough to put on pants with zippers and eat a few vegetables each week (thanks for the memories, 2020), it's smart to keep your health goals small. Small means manageable, and manageable means quantifiable wins. Instead of dramatic body composition changes or wild fitness challenges, I decided to focus on one little thing that would make me feel better—rather than look different. As the new year approached, I committed to regulating my metabolism and working toward better digestive health. In other words: I wanted to be more regular! Daily bowel movements make us feel better, reduce bloating and pain from excess gas and can even increase our serotonin levels.
Much of the healthy eating conversation centers around eliminating foods (sugar and carbs tend to be the most ruthlessly shunned these days). But I wondered if I could achieve my goals by adding something to my routine, rather than cutting things out. After all: We've given up enough over the last year. I didn't need anyone taking away my bread.
I've been eating a serving (or about 2 tablespoons) of ground flaxseeds every morning (like these from Amazon, $8), and the results have been truly incredible. After just about a week, my historically finicky digestive system began to regulate itself. Real talk: I used to go to the bathroom once a week, twice a week maybe. But once I got on the flax train, it was a daily occurrence—around the same time each morning. Suddenly, my body had gone from runaway train to Swiss-made watch: reliable and efficient.
Why Is Flax So Good For You?
Recipe pictured above: Blueberry-Oat Scones with Flaxseeds
So what's the deal with flax? What makes it so magical? It's the fiber, sure, but plenty of foods contain fiber. You probably already know that fiber helps with satiety—it keeps us fuller, longer—and helps fix constipation. What makes flax special is how much fiber they contain. According to Dr. Margaret Voss, a physiologist who teaches nutritional biochemistry at Syracuse University, flaxseeds are made up of 95% fiber—that's about as pure a shot as you can get.
Related: Health Benefits of Flaxseeds
A two-tablespoon serving of ground flax also clocks in at 70 calories, 4.5 grams of fat, 4 grams of carbs, and 3 grams of protein. Not bad for 2 little tablespoons! In addition to that fiber, another major benefit of flax is its quantity of omega-3 fatty acids. These nutritional compounds are also found in walnuts and salmon, and have a wealth of health benefits. They have been proven to combat depression and fight inflammation. Flaxseeds can even help you meet weight-loss goals, if that's important to you.
If this is all sounding good, here's how to incorporate flax into your routine with maximum impact.
How to Eat Flaxseeds
Recipe pictured above: Flax-Crusted Tuna Burgers with Avocado Aioli
1. Drink water with your flax.
Flaxseeds are made up of two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble. "Flaxseed is about 95% percent fiber. Almost half of this fiber content is soluble, which means when it interacts with water, it creates a gel in our digestive system that is an extremely efficient laxative," Voss says.
Insoluble fiber is composed of cellulose and a compound called lignan, and travels directly to your colon. There, the gut bacteria digest a portion of the insoluble fiber and transform it into a new compound that is absorbed into our bloodstream. Why does this matter? Voss says, "Gut bacteria use the lignin to produce lignans, a class of important bioactive molecules that have anti-inflammatory properties." Additionally, when taken with ample hydration, insoluble fiber softens stool by adding water to it—this makes it easier to pass and addresses one of the most common causes of constipation.
2. Grind flax before eating.
It's generally accepted that ground flaxseeds are easier to digest than whole. (A study of flax consumption in cows proved this, and, although you are not a cow, the findings extrapolate.)
Whole flaxseed has a thick outer hull which is challenging for your body to digest. Voss explains: "[Flaxseeds] contain more lignan-producing fibers (lignin) than other plant fibers. However, the hard, indigestible hull of the seed must be cracked open to free the bioactive molecules so they can be absorbed. Grinding does this."
What about crackers, chips and breads that contain whole flaxseeds? "Ingesting whole flaxseed is not pointless; the outer hull does provide some of the laxative benefits of indigestible fiber. And when well-chewed, I am sure some fatty acids and lignins are released," Voss says. But for the most efficient nutrient absorption, grinding is the way to go.
3. Go slowly—don't eat too much fiber.
In the case of fiber, there is definitely the potential for too much of a good thing. Eating more fiber than your body can realistically process will likely cause gas, bloating, abdominal pain and distention and, ironically… constipation. According to the Mayo Clinic, women under 50 require 25 grams of fiber a day, and women over 50 require 21. For men under 50, it's 38 grams daily, and 30 for the 50 crew.
Most Americans don't get enough fiber in their diet. If you're trying to eat more fiber-rich foods like flaxseed, it's smart to slowly increase the amount you're ingesting to give your body time to properly adjust.
Ideas For Incorporating Flaxseed Into Your Diet
I know that I'm more likely to eat my flax if I make it taste too. On its own, flax has a faintly "fishy" taste. It's not overwhelming, but it's best when paired with something else. Some folks swear by smoothies. I like adding it to my a.m. breakfast bowls, and I'll admit: Tempering it with honey or maple does make the whole thing more enjoyable. A little sugar does help the medicine go down. Here are my top five favorite ways to eat flax in the morning:
- Sprinkled over a chopped pear with a drizzle of honey and slivered almonds
- Stirred into strained yogurt (like Greek-style or skyr) with bee pollen and pumpkin seeds
- Mixed into a bowl of oatmeal with fruit jam and a pat of butter
- Added to cooked apples with toasted walnuts and plenty of cinnamon
- As a topper for whole-grain toast with nut butter and a dollop of pumpkin purée
- And hey—if you need a little more motivation to eat your flax, these cookies are a pretty delicious incentive.
As with all dietary changes, you'll see the best, and most sustainable positive results if you work with a registered dietitian. This professional can help you navigate your unique situation, working with your lifestyle, preferences, budget and individual body needs, coming up with a meal plan and movement routine that's just right for you.