March 2014

The Coconut Craze

A little coconut won’t hurt, but don’t be fooled by recent diet books, articles, and recommendations that tout coconut oil as the secret ingredient for weight loss and health.

The Good News for Weight Loss: Unlike most nuts that contain heart-healthy fats, the main fat in coconut is saturated fat (at ~ 92% saturated fat, coconut oil makes butter and lard look like health food!). However, the main saturated fat in coconut oil is lauric acid, which is a “medium-chain triglyceride” or MCT. Unlike the longer saturated fats in dairy products and meat, MCTs are shorter, more quickly absorbed, and likely to be burned for energy, rather than stored as fat. Numerous studies show that MCTs increase metabolism, aid in weight loss, and lower body fat. Lauric acid also is mildly effective in protecting against liver damage, possibly aiding thyroid function, and providing some anti-inflammatory benefits. That’s the argument to justify drinking coconut-laden smoothies with 93% fat calories – hey, it’s mostly MCTs, so you’ll drop pounds just downing the shake!

The Truth: Like the old adage says, “If it sounds to good to be true, it probably is.” There are no studies on coconut and weight loss, only mixed evidence using purified MCTs. Even then, these fats appear useful mainly for hospitalized patients requiring tube feedings. For the healthy person who wants to drop a few pounds or even avoid weight gain, the research is scanty at best. And, get this – you must consume half your calories as MCTs to see results, which is a lot more than you could realistically get from coconuts and also could cause side effects, including nerve damage and intestinal cramping.

I don’t know of any good data on long-term weight changes using food, including coconut, as a source of MCTs. In short, if people lose weight with coconut, it’s because they cut calories, not because they sprinkled coconut on their chicken.

What About The Health Benefits? OK, so coconut oil isn’t the Promised Land for weight loss, but is it good for your health? The proponents of coconut say we’ve been duped into thinking that the saturated fats in tropical oils are bad for us, pointing out that we’ve “…drastically reduced saturated fats…[which] has not solved the nation’s health problems.” They say lauric acid in coconut oil lowers, not raises, heart-disease risk, as proven by the low rates of heart disease in coconut-eating cultures such as India.

First, saturated fats, along with trans fats, are major contributors to heart disease, it’s just that few people follow the dietary advice to cut back. Second, while cultures where people eat coconut-rich diets sometimes do have a lower incidence of disease, there is no proof it is because of coconut. It could be that these people are at low risk because they are lean, physically active, and eat traditional diets rich in fruits, vegetables, and other real foods. In contrast, adding coconut oil to the fat- and sugar-laden American diet is like pouring kerosine on a blazing fire of obesity.

The evidence linking coconut oil to heart disease is contradictory, but points sharply in the direction of caution. Some studies show lauric acid might improve the ratio of bad cholesterol (LDL) to good cholesterol (HDL), thus lowering heart-disease risk. Even then, coconut oil is no where near as beneficial as switching from butter to olive oil. Coconut oil should be judged on it’s entire fat content, not just it’s lauric acid, since coconut oil also contains myristic acid, a fat that dramatically raises blood cholesterol levels. Keep in mind, decades of studies show that tropical oils, including coconut oil, actually raise, not lower, heart disease risk, which is why they were removed from processed foods in the first place. Even researchers from countries, such as India, recommend a decrease in coconut oil consumption to reduce their rising heart-disease rates. In short, if coconut has any effect on metabolism it is modest compared to its potential to raise your risk for heart disease.

Don’t get me wrong. Coconut has redeeming qualities. Virgin coconut oil (made by pressing coconut meat with minimal heat to remove the oil) has some antioxidant-rich vitamin E and phytochemicals called polyphenols. Coconut flakes also have some fiber. Small amounts added now and then also add flavor and enjoyment to a meal. Until we know more about the long-term health effects of this fat, it’s best to err on the side of caution – if you use coconut milk in cooking, grab the “light” version, which has 70% less fat and 65% fewer calories. Then use it sparingly.

Thank You! (and the winner is…)

Last month I asked readers to let me know what topics they were most interested in reading about. I thoroughly enjoyed reading all of your comments and suggestions. Thank you! Some of the topics readers said they would like to learn more about included weight loss, iodine, butter versus margarine, heart healthy tips, recipes, anti-aging, menopause solutions, and how to supplement.

I’ve already answered one of the questions on the controversy over coconut oil in this month’s lead article. Stay tuned. I’ll be covering the rest of these topics in future issues. Keep your questions and ideas coming! You can either email me directly, or add a comment to the end of any of the newsletters. I truly appreciate the feedback.

And, without further ado, the winner of my Food & Mood Cookbook is Janice J. Thank you all again for your great ideas and for being part of a community of readers who are actively taking care of their health.

Just Do This Today

1. Try one new colorful fruit or vegetable that you’ve never had before.

2. When you are tempted to snack on something you know isn’t good for you, have a glass of water and wait 15 minutes to see if the craving subsides.

