Coconut Oil: What’s the Verdict?

Coconut Oil has been a hot item for the past few years, yet its health benefits are very much in debate. One Harvard professor calls coconut oil ‘pure poison,’ while other groups call it a ‘superfood.’ What gives?

The question centers around coconut oil’s fat content. Coconut oil is high in saturated fat, which we’ve all been told can lead to cardiovascular disease. Saturated fat has been shown to raise LDL (the bad) cholesterol, and approximately 80% of coconut oil is saturated fat. That’s a pretty high percentage, compared to 50% in butter and 60% in beef fat.

However, the TYPE of saturated fat in something matters, too. First of all, saturated fats are found in animal products, like beef, butter, cheese and cream, as well as a few plant sources, such as coconut and palm kernel oil. Fats, both saturated and unsaturated, are made up of fatty-acid ‘chains,’ and are of varying lengths based on how many carbon atoms they contain. These fatty acids can be short-, medium- and long-chain fatty acids, and each have different properties.

Medium-chain fatty acids, also known as medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), are shorter than the long-chain fatty acids and are broken down differently in our bodies than longer-chain fatty acids. They are metabolized more easily and may have beneficial effects on weight-loss, diabetes and even seizures. Coconut oil is made up of 60-65% of medium-chain fatty acids, which means that while it’s high in a more beneficial type of saturated fat than other fat sources.

For example, lauric acid, which contains 12 carbon atoms and is the longest of the ‘medium-chain fatty acids,’ raises total cholesterol largely because it increases the HDL (the good) cholesterol. This would seem to have a ‘protective,’ or at least neutral, effect on overall heart-health.

Additionally, it turns out that dietary intake of saturated fats may not be as detrimental to our health as we once believed. While some saturated fats can raise LDL cholesterol, some other fatty acids may not, and even others may have a protective effect, such as omega-3 fatty acids.   Also, other dietary factors, such as carbohydrate intake, and non-dietary factors, such as exercise and genetics, have direct effects on heart health as well.

So, because coconut oil is unique in that it’s made up of medium-chain fatty acids (and not long-chain fatty acids), it probably isn’t the ‘poison’ some people may make it out to be. However, just because its fatty-acid profile isn’t as ‘bad’ as a typical saturated fat doesn’t mean it’s a ‘superfood.’

As a fat source, coconut oil is just that—high in fat. We need fats in our diet, and they help us stay feeling full and satiated the longest. Fats also help us metabolize other nutrients, such as vitamins and minerals. Practicing moderation with coconut oil is likely the most healthy approach, such as adding a tablespoon to your smoothie or using a little to cook with as part of a balanced diet.

Coconut oil is touted by some groups to cure everything from Alzheimer’s and cavities to obesity and seizures.   Coconut oil, or any other single food, isn’t a cure-all. While some studies are showing beneficial effects of adding coconut oil to the diet, there isn’t enough evidence for it to be put on a pedestal with the likes of salmon or almonds or blueberries…at least not yet.

What’s more important for overall health is to eat a balanced diet, high in fruits and vegetables, lean sources of protein and healthy fats (more unsaturated than saturated), and drink lots of water. In addition, get exercise daily, sufficient sleep and keep your stress level in check, rather than relying on one ‘superfood’ to keep the doctor away (and that includes apples)!

Back-to-School Basics: Food Edition

In just a few short weeks, kids will be boarding school buses and moms everywhere will be jumping for joy…but not before school supplies have been bought, book bags have been packed, and school lunches have been made. As a natural-born writer and honors student, back-to-school shopping for supplies was my favorite part of summer. But my lunches? I didn’t give them a second thought. Thankfully, my mom made sure we had (relatively) healthy lunches each day.

