Lime in the coconut – really a bellyache? The AHA thinks so!

The American Heart Association (AHA) is fighting back on the claim that “butter is back” (started by Time magazine’s cover article “Eat Butter” in 2014) by stating that saturated fat really does contribute to heart disease. And they’re taking it on in a big way – slamming coconuts! Well not coconuts really….coconut oil.

So many people, including dietitians are fired up about this statement. “What do you mean, coconuts are not healthy? Not only do I drink their milk and water and use their oils, but also put coconut creams and makeup on my face. How could this be?”

As a dietitian who reads just about every single label and nutrition fact on food, I never understood what the hoopla was about the coconuts; milk, water or oil anyways.  There really isn’t any nutrition in them – except polyphenols, which I will get to in a minute.

The point that AHA is making is that coconut oil raises your LDL or “little devils”, the not so good cholesterol. This tropical fat contains saturated fats, which have been shown to raise LDL levels. We know that saturated fats raise your not so good cholesterol levels more than anything else and are strongly connected to heart disease.

Even Dr. Esselstyn, the renowned cardiologist who promotes eating vegan to prevent heart disease, recommends against coconut oil – or for that matter all oil.

So is the AHA correct in what they are saying? Well maybe…

One of the important items that the AHA didn’t address in their report is how the coconut oil is refined. When it comes to coconut oil, I think this is a critical component to consider.  Some of the commercial brands of coconut oil are made by bleaching and deodorizing them. They may be extracted from the skin using a chemical solvent (e.g. hexane) and sodium hydroxide may be added to extend shelf life. This type of processing often kills the beneficial antioxidants in the coconut oil that help prevent heart disease and may contribute to other diseases.

I did wonder about their hasty decision to recommend other highly refined oils instead like soy or canola oil, so decided to dig a bit.  One of their panel members receives significant grant money from Ag Canada and the Canola oil council and the AHA itself just received a huge grant ($3.9 million) from the Monsanto (GMO soybean seeds) Fund to reach 120 early care centers.  I’m not saying this played a part in their recommendations, but it certainly may have contributed.

What the AHA is missing is that unrefined coconut oil contains polyphenols. Polyphenols are antioxidants found in coconut and other oils (think olive!) that have positive effects on LDL cholesterol – they lower it. They also reduce inflammation, contain antimicrobial components (protect against disease-causing bacteria) and may even protect our bones. A number of studies have shown that when people consume diets high in phenolic compounds it actually reduces their risk of coronary heart disease.

The AHA admits that clinical trials showing a direct relationship between coconut oil and heart disease have not been reported. They are only basing it on the fact that it raises LDL levels.

My point has always been that most food is a combination of nutrients and ingredients that add pluses and minuses to our health. Our bodies do a good job of balancing these out. So focusing on one ingredient in a food (even though it is sky high!), may not be a valid approach until we have evidence that there are no other components that are working to balance it out.

So what do I recommend? As usual, my recommendation is to eat coconut in its whole form. This means coconut meat (the edible white part of a coconut). I read somewhere someone referring to it as “the other white meat.” Coconut meat is extremely high in fiber (excellent source!), and contains polyphenols, both which have been shown to lower LDL cholesterol. As a bonus, it’s high in iron, phosphorus, selenium and is a good source of zinc!

 
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Say it isn’t “Soy”

PART 2 OF 2

Soymilk

What the research is telling us about soy?

Of course you can certainly find studies that support your views on any topic. And the research on soy is “mucky” at best.

  • Claim #1: Soy promotes breast cancer – High levels of estrogen in the body have been linked to breast cancer because cancer cells attach to estrogen causing them to grow and multiply. Because soy contains “phyto” estrogens, some have speculated that they will have the same effect in our bodies. However, phyto-estrogens are not the same as body made estrogen. PE are naturally formed dietary estrogens found in plants. Most research indicates that soy in its “whole, organic, food” form exhibits weak estrogenic effects and does not lead to breast cancer growth or development. Instead, some studies demonstrated that it has a protective effect and may even decrease the risk of breast and other hormone-related cancers.
  • Claim #2: Soy causes hypothyroidism – Hypothyroidism occurs when your thyroid doesn’t make enough of certain kinds of hormones. This can result in severe fatigue, weight gain, a puffy face, depression and even goiters (abnormal enlargement of the thyroid gland). The mineral iodine, mostly found in foods from the sea (e.g. seafood and seaweeds), but also in iodized salt is essential to produce thyroid hormones. Soy has been shown to lower the amount of iodine in our body, which eaten alone could certainly lead to hypothyroidism.  However, with the “enormous” amount of iodine consumed in most people’s diets from iodized salt, deficiency of this nutrient is rare.
  • Claim #3: Soy blocks the uptake of essential nutrients – Soy contains phytic acid (phytates), an anti-oxidant found in whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds. Phytic acid has been shown to interfere with the uptake of calcium, magnesium, copper, iron and zinc. Interestingly enough, no scientific evidence shows that this leads to deficiencies of these nutrients, so the impact is unclear. Phytic acid is also deactivated when cooked, although the degree of deactivation is debated.

In conclusion to these three claims, eating large quantities of any single food or excessive supplementation may cause imbalances or even health issues. Our best advice is to eat soy (or any other food for that matter) in moderation, so that you can incorporate other healthful foods along with it.

What is moderation for soy? The recommendations are 1-2 servings a day. 1 serving is 1 cup of soymilk or ½ cup of tofu or whole soybeans. If you are interested in the least processed soymilk possible, you can make your own.

