The Benefits of Coconut Oil

Coconut!Saturated fats have been villainized in  as the definitive root of heart disease and the many other degenerative ailments so common in our culture. Yet, cultures throughout the world have eaten saturated fats throughout their histories. Coconut oil has been a victim of this treatment, being composed of nearly 90% saturated fats. Has it received an unfair treatment?

The coconut hails from the Pacific Islands, where it has been a food staple for thousands of years among the islands’ inhabitants. Coconut oil is the product of pressing the meat of the coconut to extract the pure fat. Similar methods are used to produce coconut cream (a pressing of the meat, but keeping a whole product and not merely extracting the oil) and coconut milk (a pressing/pureeing of the meat with a liquid, frequently the coconut’s own water). Various cultures throughout the Pacific Islands, such as the Trobriand Islanders, derive a large percentage of the calories from the coconut, from which nearly all their fat calories derive. And yet, these people have a near absence of heart disease or other degenerative diseases as our culture.

Research into the benefits and structure of coconut oil have produced surprising results. Such benefits include: improved immune system, boosted thyroid, more efficient digestion and metabolism, and increased weightloss. Additionally, coconut oil has been used in the tropics for skin conditions, and simply as a beauty aid for skin and hair. Coconut sports a unique profile of fat molecules, unique in almost all the plant kingdom. It is from its unique molecular structure that its benefits can be attributed.

Coconut TreeOther than mothers milk, coconut oil the most dense source of lauric acid known. Lauric acid is an important fat molecule for our bodies, especially as infants, as it helps to build our immune systems. Lauric acid converts in our bodies into monolaurin, a substance known to be anti-bacterial and anti-viral. This fact alone has led coconut oil to be proscribed to individuals with severely compromised immune systems, such as HIV patients.

Coconut oil’s other unique attribute is that is composed of mostly mono-chain triglycerides (MCTs). MCTs are a saturated fat, and compose about 50% of the fat found in coconut oil. MCTs vary significantly from other fats in how our bodies metabolize them, whether this be saturated fats, monounsaturated fats, or polyunsaturated fats. Commonly, other fatty acids are considered to be long-chain fatty acids, which are large molecules that take a significant amount of energy for our bodies to break down. As such, they are much more likely to be stored as fat within our bodies. MCTs on the other hand, are efficiently broken down by our liver, and almost immediately utilized for energy. Benefits attributed to coconut oil such as increased metabolism, energy, and athletic stamina can be traced back to this fact. Additionally, coconut oil is now frequently recommended for Alzheimer and dementia patients because of its potential ability to help with cognitive function – a fact that can also be traced back to how it is metabolized.

Another benefit of coconut oil is simply that it is composed primarily of saturated fats. This in beneficial when it comes to cooking, as many commonly used oils for cooking are polyunsaturated. Polyunsaturated fats break down quickly when exposed to heat, and thus become rancid. This can occur even at seemingly light heat. Saturated fats break down much more slowly when exposed to heat, especially the more saturated they are by nature. Coconut oil’s 90% saturated nature makes it ideal for cooking, even at heats high enough for frying. Additionally, coconut oil is ideal for baking, as its highly saturated structure makes it ideal for prolonged exposure to heat. You may even want to consider using coconut oil exclusively for your cooking needs!

Liquid Coconut OilCoconut oil is again becoming a mainstream oil, and is now relatively easy to find. While you can find it numerous health food stores, it is now being offered at many more ‘conventional’ locales. When buying coconut oil, look for virgin cold-pressed unrefined oil. While other varieties can also be beneficial to your health, cold-pressed and unrefined oils are extracted at lower temperatures to maintain the integrity of the fat’s molecular structure, and unrefined to not contain chemical agents to help the extraction (which can be harmful to your health). Coconut oil is typically hard a room temperature because of its saturated nature, but can also be a clear liquid at above 70°F.

Give coconut oil a try, you’ll be wonderfully surprised, even if only for its flavor!

Sugar Substitutes – Are They Safe? (Part 2)

In this article we’ll cover the most commonly used sugar alcohols, Stevia, and how sugar substitutes may affect our appetites.