3. Take the stairs instead of the elevator or escalator.

Hot Off the Diet Press

1. The Nut Diet: Nibbling on nuts might be the fountain of youth. Researchers at Harvard Medical School compared all-cause mortality rates among 76,464 women in the Nurses’ Health Study and 42,498 men in the Health Professionals Follow-up Study. Nut consumption was monitored at baseline and updated every two to four years. Results showed that people who ate one-ounce of nuts every day showed a 20% decrease in risk for dying from any cause during the subsequent three decades, compared to people who didn’t eat nuts. While the study did not prove cause and effect, it did find that eating nuts also was linked to lower risks for dying from cancer, heart disease, and respiratory diseases.

Bao Y, Han J, Hu F, et al: Association of nut consumption with total and cause-specific mortality. New England Journal of Medicine 13;369: 01- 11.

2. Guzzling Cancer-Causing Soda: Women who drink lots of soft drinks and other sugary beverages are at high risk for developing endometrial cancer, according to a study from the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health in Minneapolis. Dietary intakes of soft drinks, fruit juice, sugary beverages, pastries, starch, and sugar in 23,039 postmenopausal women were compared to subsequent development of endometrial cancer in the following 24 years. Results showed that those women who drank the most sugar-sweetened beverages had a 78% higher risk for a tumor known as estrogen-dependent type 1 endometrial cancer. The more sugary beverages a women drank, the higher her risk. No link was noted between sugar-free beverages and cancer risk. Because previous studies have shown an elevated endometrial cancer risk in women who are overweight and because sugary beverages are associated with weight gain, the researchers suspect it is the sugar-induced elevation in estrogen and body fat that increases risk.

Inoue-Choi M, Robien K, Mariani A, et al: Sugar-sweetened beverage intake and risk of Type 1 and Type 2 endometrial cancer among postmenopausal women. Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention 13;22:2384-2394.

3. Obesity Myth Busted: There is no such thing as “healthy obesity,” warn researchers at the University of Toronto. The notion that some people can be overweight or even obese and still remain healthy is a myth. This meta-analysis of studies included 61,386 people total and compared BMI categories with risk of all-cause mortality and/or cardiovascular events. Results showed that even metabolically “healthy” obese individuals had increased risk for events compared with metabolically healthy normal-weight people. All metabolically unhealthy groups had a similar disease risk, whether they were normal weight, overweight, or obese. In short, even without high blood pressure, diabetes, or other metabolic issues, people who are overweight are at risk for higher death rates, heart attack, and diabetes.

Kramer C, Zinman B, Retnakaran R: Are metabolically healthy overweight and obesity benign conditions? Annals of Internal Medicine 13;159:758-769.

Photo credit:  Javier Pais via Compfight Rena Tom via Compfight

Food & Mood Tip – Little Meals & Snacks

Eating regularly throughout the day, compared to a few big meals, is good for your mood and waistline. This eating style helps side-step a host of mood problems, from fatigue to irritability, not to mention aids in weight loss and the prevention of diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and hypertension. For example, a study from the Faculty of medicine in Toulouse, France found that body weight decreased in men who divided their food intakes into several small meals and snacks throughout the day compared to men who ate the same calories, but in fewer meals. Researchers at the University of Michigan School of Public Health report that women who divide their food intakes into several little meals and snacks throughout the day are leaner with less body fat than are women who eat the same calories, but pack them into two or three big meals. In fact, the more little meals and snacks the women ate (up to six a day), the lower their body fat

Photo credit:  Brian Talbot via Compfight

Eat Your Way to Sexy This Week – Sexy Thoughts

Sexy springs from the thoughts you choose to harbor. Choose nurturing thoughts that are playful and positive, and you take one step at a time toward feeling vibrant. On the other hand, choose to nurture negative thoughts with words like “I can’t” or “I shouldn’t”, and you quickly turn into your own worst enemy when it comes to finding inner happiness. Give up the excuses that foster negative thoughts, such as that you have no power or control (the “Poor me, Why me” attitude), you deserve more of this or that, you are waiting for someone to take care of you or some aspect of your life (“Once I find a wife/husband/job/etc, my life will be complete”), or you blame someone or something for where you are (“I had a hard childhood, no wonder I’m overweight”). Choose your strengths, not your weaknesses, and use those to fashion your thoughts!

Mood-Boosting Recipe of the Week

Ham, Cheese, and Spinach Frittata
Frittatas are so simple and so elegant they can be served for any meal. You can add your favorite vegetables to this recipe. For example, replace the tomatoes with diced red pepper or sun dried tomatoes, or replace the spinach with an equal amount of frozen chopped broccoli. Further cut cholesterol (from 125 to 9 milligrams) by replacing whole eggs with an equal amount of egg substitute. Serve with whole wheat toast and a glass of OJ for breakfast or a tossed salad for lunch or dinner.

cooking spray
1 /2 cup yellow onion, diced
4 whole eggs, whipped
1 cup liquid egg substitute (equivalent of 4 eggs)
1 /2 cup 1 percent low-fat milk
salt and pepper, to taste
1 cup tomatoes, chopped
1 10-ounce package frozen chopped spinach, thawed and thoroughly drained
2/3 cup low-fat sharp cheddar cheese, grated
2/3 cup turkey ham, diced

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Grease a 9″ square baking dish or deep-dish pie pan.

