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!

What is a Carb?

Carbohydrates are molecules composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen that all plant foods (beans, grains, fruits, vegetables, etc) contain. There are four different types of carbs, which all serve a certain purpose:

“Simple Sugars:” Monosaccharides and Disaccharides : The simplest forms of carbohydrates, simple sugars are immediate sources of energy. All other forms Simple Sugarsof energy (fat, protein, starch, complex carbs) need digestive enzymes in the stomach to break them down before they’re converted to energy for our cells. Sugar enters our blood stream as soon as it dissolves in our saliva. (This can be useful when running a marathon or riding a bike, since our body doesn’t have the energy to digest, but needs the calories.)

Sugars

What kinds of foods constitute simple sugars? Many foods contain sugar (even milk, which contains lactose), but pure simple sugar is usually extracted from a whole food (except honey.) “Concentrated fruit syrup,” table sugar, brown rice syrup, maple syrup, etc., are almost pure sugar. Many foods contain sugars, but most of them contain fiber, protein, and/or fat as well, so the sugar will not absorb into the body as quickly.

The prebiotic: Oligosaccharides: Oligosaccharides are carbohydrates made up of 3-10 simple sugars linked together, and humans cannot fully digest them. That can actually be beneficial…the undigested bits serve as food for intestinal microflora, (bacteria in our gut!)

Chicory Root

What kinds of foods contain oligosaccharides? They are found in plants in small amounts. Chicory root and Jerusalem artichokes contain the highest amount, but they’re also found in: wheat, jicama, the onion family, asparagus, burdock root, and other plants.

“Complex Carbs,” Polysaccharides: “Complex Carbs” release their energy more slowly than simple sugars, since it takes longer for our bodies to break them down. This causes a less severe spike in blood sugar, and gives your body more time to “burn off” or “use” the energy. The scientific definition of polysaccharides is a chain of monosaccharaides (sugars) linked together by glycosidic bonds. There are different kinds of polysaccharides, which are “structure” or “storage” related: Starch

Starch: Starch is the way that plants store excess glucose (energy). Almost all vegetables and grains contain starch in varying degrees-common food sources include potatoes, wheat, rice, corn, taro root, yams, cassava, barley, and rye.

Fiber (or Cellulose): Cellulose is supposedly the most abundant substance in the living world. It is present in almost all plant foods. Cellulose is classified as “dietary fiber.” It is actually indigestible to humans and most animals. (For instance, wood, cotton and paper are almost pure Dietary Fibercellulose.) That may seem odd, since fiber is supposed to be good for us. But it’s indigestibility is actually its function…it changes the nature of our digestive tract, binds to bile acids to lower cholesterol, and changes how nutrients and chemicals react in the intestines. Fiber is extremely important, and I will devote an entire blog post to explain it.

Glycogen: Humans store “extra” energy in their livers and muscles in the form of glycogen. It is a kind of carbohydrate that can be broken down in glucose, or blood sugar, when the body has been deprived of food. All the glycogen in our bodies can be used up in one 24-hour period of fasting, or an intense workout. Luckily, it is replenished by the ingestion of carbohydrates.

There are other forms of fiber (structural polysaccharides) such as chitin, the compound that shellfish exoskeletons are made from, or pectin, a form of soluble fiber found in fruits.  Most plant foods contain a combination of starch and fiber, and humans have consumed these foods throughout history, (although the amount we should consume is a hot debate). I will bring in anthropology sources as a response to that question in a later post….

Macronutrients! (A bird’s eye view)

Everything we eat can be broken down into two nutritional groups: Macronutrients and Micronutrients. Today’s feature is the macronutrients!

Macronutrients compose the majority the foods we take in for energy, classified as calories. Macronutrients are further broken down into three groups: proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. Each macronutrient provides a different amount of calories that can be utilized as energy: proteins and carbohydrates provide approximately 4 calories per gram, while fats provide approximately 9 per gram.

Proteins are large molecules formed of amino acids linked together by bonds called peptides. When a protein is digested, it is broken down into its amino acid parts. Humans require 20 amino acids to live. As long as we have an adequate intake of proteins in our diet, our cells are able to manufacture 11 amino acids from other amino acids – these amino acids are called non-essential amino acids. However, 9 of those amino acids must be obtained from diet alone, these are called essential amino acids. Like the other Macronutrients, proteins are essential to our health. Most people recognize proteins as being able to repair our tissues, but they’re utilized in almost every process in the body! Examples of foods most people associate with protein are: eggs, dairy, meat, legumes and beans.

Protein!

Protein!

Carbohydrates are molecules composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, and are frequently referred to as saccharides. There are four groups of carbohydrates: monosaccharides, disaccharides, oligosaccharides, and polysaccharides. Monosaccharides are the simplest of carbohydrates, they are simple sugars such as fructose, the common sugar found in most fruits. Disaccharides are groups of two monosaccharides, a more complex sugar, and include lactose, the sugar found in milk. Oligosaccharides are more complex sugars, and not typically fully digested by humans. An example is fructo-oligiosaccharides, which is found in a large variety of plants. When fructo-oligosaccharides enter our intestines, any undigested bits will be further digested by our gut-bacteria. Whenever the term ‘pre-biotic’ is used, it is because the fructo-oligosaccharides are feeding these bacteria. The last group, polysaccharides, are the largest molecules in the carbohydrate group. Two good examples of polysaccharides are starch, such as that found in grains and potatoes, and cellulose, the fiber found in plants.

Fructose!

Fructose!

Fats round out the Macronutrients, and are very large group of molecules. They are also classified as a group of lipids (an even larger group of molecules). There are three main groups of fats we’ll focus on: saturated fats, unsaturated fats, and trans fats. Saturated fats are fats with all available molecular bonds being filled by hydrogen, and thus ‘saturated’ by hydrogen. There are a large variety of saturated fats, but they are primarily found in our diet from animal fats, such as butter or lard, or from tropical fruit oils, such as coconut and palm. Unsaturated fats are broken down into two major groups: monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats. Monounsaturated fats have a similar molecular makeup as saturated, but have only one molecular bond unfilled by hydrogen. Monounsaturated fats are found primarily in animal fats and plants; they compose the primary fat of avocados. Polyunsaturated fats are fats with multiple molecular bonds being unfilled by hydrogen. This group also includes the all important Omega fats (such as Omega 3 and 6). Trans-fats are a group of fats that are either monounsaturated or polyunsaturated, and are unique in that they contain two sets of double carbon atoms bonded together. Trans-fats very rarely occur in nature, but can occur frequently in the processing of food, especially when high levels of heat are utilized. Processed trans-fats are regarded as a dangerous substance when it comes to health, and are heavily linked to coronary heart disease and unhealthy levels of cholesterol – processed trans-fats are best avoided entirely.

Fats!

Fats!

In our next articles we’ll be focusing in more detail the specifics of each macronutrient. We’ll also begin to cover the micronutrients, the group of nutrients that don’t contribute the calories for you to live, but are still essential for optimal health!