Be sure to check out Part 1 of this article here if you haven’t already! Get the lowdown on what a Sugar Substitute is, as well as info on the most widely used artificial sweeteners!

Sugar alcohols are a hydrogenated form of a carbohydrate, similar but slightly different to the molecular structure of other sugars. Unlike artificial sweeteners, sugar alcohols are actually less sweet than sugar, with their sweetness compared to sugar varies depending on the sugar alcohol. However, because they taste much more similar to table sugar, they are frequently mixed with artificial sweeteners to create a taste comparable to table sugar. Additionally, sugar alcohols do have calories. On average, they contain approximately 2 kcal per gram. Because of this slight amount of calories contained, sugar alcohols can have an affect on an individual’s blood sugar levels. However, sugar alcohols are partially absorbed by our bodies in the small intestine (rather than almost immediately with common sugar), and so have a much more negligible effect on our blood sugar – again, a very important concern for diabetics. Depending on the country you live or purchase sugar alcohols, they can either be labeled as calorie free (as in the United States), or labeled as having few calories (as in Britain). A word of caution: our bodies are not able to fully breakdown and assimilate sugar alcohols, and thus over-consumption can lead to bloating, flatulence, and even diarrhea. Moderation is key.

Erythritol and Xylitol are two of the most commonly used sugar alcohols for food consumption, as they taste most similar to table sugar and have little if any after taste. Erythritol is approximately 60-70% as sweet as sugar, while Xylitol is approximately 90% as sweet as sugar. However, both are frequently labeled and sold as being the same sweetness as table sugar. Erythritol is more fully absorbed by our bodies than any other sugar alcohol, and thus has the least amount of flatulent or laxative affects. Research on Xylitol has been shown it to reduce harmful strains harmful micro-organisms. Specifically, it has been shown to reduce strains of Mutans streptococci, a group of bacteria shown to be a significant contributor to tooth decay.

Stevia is one of the newest sugar substitutes widely available for sale and used for food consumption in the United States, although has been used for decades to centuries in other countries (such as Japan). It is an herb of the species Stevia rebaudiana, and frequently referred to as sweet leaf. Stevia is approximately 300 times sweeter than sugar! Stevia does has marked aftertaste that some find undesirable, and is thus frequently mixed with sugar alcohols when used in food products. If small amounts of Stevia are used, the aftertaste is less marked. Stevia extract is used for processed food consumption, and is labeled as rebaudioside A. Stevia has been used for centuries by the indigenous people of Paraguay, where it was used a folk remedy to help control blood sugar. Recent research has validated this remedy, showing Stevia as being beneficial to help regular blood glucose levels.

Do Sugar Substitutes Affect Our Appetites? Various studies have been conducted through the years regarding whether sugar substitutes affect our metabolism in direct ways that could trigger our body’s desire to consume more calories or even directly affect our body’s metabolism and systems for storing fat. Sugar substitutes generally do not exist in nature (perhaps other than Stevia), and thus our bodies have evolved to associate a significant number of calories with a sweet flavor. Studies within the past few years on rats have shown that rats fed a surplus diet sweetened with saccharin (an artificial sweetener) gained more weight than rats fed a surplus diet sweetened with glucose or sucrose. When the rats’ core temperature was analyzed, the rats fed artificial sweeteners had a lower core temperature than those fed with glucose or sucrose immediately after eating. Core temperature is an indication of metabolism – a lower core temperature in rats fed artificial sweeteners indicated that the mechanism in the rats’ required to burn excess calories was not triggered, leading to lower overall metabolic rate. Additionally, the rats fed artificial sweeteners ate more total calories than rats fed glucose/sucrose.

While no studies have been conducted on humans regarding artificial sweeteners and metabolism, it is important to understand that artificial sweeteners recreate a taste our bodies are equipped to handle in a very specific manner. While we can’t say if they will in fact slow our metabolism, we do know that many people will crave more sweets the more they eat. Simply because a food contains artificial sweeteners, it does not mean it can be eating to excess – it still contains whatever calories it would have without sugar.