1) Spray a medium, non-stick pan and place over medium heat. Add onion and saute until transparent, approximately 5 minutes. Set aside.

2) In a medium bowl, blend eggs, egg substitute, milk, salt, and pepper. Add remaining ingredients and blend thoroughly.

3) Pour mixture into greased pan. Bake for 40 minutes or until frittata puffs and turns golden brown. Serves 8.

Nutritional Analysis per serving: 144 Calories; 39% fat (6.2 grams); 2 grams saturated fat; 48% protein; 13% carbohydrate; 1.2 grams fiber.

Answers to “Do You Know?” from last issue:

1. Are free-range eggs healthier?
Free-range chicken eggs have no legal definition or standard in the United States. Some farmers sell their eggs as free-range only because the chickens’ cages are 2 or 3 inches above average size, or there is a window in the coop.

2. Is chicken broth good for a cold?
This is no myth. Homemade chicken soup contains several ingredients that affect the body’s immune system, according to a study from the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Specifically, it has anti-inflammatory properties that could explain why it soothes sore throats and eases the misery of colds and flu. Add a bunch of vegetables to it and you have a one-two punch for getting well fast.

Photo credit:  kool_skatkat via Compfight

Do You Know?

1. Is palm oil a healthy alternative to trans fats.

2. Do carrots improve your eyesight?

Check next week for the answers….

Label Lingo – All Natural

Any food that claims to be “all natural” must be good for you, right? Think again. This claim is essentially meaningless. Even on meat and poultry, the term “natural” only refers to how the meat was processed, not how the animal was raised. For everything else, from frozen entrees and cereals to crackers, chips, and more, there is no standard definition. A food can be packed with refined white flour, high fructose corn syrup, and genetically modified ingredients and still present itself as “natural.”

Food Finds/Food Fails:

If you have a food you would like me to critique, please submit it in the comment section at the end of this newsletter.

Food Finds:

1. Fat-free Half & Half: I love this stuff!! It’s like having your cake and eating it, too! It tastes rich and creamy, just like regular half & half, with no oil and far fewer calories. I use it in coffee, creamed sauces and soups, and when making creamy desserts like panna cotta or cheesecake.

2. Mary’s Gone Crackers: These yummy crackers are made with whole grains like brown rice and quinoa. They are sugar-free, lower in sodium than other crackers, almost free of saturated fats and totally free of cholesterol and trans fat. They are organic, too.

Food Fails:

1. Annie Chun’s Asian Cuisine Teriyaki Noodle Bowl: The front packaging claims this food is 100% all natural with no MSG or preservatives, but flip the package to the back and you find that the first ingredient is white flour, followed by tapioca starch and salt. That might explain why it supplies 61% of your day’s recommendation for sodium. You’ll also have added 3 teaspoons of sugar to your day’s diet.

2. Alouette New Bacon Cheddar Flavored Soft Spreadable Cheese: You’re probably not surprised that this item is not particularly healthy. The tiny suggested serving of only 2 Tablespoons, which is probably how much you’d use on three or four crackers, packs 80 calories, 88% of which comes from fat, with more than a teaspoon of that being artery-clogging saturated. Every dinky serving also supplies 160 milligrams of sodium.

The Daily Menu

Put know how into practice with this simple, nutritious meal plan. Eliminate the snacks if you want to cut additional calories. And, with all the menus in my newsletter, feel free to tweak to your food preferences and choices.

1 serving of Ham, Cheese, and Spinach Frittata
1 piece 7-grain toast
1 /2 broiled grapefruit (cut grapefruit in half, top with pinch of sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg and broil until bubbly).

Mid-Morning Snack:
5 lemon-flavored pitted dried plums each stuffed with 1 almond.
1 cup warmed nonfat milk flavored with 1 tablespoon almond syrup.

Crunchy Tuna Sandwich: Blend 3 ounces water-packed tuna with 1 1 /2 tablespoons fat-free mayonnaise and 1 tablespoon chopped green onion. Spread on whole wheat bread with 1/4 cup grated carrot, lettuce, and 1 /2 teaspoon sunflower seeds.
1 cup nonfat milk

Mid-Afternoon Snack:
Blend 1 tablespoon chutney with 2 tablespoons fat-free cream cheese. Spread on 5 fat-free whole wheat crackers.
1 sliced pear.

Spaghetti: 1 cup cooked spaghetti noodles topped with homemade or canned marinara sauce and 1 tablespoon low-fat grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup Italian vegetables, steamed
Tossed salad: 2 cups chopped Romaine lettuce, 2 tablespoons thinly-sliced red onion, 1 chopped medium tomato with oil and vinegar dressing (2 teaspoon olive oil and 2 teaspoons balsamic or red wine vinegar)

Nutrition Score: 1,796 calories, 18% fat (36 g; 7 g saturated),61 % carbs ( 275 g), 21% protein (96 g),1,210 mg calcium, 39 g fiber.