Build a Better Breakfast

The typical American breakfast rivals dessert in terms of sugar content. One Pop Tart contains approximately 17 grams of sugar and only 2 grams of protein. A Toaster Strudel pastry is only slightly better, with 11 grams of sugar and 3 grams of protein. But, how often does anyone eat just one of either of those? So, two Pop Tarts contain 34 grams of sugar and only 4 grams of protein. One half cup of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream contains 28 grams sugar and 5 grams of protein—arguably a ‘better’ choice than two Pop Tarts!

Instead of pumping your kids full of sugar before their long day at school, consider a breakfast higher in protein and fat than what is typically found in breakfast cereals or granola bars. Aim for about 15 grams of protein at each meal for elementary and middle schoolers. Eggs, yogurt or meat should be an integral parts of a child’s breakfast. When buying yogurt, choose varieties high in protein and low in added sugars, or choose plain and add your own fruit. One egg and one ounce of meat both contain 7 grams of protein, which makes it easy to estimate how much your child is getting at each meal. For vegans and vegetarians, use organic soy and tempeh as meat-alternatives, or newer varieties of ‘protein nut milks’ for increased protein at meals.

Just because it’s breakfast doesn’t mean veggies are off the table. While V-8 juice (choose the low sodium variety) is a great choice as it provides a full serving of vegetables per half-cup, eating actual vegetables shouldn’t be disregarded. Baby carrots, sliced peppers, cucumbers, celery and cherry tomatoes are a great option in the morning. Pair veggies with some fruit or toast and a source of protein, like an egg. Or, blend spinach and kale into smoothies, along with a frozen banana and a source of protein, such as a plant- or whey-based protein powder.

Don’t forget about fat! Fat helps keep us feeling full longer than simple sugars, like fruit and white bread. Spread whole grain toast with peanut butter or mix avocado into smoothies. Because bacon is very high in fat, it’s not a great source of protein, but can (and should!) be enjoyed every once in awhile.

Breakfast Basic: 1-2 cooked eggs, 1 cup cut-up veggies, 1 piece whole grain toast with 1 tablespoon almond butter

Bento Box Lunches

These divided dishes are all the rage and make what I call ‘snack’ meals even more fun and festive! I often make ‘snack dinners’ if I’m solo in the evenings. An easy-to-pack bento lunch might include: deli meat rolled and secured with toothpicks (for protein), an apple (for carbs) and some nuts (for fat). Add in some blueberries and a cheese stick for variety and increased calories for older kids. Bento boxes are a great way to ‘think outside the sandwich’ without adding extra cooking or a lot of prep time. Simply get familiar with your macronutrients (carbs, fat and protein) and build a balanced meal.

I grew up in the time of NutriGrain bars and fruit-on-the-bottom yogurts, both of which were considered health foods. These days, it’s easy to find healthier items (i.e. fewer added sugars, fresher alternatives). While we shouldn’t eschew carbohydrates for fear of sugar (approximately half our daily calorie intake should come from carbohydrates), it is important to find higher quality carbs, like whole grain bread that is high in fiber, fresh fruits and vegetables, and plain yogurt.

No need to include an ice pack! Simply freeze a water bottle that will help keep food cold and thaw enough to drink by lunchtime.

Lunch Basic: 1 cup mixed veggies and hummus, ½ large apple, 2-3 slices deli meat, 1 tablespoon cashews

Balanced Dinners

Busy nights call for preparation! It’s hard to bust out the crock-pot when it’s still warm, so rely on cold dinners, like salads with chicken, or sandwiches. Cooking big batches of mains on the weekends helps, as leftovers can be eaten for breakfast, lunch or dinner the following days. Grill a few days worth of meat and veggies that can be used a variety of ways. Recently, I had a chicken with BBQ sauce, two kinds of sausages and cut-up cauliflower on the grill all at once, knowing I had some busy evenings ahead.

Dinner Basic: large salad with dried cranberries, feta cheese, sliced steak, and grilled pita bread

Interested in finding out more about building a better lunch? The East Aurora Cooperative Market is holding a ‘Lunchbox Workshop’ in the café from 4-5 pm Sunday, August 26. This event is open to the public and adults and children are welcome to attend. Sign-up using the event’s link, found on the co-op’s Facebook page. Attendees will bring home a completed lunch!