If you’re going to eat a cookie, eat a cookie. Don’t eat the whole box!

If you’re having trouble with sugar cravings, be sure to check out: Understanding Sugar Cravings!

Sugar Substitutes – Are They Safe? (Part 1)

Many people are attempting to limit calories in their diet, and one of the many ways this can be accomplished is by limiting your sugar intake. Many herbs have traditionally been used as sugar alternatives, and since the late 1800s artificial sweeteners (man-made substances that mimic the sweetness of sugar) have also been utilized in our food. While we know that white sugar (sucrose) itself is devoid of nutrients, and even requires additional nutrients for your body to process, spikes our blood sugar, and can be a leading cause of being overweight and obesity, what is the safety of sugar substitutes? Proponents of sugar substitutes argue their benefit in helping to reduce calories and limit sugar intake (especially important and necessary for those with diabetes!). Opponents of sugar substitutes argue that many have toxic components, but can also overstimulate our taste buds and cause us to crave more sugar and food!

A crucial defining point to sugar substitutes is that they are actually sweeter than sugar itself. This means the amount of a sugar substitute required to get its ‘sweet effect’ is negligible compared to sugar. Because of this, and their very nature, sugar substitutes have either no caloric value to our bodies, or a very minimal caloric value. For those looking to trim up a bit, this can be quite important as a means of decreasing calorie intake. Sugar substitutes primarily consist of artificial sweeteners. The four major artificial sweeteners consumed in the United States include:

  • Acesulfame Potassium (Acesulfame K, Ace K, and Sunnett)
  • Saccharin (Sweet N Low)
  • Aspartame (Equal, Nutra-Sweet)
  • Sucralose (Splenda)

New sugar substitutes available include sugar alcohols and herbs:

  • Erithrytol
  • Xylitol
  • Stevia, an herb (rebiana, Truvia).

Let’s look at each sugar substitute individually:

Acesulfame Potassium was developed in the late 1980s, and is widely consumed in manufactured and packaged foods. It is 200 times sweeter than sugar. In high concentrations, Acesulfame K is bitter, and so is usually mixed with other sugar substitutes. The FDA has cleared Acesulfame K for human consumption, and backs their decision by citing over 90 studies as to its safety. Opponents of Acesulfame K cite conflicting studies, especially regarding a specific component it contains known as methylene chloride. Methylene chloride is as known potent carcinogen – a cancer causing substance – and has also been linked to kidney and liver damage, nausea, and headaches.

Saccharin was accidentally discovered in the late 1870s by a chemist working to develop coal tar derivatives, who happened to discover a sweet taste on his hand. Since the 1950s, saccharin has been used as a sugar substitute in our foods, and is commonly found on tables everywhere. Saccharin can range anywhere from 200-700 times sweeter than sugar. Studies in the 1970s indicated that saccharin could cause bladder cancer in mice, but the FDA confirms that this risk is not major in humans. Ever since the early 1900s, saccharin has had a bumpy road to being legal to sell for food consumption. The director of the bureau of chemistry for the USDA in 1907, Harvey Wiley, stated that saccharin is “extremely injurious to health.” It took another 50 years to legalize saccharin, and the FDA itself has put saccharin up for review and attempted to ban its sale. Other than being potentially carcinogenic, saccharin has also been linked to allergic reactions, headaches, and breathing issues.

Aspartame was discovered in 1965 by a chemist attempting to develop an anti-ulcer drug. Aspartame is about 200 times sweeter than sugar. Originally cleared for food consumption in 1974, objections by a neuroscientist put the approval on hold. It wasn’t until 1981 and 1983 that aspartame was approved for both dry and liquid goods, respectively. Perhaps more than any other sugar substitute, controversy abounds around aspartame’s safety. Because of the large amount of controversy, more tests have been performed regarding aspartame than any other substitute, as well. The FDA states that aspartame has been thoroughly tested, perhaps more than any other food additive, and that it is safe for consumption. The main opposition toward aspartame comes in two parts. Firstly, aspartame is composed of 50% phenylalanine. People with a genetic disorder known as phenylketonuria (PKU) cannot metabolize phenylalanine, which can lead to lethal concentrations in the brain, and so must avoid aspartame. Secondly, aspartame also contains approximately 10% methanol, or wood alcohol, which breaks down into formaldehyde in the human body. Formaldehyde is a known neurotoxin, symptoms which include gastrointestinal disturbances, memory lapses, numbness and pain in bodily extremities, retinal damage and blindness, and is also a known carcinogen.

