Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Flaxseed and Omega 3's: Why You're Being Misled

If you've been reading my blog for a while, you probably realize that misleading marketing claims really steam my clams. I just wish we could go to the grocery store, look at a food item, and see the real truth right there on the package, without any of the confusing health claims and advertising. You'd have to have a degree in nutrition just to understand them ha! Which is why I'm writing this article.

There seems to be some confusion about flaxseeds. It's become sort of "cool" to put flaxseeds in everything lately, from cookies, to breads, to granola, to cereal, to whatever. And it seems that taking flaxseed oil as a supplement is in style too. Why? Well, they're a great source of omega 3 fatty acids!!

Okay, technically true. But this doesn't tell the whole story.

The Wrong Omega 3's
Omega 3's have been popular in recent years for good reason: they're anti-inflammatory and they're helpful in preventing cardiovascular disease. They're also good for joint pain, skin health, brain development, the list goes on really. It's good stuff. But the omega 3's I'm talking about here are EPA and DHA, and you only get them from animal products like fish and grass-fed beef. The omega 3 in flaxseed is ALA, or alpha-linolenic acid, the plant form of omega 3. ALA is converted to the active forms, EPA and DHA, in our bodies, but at a very poor rate (1). So the only way to get the omega 3's you really need is to get it from an animal source, not flax.

The Problem With Flax
In addition to not providing the proper omega 3 fatty acids, flax also presents another concern.

Flaxseed oil consumption has been shown to quadruple the incidence of premature labor in pregnant women (2). Yes, quadruple. You should always be more cautious with what you put into your body during pregnancy, since you're feeding a little one. This should just be common sense. Any supplement, no matter how benign it may seem, should be questioned. There's a greater chance you'll see adverse effects in pregnancy than in just about any other population. However, that doesn't mean it's perfectly benign for everyone else; it could just take a little longer to see adverse effects.

Why the effect on premature births? Likely the phytoestrogens. As it sounds, phytoestrogens are plant estrogens. They can act as sort of an artificial source of estrogens in the body, causing a hormonal imbalance. This effect has been researched more thoroughly in the context of soy products, which have been shown to lower sperm concentration in semen by 41 million/ml (3)!

And what's worse, there are more phytoestrogens in flax than there are in soy!

If you're taking flax as a supplement, ditch it. It's just a waste of money. You're not getting any benefit out of it, and it could be harmful in large quantities. If you see flax as an ingredient in a food you eat (flax, flaxseeds, flaxseed oil), don't sweat it; it's probably not enough to be an issue. You can handle it. But don't go out of your way to feed it to yourself, and especially not your children. Stick to the direct sources of EPA and DHA... fatty fish, fish oil, cod liver oil, grass-fed beef, and pastured eggs!


  1. Let's look at this study

    Intakes of n-3 (omega-3) polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) are important for health. Because fish is the major source of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), non-fish-eaters may have suboptimal n-3 PUFA status, although the importance of the conversion of plant-derived α-linolenic acid (ALA) to EPA and DHA is debated.

    The objective was to determine intakes, food sources, and status of n-3 PUFAs according to dietary habit (fish-eaters and non-fish-eating meat-eaters, vegetarians, or vegans) and estimated conversion between dietary ALA and circulating long-chain n-3 PUFAs.

    This study included 14,422 men and women aged 39-78 y from the EPIC (European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition)-Norfolk cohort with 7-d diary data and a substudy in 4902 individuals with plasma phospholipid fatty acid measures. Intakes and status of n-3 PUFAs were measured, and the product-precursor ratio [corrected] of ALA to circulating n-3 PUFAs was calculated.

    Most of the dietary intake of EPA and DHA was supplied by fish; however, meat was the major source in meat-eaters, and spreading fats, soups, and sauces were the major sources in vegetarians. Total n-3 PUFA intakes in non-fish-eaters were 57-80% of those in fish-eaters, but status differences were considerably smaller [corrected]. The estimated product-precursor ratio [corrected] was greater in women than in men and greater in non-fish-eaters than in fish-eaters.

    Substantial differences in intakes and in sources of n-3 PUFAs existed between the dietary-habit groups, but the differences in status were smaller than expected, possibly because the product-precursor ratio [corrected] was greater in non-fish-eaters than in fish-eaters, potentially indicating increased estimated conversion of ALA. If intervention studies were to confirm these findings, it could have implications for fish requirements.

  2. Well put, Mr. Coburn. We see omega-3 derived from flax and other plant sources as beneficial, but to say that it is the answer to the human body’s need for essential fatty acids is clearly driven by wishful thinking by well-meaning people who do not wish to eat animal flesh. As a species, however, we evolved with a need for omega-3 from fish that cannot simply be wished away. We invite interested readers to learn more about types and characteristics of omega-3 on our website at

  3. There is indeed a 'dark side' to fish oil consumption. Check out this link:

  4. There are non animal sources of DHA that one can take. Algae supplements. That's where fish get It. Also your alarmism about soy is unwarranted. A meta analysis on soy found it is beneficial and not problematic. Some of the longest living cultures ave included soy as a regular part of their diet for many centuries.