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!

 

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.

Black Garlic…if you please!

Black garlic is a 4,000 year old Korean recipe for curing garlic in order to preserve it and now their latest health trend product.  It went mainstream in the U.S. in 2008 and is growing in popularity.

BG is made by a fermentation-type process of exposing garlic to high heat and high humidity for more than a month (usually 35 days). The high heat causes what is known as a Maillard reaction* a caramelization reaction that causes the garlic to turn black.

*The Maillard reaction is a chemical reaction between an amino acid and sugar brought on by the addition of heat.  This process results in the browning or caramelization of food.  

Although this type of fermentation process does not produce “live bacteria” like probiotics, it does produce a significant amount of disease-fighting anti-oxidants. The most common one being S-allylcysteine; a water-soluble component easily absorbed by the body.

S-allylcysteine is known to naturally lower cholesterol levels, prevent strokes, work as an anti-inflammatory or immune booster and may help reduce diabetic complications.

Black garlic produces as much as 3 times the amount of anti-oxidants as regular garlic, plus it doesn’t exude the strong, “off-putting” odor!

The optimal fermentation time for BG is 21 days as that is when anti-oxidants are at their peak.  After that time, they decline a little every day up to the 35 day fermentation period.

Chefs like to use black garlic to make sauces, purees and salad dressings.  They also use it as a sandwich spread, in deviled eggs and even to make ice cream. Check out their recipes at http://www.seriouseats.com/2015/09/what-to-do-with-black-garlic.html.

Picture courtesy of restaurantgirl.com