Lignans are plant compounds (meaning they naturally occur in plants) that act as antioxidants.
Aside from soy foods, lignans are among the best sources of phytoestrogens, which are plant-based compounds that have estrogen-like effects. Some people are concerned that phytoestrogens can increase your body's estrogen levels, but eating flaxseeds (which are rich in lignans and phytoestrogen) either decreases or has no effect on blood estrogen levels, according to May 2014 study in Integrative Cancer Therapies. The study also found that eating 1 ounce of ground flaxseeds is associated with a decreased risk of breast cancer and anti-tumor effects.
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Phytoestrogens also have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and are linked to a reduced risk of heart disease and good ovarian health, according to the Linus Pauling Institute.
If you're going through menopause, here's another reason to include phytoestrogens in your diet: Phytoestrogen- and lignan-rich flaxseeds are associated with a higher quality of life and decreased menopause symptoms, according to a 2015 study in Holistic Nursing Practice.
While flaxseeds are the most well-known and most researched foods high in lignans, that doesn't mean they're the only good dietary sources.
How Many Lignans Do You Need?
There are no specific recommendations set for daily lignan intake.
But, eating lignan-rich foods is linked with lower rates of chronic diseases like heart disease and certain cancers, according to a March 2019 review in Molecules.
Note that the lignan amounts listed below are based on data from the Linus Pauling Institute.
1. Flaxseeds: 85.5 mg
Flaxseeds are the best dietary source of lignans — they contain about 75 to 800 times more lignans than other foods, per an April 2015 review in the Journal of Food Science and Technology.
A 1-ounce serving of ground flaxseeds provides 85.5 milligrams of lignans. You'll want to eat flaxseeds ground or milled (rather than whole), as this improves lignan bioavailability. Add them as toppings on oatmeal, yogurt, cereals and desserts to enjoy the benefits of this powerful nutrient.
2. Sesame Seeds: 11.2 mg
After flaxseeds, sesame seeds are the next best source of dietary lignans: A 1-ounce serving of toasted sesame seeds provides 11.2 milligrams.
The lignans in sesame seeds — like sesamin, sesamol and sesaminol — are well-known for their antiaging, anticancer, anti-diabetes, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, according to a December 2019 review in Molecules.
Try these tasty tahini recipes (FYI, tahini is made with sesame seeds) the next time you're looking for a lignan boost.
3. Curly Kale: 0.8 mg
Kale is one of those foods that people instantly think of as a "superfood," and for a good reason. This leafy green is nutrient-dense and rich in lignans, with 0.8 milligrams in a 1/2 cup. Kale is also an excellent source of vitamins A, C and K, according to the USDA.
If you're tired of salads, try these interesting kale recipes (no salad recipes in sight!).
4. Broccoli: 0.6 mg
Cruciferous vegetables — like broccoli, kale, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower — are among the best sources of plant lignans. Broccoli is particularly rich, with 1 cup of chopped broccoli providing 0.6 milligrams of lignans.
Try adding broccoli to any of these healthy stir-fry recipes.
5. Apricots: 0.4 mg
Apricots are one of the fruits that contain lignans. Just 1 apricot gives you 0.4 milligrams of lignans as well as some fiber and vitamin C for just 17 calories, per the USDA.
6. Brussels Sprouts: 0.3 mg
Brussels sprouts are rich in many antioxidants, especially lignans, vitamin C, kaempferol and zeaxanthin. A 1/2 cup of Brussels sprouts provides 0.3 milligrams of lignans.
Try these inventive Brussels sprout recipes if you're looking for a more refreshing take on cooking sprouts other than simply roasting them.
7. Strawberries: 0.2 mg
A 1/2 cup of strawberries has 0.2 milligrams of the plant compound. Try these healthy strawberry breakfast recipes to start your day off on an antioxidant-rich foot.
- Integrative Cancer Therapies: "Flax and Breast Cancer: A Systematic Review"
- Frontiers in Nutrition: "The Effect of Flaxseed in Breast Cancer: A Literature Review"
- Holistic Nursing Practice: "The effects of flaxseed on menopausal symptoms and quality of life"
- Linus Pauling Institute: "Lignans"
- Molecules: “Naturally Lignan-Rich Foods: A Dietary Tool for Health Promotion?”
- British Journal of Nutrition: “Lignan contents of Dutch plant foods: a database including lariciresinol, pinoresinol, secoisolariciresinol and matairesinol”
- Journal of Food Science and Technology: “Flaxseed—a potential functional food source”
- Molecules: “Anti-Inflammatory and Anticancer Properties of Bioactive Compounds from Sesamum indicum L.—A Review.”
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "Eating Nuts Linked With Better Heart Health"
- Breast Cancer.org: Plant Foods Can Cut Breast Cancer Risk
- Linus Pauling Institute Oregon State.edu: Lignans