Here is a simple recipe:

Soymilk Recipe 3

HOMEMADE SOYMILK

Serves: 4 (1 cup servings)

Ingredients:

  • ½ cup whole dried soybeans
  • 2-3 cups water for soaking beans overnight
  • 4 cups water for blending
  • 2 tablespoons vanilla
  • 1 tablespoon sea salt
  • 1 tablespoon honey

Directions:

  1. Place dried soybeans in a bowl. Cover with 2-3 cups water and soak overnight.
  2. Pour soaked beans into a colander and drain water.
  3. Rub beans between fingers to remove skins. Discard skins.
  4. Place skinned beans in a blender. Add 4 cups of water, vanilla, sea salt and honey.
  5. Blend until smooth.
  6. Strain the blended mixture by pouring it through a jelly or nut bag into a large pot.
  7. Twist the bag tightly to squeeze out the liquid completely.
  8. Pour mixture into a pitcher, let cool and then refrigerate until chilled.

Serve over oatmeal, cereal or drink plain.

The bottom line is that you can certainly find studies for or against eating soy or any other food for that matter. Easy to do! The important thing to remember is that your body is in a constant state of adding and subtracting nutrients all the time through a variety of different foods. So the key is to eat the right-size portion of a wide variety of “real” foods every day. This will add pluses that balance out the minuses to promote health and reduce deficiency.

Say it isn’t “Soy”

PART 1 OF 2

Soy Health and Nutrition

I hear from many, many, many people that they avoid soy because it’s “so dangerous!” And I think; really? How did this way of thinking start? When did this come about? After all, it’s just a bean. Well, it’s a little more complex than that, mainly because how soy is processed.

I would place soy products into 2 different categories; the highly processed kind and the minimally processed ones.

Let’s start off with the minimally processed kind:  

The minimally processed soyfoods consist of:

  • Whole non-GMO soybeans (edamame)
  • Organic soymilk
  • Organic tofu
  • Tempeh
  • Miso
  • Natto (fermented soy)

Soy in its minimally processed form has many benefits. Namely it is:

  • 41% protein – so a great source of protein!
  • Considered a “complete” protein because it contains all of the amino acids your body can use to build (e.g. muscle, tissues, hair, skin, etc.). Some of you may say that it’s low in certain amino acids, but it does still contain them.
  • Rich in isoflavones which have anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-tumor properties.
  • A good source of omega 3 fatty acids.
  • An excellent source of fiber.
  • Packed with iron, Vitamin C and calcium.
  • Naturally low in calories and saturated fat.
  • Loaded with B vitamins and folate.

After learning a few big points pertaining to non-processed soy products, let’s take a look at a few big points pertaining to processed soy products.

Soyfoods sales have climbed from $500 million in 1992 to $5.2 billion in 2011.

Part of the reason for its growth in popularity is that soy is highly subsidized* by the government, which means that farmers will grow a lot of it. The harvested soy needs to go somewhere, so why not create a monstrous amount of highly processed meat look-a-likes.

*Agricultural subsidy – money paid to farmers to grow a certain crop. This helps supplement their income and keep them going in times of bad weather or drought.

Examples of highly processed soy foods include:

  • Meat alternatives like veggie burgers and dogs.
  • Soybean oil
  • Soy yogurt
  • Soy formula
  • Texturized vegetable protein
  • Soy sauce

Soy is also added to meat products as a filler – “think fast food burgers” – to save on costs.

So, what is it about these highly processed versions that cause issues?

  • Soy Protein: Soy protein isolates, concentrates and texturized vegetable protein (the ingredients used to make fake-meat patties and baby formulas) are highly refined extractions from soy beans. The refining process isolates these proteins, making them more concentrated and more difficult to digest. The main concern is that they are removed from the bean using Hexane; a petroleum-based product (a result of gasoline refining – also used in cleaning products, show making, brake repair and textiles). Regular exposure to hexane may result in headaches, dizziness, headaches, eczema and even neurotoxicity (poisoning of the nervous system). Plus, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has data that indicates “hexane is a widely occurring atmospheric pollutant.”
  • GMO’s: The vast majority of soy food (91% of it is grown in the US) is genetically modified. GMO’s are plants created in a laboratory and do not occur naturally. They consist of taking the DNA or genes of a plant and combining them with genes of another organism (could be another plant, animal, virus or bacteria) in order to make it more resistant to insects, weeds and to maintain the integrity of the plant. Although “unbiased” research on GMO’s is new, we do know for sure that “cross-breeding” or genetically altering certain foods with other foods may cause allergic reactions. After the passage of a national bill, you can now tell whether or not a product has been genetically modified (small print on the back of the package, a QR code or direct consumers to a phone number or website). To avoid GMO soy, choose the organic versions or ones that are verified by the non-GMO project. **Always remember to read the labels of the foods you are putting into your body**
  • Artificial Additives: The highly refined versions of soy foods have nutrients stripped out that are replaced with a huge amount of salt and a bucket-load of artificial additives and preservatives. For example, veggie burgers and veggie hot dogs contain ingredients like modified cellulose, caramel color, corn syrup solids, dextrose, carrageenan, maltodextrin, disodium guanylate, disodium inosinate, hydrolyzed torula yeast, gum Arabic and red 40 and blue 1. Helpful tip: If you have no idea what the ingredients are in the foods that you are consuming; you may want to stay way!