Coconut Oil

This week’s topic brought to you from the family dinner table last weekend.

It seems like coconut oil is everyone’s favorite oil right now. It is encouraged by the recently popular clean eating, paleo, and ketogenic diets. Why is it so popular? There may be some great health benefits of coconut oil, but there are still some fuzzy areas that need more research. When asked, most coconut oil users can’t tell you why they use it or why they think it is healthy, so I thought I would share some insight.

Cholesterol

There are two main types of fat: saturated and unsaturated. Saturated fat is considered the bad kind of fat which increases our LDL (bad) cholesterol. Unsaturated fat is known as the good or healthy kind of fat, which can decrease LDL cholesterol. Both saturated and unsaturated fats can boost your HDL (good) cholesterol a tiny bit, too.

Coconut oil is 90% saturated fat (which is more than the 65% saturated fat in butter!). Therefore, coconut oil, just like other saturated fats, increase that bad LDL cholesterol (not good!). However, coconut oil is unique in that it seems to give your HDL a little extra boost compared to all other fats.

This is where it gets confusing. Right now, when you go to the doctor, they test your blood for the amount of LDL particles and the amount of HDL particles in your blood, but they don’t look at the size of those particles. There has been some new research showing that the size of these cholesterol particles might be a more accurate measure of heart disease risk rather than the number of particles.

Here is where coconut oil comes in…while coconut oil increases the number of LDL particles (just like other saturated fats), it might increase the size of these particles, which could mean good news for your heart disease risk (the bigger the better!). But remember, this is still new research and we don’t consider this 100% fact yet.

MCTs

Then there are the infamous MCTs (medium chain triglycerides) that coconut oil is known for. MCTs don’t need to be digested the same way as other fats and are a readily available energy source for your cells. For this reason, they have historically been used as a therapeutic agent in people with fat malabsorption, cystic fibrosis, and epilepsy.

Most fat digestion requires the fats you eat to be transported to the liver via triglycerides in order to be used, but because MCTs don’t go through the normal digestion process, there are some studies showing they can decrease triglycerides and aid in weight loss. MCTs also have some anti-inflammatory properties, which is also good news from a health perspective.

Conclusions

While all of this sound great, I would still be a little skeptical. Much of this is just preliminary research, there are few research studies, and the results are inconclusive. So while coconut oil is fine every now and again, choosing oils high in unsaturated fats, like olive, sunflower, and avocado oils, are definitely the best choice as far as we know.

“Should I be eating dairy?”

 

When people find out I am studying nutrition the questions immediately start pouring out, and the topic of dairy is one of the most popular. There is tons of research on both sides, so I’ll try to sum it up for you.

Evolution and Intolerance

The number 1 argument against dairy is that it isn’t “evolutionary” for humans to consume the milk made from other animals. While it is true that humans are the only species to do this, people have been consuming animal dairy products for hundreds of years, and some research shows that our genes have changed and adapted to accommodate the dairy products we consume.

While some genes may have changed, over 75% of the world’s population is still intolerant to the natural sugars in dairy (also known as lactose intolerance). This is likely due to reduction of lactase production (the enzyme used to digests those sugars) that naturally occurs as we age. Why does it decrease with age? Probably because in distant human history, people didn’t have much dairy in their diet after they stopped breast-feeding.

Calcium and Bones

Because dairy is the optimal food for growing animals, it is packed with beneficial nutrients like calcium, vitamin D, protein, phosphorus, and some B vitamins. Dairy products often get the spotlight for calcium content and bone health – which they should since it can be extremely difficult to meet our daily calcium needs from food without dairy. Several studies have shown that people who consume dairy have improved bone mineral density, and have lower risk of osteoporosis and bone fractures. But, other studies have shown that people who are lactose intolerant often have higher bone mineral density and lower risk of osteoporosis. Confusing, right?

More and more research is showing that we should really be focusing on vitamin D when it comes to bone health, but I’ll save that post for another day.

Healthy Fat

While the research on bone health is still “up in the air”, it is pretty well proven that dairy can provide a lot of healthy fats that can decrease heart disease and stroke risk. But there is a disclaimer that comes with this one. The nutrient composition of dairy can differ depending on what the dairy producing animals eat. We only see these healthy fats when dairy comes from animals that were grass fed or pasture raised. And don’t forget, you only get these healthy fats if you buy dairy products with fat in them – low fat and skim won’t have them.

Hormones and IGF-1

Finally, the infamous hormones that people are concerned about. Dairy has been shown to increase a hormone called insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1). IGF-1 is responsible for cell growth – which can be a good thing and a bad thing. It is great for healing damaged tissues and building muscle, but it also means it might help the growth of cancerous cells (that’s why so many people say that dairy causes cancer). While there are few and inconclusive studies showing dairy may increase prostate cancer risk, there are several studies showing dairy can decrease colorectal cancer risk.

In addition to cancer, IGF-1 is also the suspected hormonal link between dairy and acne, headaches, low energy, inhibited weight loss, and many more.

Conclusions

So back to the original question “Should I be eating dairy?”

Do you have digestive symptoms (like abdominal pain, flatulence, and diarrhea) after eating dairy? If you do, avoid it. You can try lactose-free dairy products be those can also cause trouble sometimes.