Sucralose is the newest of the common artificial sweeteners, have been confirmed for consumption in 1998 under the brand name Splenda. Sucralose is 600 times sweeter than sugar. Because of the mild flavor of sucralose, it is much more favorable to most people compared to other artificial sweeteners. Before clearing sucralose for consumption, over 110 studies were reviewed by the FDA, and it was deemed that sucralose posed no toxic carcinogenic, neurological, or reproductive dangers. However, no long term toxicity studies have been conducted on humans. Sucralose is made from actual sugar, but the chemical process it undergoes involves chlorination, and thus transforms the sugar into a new substance. It is this primarily this chlorination process that brings the safety of sucralose into question. A number of studies, including those reviewed by the FDA, indicate that approximately 15% of sucralose ingested by the body is not eliminated in a timely fashion. Opponents argue by not eliminating even this small amount of sucralose over a long period of time could result in chlorine toxicity.

Stay tuned later this week for Part 2, as I cover the sugar alcohols, Stevia, and how sugar substitutes affect our appetites!

Gluten-Free Chocolate Banana Protein Muffins

In my ever present search for easy recipes, I stumbled upon these delicious gluten-free muffins. But these aren’t your average muffins, filled with sugar and simple carbohydrates, creating a blood sugar spike and leaving you hungry for more. These muffins are a meal! Bake up a big batch or two (or three), and you have easy, on-the-go mini meals, filled with complex carbs, good fats, and protein to keep you full for hours! As with all recipes, the ingredients listed below function as a base. Experiment to your heart’s content!

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup Almond Flour
  • 1/2 cup Oat Flour
  • 1/4 cup Amaranth Flour
  • 1 cup Egg Whites/Eggs (I use 1/2 cup each, feel free to use whatever ratio your prefer or what you have on hand)
  • 7 to 8oz Greek Yogurt
  • 3 Ripe Bananas
  • 1 tbsp Coconut Oil
  • 2 tbsp Cacao (Chocolate) Powder
  • 1 tbsp Vanilla Extract
  • 1 tsp Cinnamon

Preparation:

  • 1. Preheat oven to 400˚F. Coat silicone muffin cups or muffin pan with olive oil so as not to stick.
  • 2. In a large bowl, mash bananas into a paste. I like them a little chunky for texture.
  • 3. Mix all remaining ingredients into the bowl until a smooth consistency is reached.
  • 4. Spoon mixture into muffin cups/muffin pan.
  • 5. Bake in oven approximately 15-17 minutes. Remove from the oven, let cool, and eat!

Thinking about going gluten free? Or not sure what gluten is? Check out this article!

Food Spotlight: Asparagus

Asparagus was once considered to be a member of the lily family of plants, and while it is now considered to be in its own family, it is still remarkably similar to other lilies such as garlic and onions. When we consume asparagus as a vegetable, we eat the young shoot of the plant. Once the bud at the end of the spear we consume opens, the plant creates a fern-like structure that would be too hard or ‘woody’ to eat. The exact origin of asparagus is unknown. We do know that it originates somewhere in the Mediterranean, where it has been consumed for thousands and thousands of years. It may have been consumed and cultivated to some degree as early as 20,000 BP in Egypt. It is depicted in ancient Egyptian friezes dating to approximately 3000 BC, and was consumed and cultivated extensively in Greece, Rome, Syria, and Spain. The vegetable was so prized by Emperor Augustus of Rome that he created an ‘Asparagus Fleet,’ whose sole duty was to haul the vegetable from the fields for the wealthy. The oldest surviving cookbook, De Re Coquinaria by Apiucius, which hails from Rome during the 4th or 5th century AD, contains a recipe for delicately cooking asparagus.