Mediterranean Diet too passé? Try the Nordic Diet

I’d only recently heard the Scandinavians had their own diet, and taking into account my Swedish heritage, penchant for trying new diets (for research purposes, of course) and preference for sardines, I figured this one might be right up my alley. Turns out, it just might be.

The Nordic diet, like the Mediterranean diet, emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean sources of protein and healthy fats. According to the World Health Organization, both the Nordic and Mediterranean diets can reduce the risks of cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Perhaps the only fundamental difference between the two is the type of oil recommended: olive for the Mediterranean and canola for the Nordic diet. Canola oil is made up of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, provides anti-inflammatory omega-3 polyunsaturated fats and may reduce LDL (‘bad’) cholesterol.

The Nordic diet is based on the Baltic Sea Diet Pyramid, which was created by the Finnish Heart Association and is similar to the 1992 USDA Food Guide Pyramid. The foundation of the Nordic diet is made up of common Nordic vegetables, fruits and grains (such as barley, rye and oats) in the middle, and fish, lean meat and low-fat dairy near the top. The very tip of the pyramid features foods that should be limited, such as processed foods and sweets. Foods unique to the Nordic diet include skyr (Icelandic yogurt, high in protein) and dense, whole-kernel rye bread (often found in air-tight packages, try the Mestemacher brand).

I recently read The Nordic Way, by Arne Astrup, Jennie Brand-Miller and Christian Bitz, which advocates specific ‘diet’ principles based on the results of the Diet and Obesity Genes study. The DiOGenes study followed overweight and obese adults and children in eight European countries who had recently lost weight, and found that a low-Glycemic Index (GI) diet, combined with a modest increase in protein, prevented weight re-gain and even promoted further weight loss. The book recommends a 2:1 carbohydrate-to-protein ratio, with an emphasis on low-GI carbohydrates. Low-GI carbohydrates don’t raise blood sugar as quickly as higher-GI carbohydrates, and there are many proponents of this style of eating plan. Click here for a complete book review.

Additionally, the Nordic diet stresses the importance of satiety and palatability of foods. By eliminating processed foods, which often lead to overeating, the Nordic diet promotes eating until one is satisfied, rather than full. Because the diet is high in fiber and recommends healthy fats and protein, it’s easy to feel satisfied for longer periods of time.

Here are some ways to work a ‘Nordic style’ of eating into your life:

-Begin with smaller portion sizes. It’s easy to overeat without knowing it, so start with less food on your plate and have a second helping only if you feel hungry.

-Drink more water and less alcohol, juice and sweetened beverages.

-Limit your meat consumption and replace with plant-based proteins (such as chickpeas or lentils) and oily fish (salmon, sardines, mackerel). Try using other types of canned fish like you would tuna.

-Keep red meat to smaller, higher quality amounts. Give bison a try!

-Consider trying the Mestemacher bread. It comes in a couple varieties, and I recommend toasting it. I topped a piece with deli ham, Dijon mustard, cottage cheese and shredded carrots (a combination I found in The Nordic Way) and it was delicious.

-Replace some high-GI foods with lower-GI foods. Traditional white and wheat breads, cornflake cereal, rice milk, potatoes and corn syrup are high-GI foods. Substitute them with dense rye or pumpernickel bread, muesli, soy or dairy milk, sweet potatoes (or even a small amount of potato chips!) and real maple syrup, respectively.

Even just a few of these diet changes can make a big difference in your waistline!

Since reading The Nordic Way, I’ve incorporated more dairy into my diet with cottage cheese, as well as the dense bread recommended. I was already eating Siggi’s, an Icelandic yogurt, and plenty of fruits and vegetables. The book features multiple recipes with canned mackerel in tomato sauce, but I have yet to find any of that locally. I had a delicious mackerel sandwich on my trip to the Netherlands last summer, and I’d love to try to recreate it soon.