Do you have any symptoms of hormone imbalances (like acne, headaches, low energy, inhibited weight loss, or mood swings)? If you do, try eliminating dairy and see how you respond. Maybe it will help, maybe not, but it is worth a try.

Other than that, it is really personal preference. While there are some potential health risks, the evidence isn’t conclusive and none of the studies were gold-standard clinical trials. If you aren’t sure, maybe you try to eliminate it for a week or two to see if you feel any different and then make your decision. Remember, everyone is different so just because your neighbor won’t touch a piece of cheese doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have any either.

However, nutritionally, if you choose not to eat dairy, I would suggest a daily calcium + vitamin D supplement, especially if you are under the age of 30.

Kodiak Cakes

Since school is out and I have plenty of time in the mornings to make a big breakfast, I thought I would share one of my favorite grocery finds: Kodiak cakes.

Kodiak Cakes is a company that makes all sorts of pancake & waffle mixes, dessert mixes, oatmeals and granolas. While I haven’t tried many of the products, the two pancakes and waffle mixes I have tried are delicious!Screen Shot 2017-05-10 at 11.35.10 PM

The two I have tried are the Protein Packed Flapjack Mix and the Protein Packed Peanut Butter Flapjack Mix. Why Kodiak Cakes over the other pancake mixes?

  • The protein packed kind I buy has 14g of protein per serving!
  • The mix only has whole wheat grains (including whole grain wheat flour and whole grain oat flour).
  • I can read and pronounce every single ingredient in the mix (and there are only 7 of them).
  • There is no bleached white flour or artificial additives in the mix.
  • They only have 3g of sugar per serving.

In order to have a healthy and balanced meal, we need a mix of carbohydrates, protein, and fat at each meal. Because pancakes are typically all carbs, they can get a bad wrap for being too much like dessert for breakfast. That is why I love this protein packed mix. It takes care of the protein that is typically missing in pancakes.

Now, since Kodiak Cakes has our carb and protein needs covered, all we need is a little healthy fat. That’s where I turn to my beloved nut butter collection. Just drizzle some nut butter on your pancakes and you are good to go with a balanced breakfast.

Still aren’t convinced these pancakes can be healthy?

Lets take oatmeal, for example. Many times, the little instant packets of oatmeal have just as many (if not more) carbs than a serving of regular pancakes mix, with no fat or protein. We often make oatmeal out to be some much healthier than pancakes when really they have almost the exact same nutrients (almost all carbs).

I will say that oatmeal typically has more fiber than regular, white flour pancakes, but neither makes for a very balanced meal because there is no fat or protein. Now, oatmeal can be made into a balanced meal by added protein (egg whites or greek yogurt) and healthy fat (nut butter, flax seeds, chia seeds, almonds, etc.) just the same way that protein and fat can be added to pancakes.

My point is that we just have to be aware of what is in our food. Oatmeal may seem healthier than pancakes, but they are really quite similar. By adding protein and fat to either oatmeal or pancakes, you will have equally healthy and balanced meals.

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My Protein Packed Kodiak Cakes with banana slices and cashew butter

I happen to love mixing up my typical morning oatmeal with a big plate of pancakes every now and then so I always turn to my Protein Packed Kodiak Cakes for a balanced breakfast.

Want more info on Kodiak Cakes? http://www.kodiakcakes.com/

Quinoa Butternut Squash Salad

Almost a month and a half into school and two weeks away from midterms, my semester seems to be on a high-speed train and I’m hanging on for dear life. Papers, test, my research job, and Dietetic Internship applications are leaving little time for cooking meals. Instead of trying out new recipes every week, I have been making lots of “salads”. No, I don’t mean lettuce and vegetables. I mean, taking anything I can find that sounds good throwing it in a bowl. Thankfully, the past year or two of working on my culinary skills has helped me figure out what tastes good together and all of my concoctions have turned out pretty well. One was so good that I am writing this post about it.

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I have still kept in the sprit of trying new things by buying a new fruit or vegetable each time I go to the store…my latest obsession: butternut squash (which is fitting with fall weather approaching). I used roasted butternut squash to make a quinoa salad with dried cranberries, spinach, chickpeas, and walnuts. I like to eat is warm, when the butternut squash is fresh out of the oven, but I have had it for lunch at room temperature and it is just as good.

This recipe packs in whole grains (quinoa), fiber (squash), healthy fats (walnuts), some protein (chickpeas) and lots of vitamins and minerals (spinach).

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Avocado Toast

Throughout middle and high school I was never much of a breakfast person, but over the past few years I have discovered how important breakfast really is. It took a while for me to get use to eating food so early in the morning, but it is nice to not be starving by the time lunch rolls around. Over the past year, oatmeal has always been my go-to breakfast, but in the spirit of trying new things (and after drooling over foodie Instagram posts), I decided I would give the avo-toast trend a try.

Want to make my favorite avocado toast breakfast sandwich?

  1. Toast a piece of whole grain bread (or use a piece of homemade spelt bread)
  2. Mash half of an avocado on the toasted bread
  3. Layer on some smoked salmon
  4. Top it off with a fried egg

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This sandwich combo may not be as fast or easy as oatmeal in the morning, but it definitely makes for a more complete meal. It has healthy fat (avocado), protein (smoked salmon/egg), and whole grains (bread) to keep you full and energized all morning.

What is your favorite avocado toast combination?