Fresh, young, growing shoots of plants are some of the most nutrient dense foods, and asparagus is no exception. Asparagus is abound with the nutrient Vitamin K, an essential fat-soluble nutrient that helps your blood to clot properly, prevents calcification of your arteries, prevents bones from fracturing, aids bruising, and aids in preventing bone-loss. A single cup of uncooked asparagus contains approximately 70% of your recommended daily intake of Vitamin K! Asparagus is also rich in beta carotene, the precursor to Vitamin A, folate, iron, thiamin, copper, and manganese. One cup of uncooked asparagus contains only 27 calories, while containing 3 grams of protein, as well as 3 grams of dietary fiber!Asparagus has been so revered throughout the ages largely because of its medicinal properties. It is known as an excellent plant for detoxifying your system for numerous reasons. It contains large amounts of the amino acid glutathione, an important amino acid utilized by the liver as an anti-oxidant for cleaning up free radicals (toxins that create damage in your system). The large amounts of folate contained in asparagus have anti-inflammatory properties, helping to reduce pain and arthritis, as well as reduces your chances of heart disease and is essential for preventing birth defects for pregnant women. Additionally, asparagus has many diuretic properties, which help to aid constipation and keep you regular, as well as cleanse your liver and kidneys. Finally, asparagus contains inulin, a special form of fiber/oligosaccharide that help to feed beneficial bacteria in your intestines.

Asparagus can usually be found year-round with so many vegetables being imported from different localities and regions of the world. However, truly delectable and fresh asparagus is available only in the spring, when it is most abundant and thus also cheapest. Asparagus doesn’t face as many threats from pests as do some other plants, so it’s not absolutely necessary to get organic asparagus. That being said, the most nutritious and tasty asparagus can often be found only at a local farmer’s market because of freshness (where they tend to be less sprayed, anyway).

Asparagus is delectable simply steamed or baked, and is the perfect accompaniment to numerous dishes! Be sure to try Orange Roasted Tofu and Asparagus!

The Proteins

Perhaps more than any other macronutrient, protein is the most consistently mentioned. In fact, it means literally “of first importance/quality.” When we think of protein, we think mostly of what we are eating, and while that will be mostly the focus of this article, proteins extend far beyond what’s on the end of your fork. Proteins are building blocks of all living organisms, creating the structures that support their cells, functioning as hormones to organize our life processes, creating antibodies to safe-guard our being, acting as catalysts in the form of enzymes, as well as having thousands of other functions. Protein is the most abundant molecule in the human body, with the exception of water. Because of proteins’ vast array of functions, it is the nutrient primarily used to build and rebuild tissues within our body, such as your muscles.

Protein as a macronutrient differs from the others in that it is a large molecule composed of amino acids linked together by peptide bonds. The are 22 amino acids important to our health, as they serve important functions in our body, and are divided into three categories: essential amino acids, non-essential amino acids, and conditionally essential amino acids. Essential amino acids cannot be produced by our body, and as such must be acquired from the foods that we eat. Non-essential amino acids on the other hand can be created by the human body through the breakdown of proteins during digestion, provided enough protein is ingested. Conditionally essential amino acids are usually non-essential, except in times of stress, such as illness.

There are nine essential amino acids including leucine, isoleucine, valine, lysine, threonine, methionine, phenylalinine, tryptophan, and histidine. Non-essential amino acids include alinine, asparagine, aspartic acid, and glutamic acid. Conditionally essential amino acids include arginine, cysteine, glutamine, glycine, proline, serine, and tyrosine.

All food contains some protein, as it must in order for whatever organism it came from to survive – the only exception is if a food is processed from its natural form. Primarily we think of protein deriving from animal sources, such as beef, chicken, fish, milk products, and eggs. It can also be found in plant sources, such as legumes, grains, roots and tubers, seeds, nuts, vegetables, and fruit. Foods are classified into two groups when it comes to proteins: sources of complete protein and sources of incomplete proteins.

Sources of complete protein are foods that contain the full array of amino acids as required by the human body. Most frequently this includes sources of animal protein, but can also include exceptional plant foods such as quinoa and chia seeds. Sources of incomplete protein are foods that do not contain all amino acids in significant amounts as required by the human body, which primarily includes plant based foods.

There are some important caveats to this that will be touched on in future articles, but especially includes the source from which meat derives. For example, a cow fed a diet that is unnatural or atypical from what it would normally eat (ie. consisting primarily of corn and other grains), may lack specific amino acids required by its own body, as well as the human body, as opposed to a cow fed its natural diet of only grass.

The human body is a magnificent engine, and as such, it is not necessary to eat food containing only complete proteins. So long as our food is not derived from a single source of calories, our bodies are able to break down proteins from a vast array of foods and obtain whatever it may require to function. While it is important to eat a wide variety of foods to obtain the nutrients (not only protein) your body requires, it is even more important to eat a wide variety of foods if your diet does not contain sources of complete proteins. A way of thinking about this is to imagine a ‘pool.’ When your body breaks down proteins, it takes amino acids and adds them to the pool. As you continue to ingest and break down more proteins, it takes the amino acids and again adds them to the pool. When your body requires specific amino acids, it is able to gather what it requires from the pool, and assimilate them into the specific proteins it requires.

There has a been a wide debate for many, many years, nearly since the discovery of protein on a molecular level, about how much protein we actually need in order to survive. The requirement for protein varies on an individual level, determined primarily on an individual’s activity level. For example, a sedentary individual requires much less protein than an athlete, as the athlete is more frequently breaking down tissue in need of repair. Largely, trial and error are required to determine how much protein you need, and from what sources your body best derives and assimilates them from.

What’s a Calorie?

Most people aren’t concerned with the nature of calories unless they are trying to either lose or gain weight, the former being the more common in our culture. The common knowledge of calories usually doesn’t extend beyond the fact that if you use more calories than you ingest you’ll lose weight, and if you ingest more calories than you use you’ll gain weight. But what is a calorie, exactly?

A calorie is measurement of a unit of energy, similar to how a Joule is also a measurement of a unit of energy. More specifically, it is the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1 °C. In nutrition, it is used as the basis for measuring the energetic potential of food, as well as a measure for gauging the energetic requirements of an individual, which in turn is influenced by their Metabolism.

Calories in Food.

All food contains calories, but calories in food are more than the little demons that sew your pants tighter in the night. Everyone needs a certain number of calories to eat throughout the day to survive, and it’s important to know how many calories your food contains.

Food is broken down into three major groups, the Macronutrients. These three groups are: Protein, Carbohydrates, and Fats. Protein and Carbohydrates have a potential 4 calories per gram. Fats, on the other hand, have a potential 9 calories per gram. This is important to note, as the same measure of fat has more than double the amount of calories for the same measure of either protein or carbohydrates! This doesn’t mean you should stop eating fats altogether if you’re trying to lose weight, or even eat fats exclusively if you’re trying to gain weight! Fats are extremely important to your physiological functions (would they be so delicious, if not?), which we’ll cover in future articles. Simply, it’s important to note that if you indeed are trying to lose weight, fat is much more calorie-dense than other foods, and thus it is much easier to overeat.

Notice that I stated foods have a ‘potential’ calorie amount. Each macronutrient differs from the others in its chemical structures, and there are even differences within each macronutrient group. For example, proteins have a high Thermogenic Effect (See Thermogenic Effect of Food in Metabolism), meaning that amount of energy required for your body to breakdown protein is much higher than for any other macronutrient! Some studies estimate that almost 30% of the energy your body would be able to utilize from protein is actually required to digest the protein to begin with! Another example is Fiber (Cellulose). Fiber is a form of Carbohydrate that is mostly indigestible by humans, so while it may have a potential 4 calories per gram, it cannot be broken down by our digestive system and so yields 0 calories per gram.

Note: I’ll be covering the Macronutrients in more detail soon!