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Cuckoo for Coconut Oil


As researchers continue to explore the science behind nutrition, and unveil new discoveries every year regarding how food affects our health, I’m continually aware that I’m working in a field that is ever-changing. I’m also aware that my chosen field is one which combats persistent quackery and endless marketing ploys aimed to sell the next big “miracle cure.” But even I am surprised at what is happening with coconut oil. Coconut oil has found itself in the spotlight in the last few years due to restrictions placed on trans fat use in manufacturing. Food companies find themselves once again relying on tropical oils, like coconut and palm oil, to ensure the quality and shelf-life of many food products such as cakes, cookies, and crackers.

Even before becoming a dietitian, I grew up knowing coconut oil contained saturated fat, the type of fat usually found in animal products, but also found in tropical oils. I knew because my mother stayed abreast on the latest in nutrition, and armed with this knowledge, knew enough to refuse to buy me the Keebler Fudge-stripe cookies I remember wanting as a child. Saturated fat is known to raise LDL (bad cholesterol) and total cholesterol, which increases the risk of heart disease. However, a new perspective has made some scientists, vegans, and even health professionals cuckoo for coconut oil.

The controversy is this: the saturated fat in coconut oil is mostly in the form of a medium-chain fat, lauric aid, as well as other medium-chain fats, which raises good AND bad cholesterol (HDL and LDL). Since it raises both, scientists speculate that this particular type of saturated fat may not be as harmful as that found in animal products, which consists of long-chain fatty acids.

There is also criticism of the initial studies that labeled coconut oil as a villain in the first place. The coconut oil used in those studies was hydrogenated, meaning they artificially saturated the miniscule amount of unsaturated bonds that exist, as coconut oil is 92% saturated (far more saturated than animal fat). This is the same process that is used to turn vegetable oil into trans fats. These early studies also eliminated essential fats from the diets of test animals, making coconut oil the only fat source. Critics of these studies state the atherogenesis that resulted may have been in part due to an essential fatty acid deficiency. Also, early studies often used rabbits, rats or mice, which are considered poor models for cholesterol studies. This is leading many to the conclusion that although coconut oil was atherogenic in these studies, virgin coconut oil is not as bad for us as we thought. In fact, an enthusiastic few have taken the leap to say it’s actually healthy.

Proponents state coconut oil actually promotes heart health, weight loss, immune health, metabolism, provides immediate energy, keeps skin healthy and “youthful-looking”, and supports proper thyroid function.  However, there is a great deal of evidence indicating that even medium-chain lauric acid raises LDL.

It does raise questions, though, that in those areas in which native diets are rich in tropical oils, such as Indonesia, the Philippines, and India, there is no apparent correlation between coconut consumption via coconuts, coconut water, coconut milk, or coconut oil and heart disease. In fact, the research is mixed with some studies pointing to less oxidized LDL and better fibrinolysis (breaking up of blood clots) with coconut consumption. Talk about mixed evidence!


Yet it didn’t take much for people to jump ship. Blogs are popping up praising coconut oil to high heaven; foodies are coming out of the woodwork with coconut oil recipes for pastries, icings, brownies, muffins, stir-frying vegetables and even to put in your oatmeal! The sweet, vanilla-like, nutty flavor makes people go nutty for this fluffy oil, and it’s never been denied that coconut oil does wonders for the texture and quality of food products. After hearing of the speculation, Melissa Clark of the New York Times went on an experimental frenzy, using coconut oil in everything from home-made ice cream magic shell to roasting sweet potatoes.

My advice: at ease! Before you go pouring coconut oil on your corn flakes, let’s keep the big picture in mind. It is reasonable to say that until we have more conclusive scientific evidence, coconut oil should be consumed in moderation. All that’s safe to say is that small amounts probably aren’t harmful. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend no more than 10% of dietary calories be from saturated fat, which is about 20g a day for a 2000 calorie diet. I would still rely on olive oil and other sources of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (from vegetable sources) as my primary source of fat. And, don’t forget the essential Omega 3 fats. Continue to avoid hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated coconut oil, which contain trans fats that are known to have atherogenic effects. Even if coconut is not as bad for us as we once thought, that doesn’t mean it’s good for us. If nothing else, it still contains 120 calories per Tbsp. And as for your corn flakes, for the time being, milk works just fine. Your thoughts?

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Make Your Favorite Recipes Healthy

I love trying new recipes, especially healthy ones.  And although I find a lot of great recipes on sites or in cookbooks geared toward healthy eating, I often times just search for regular recipes, and then make them healthy.  I do this by substituting the ingredients they contain that may be high in fat or salt, or adjusting the amount or type of these ingredients if the recipe itself is high in fat, sugar, salt, or refined grains.  My favorite website for finding recipes is, and although this website is wonderful at providing nutrition information for each of its recipes in the use-friendly form of a nutrition label (which I love!), their wide variety of recipes include all kinds of foods and ingredients, not just those geared toward health.

It is extremely rare to find a recipe that is so unhealthy that you must avoid the food as if it were poison.  Certain foods that are high in fat and sugar, like brownies, for example, can still fit into a healthy diet if eaten infrequently and in small amounts.  But, even a recipe for brownies can be altered so that the total amount of fat and sugar is reduced, and/or that the type of fat used is healthier.

With a little knowledge, skill, and creativity it is possible to make just about any recipe healthier.  Then, let moderation, balance, and intuitive eating take it from there.  Today I’m going to provide some information to help fill in the knowledge piece so that you may build your skills at home in your kitchen (garnished with your own creativity!)

 Cutting Back Fat

In my 1/4/2010 blog entitiled “What You Must Know About Fat”  I provided you with some background information on good vs healthy fats, along with the amount of fat we need to eat, and how to include more healthy fats in your diet.  Here are some suggestions on reducing the amount of total fat when cooking or baking, and/or replacing ingredients that contain unhealthy fats with healthier fats.

  • Bake or grill foods instead of frying them, or sautee foods with just a dab of olive oil or cooking spray
  • Use ham or Canadian bacon instead of regular bacon in recipes such as quiche, casseroles, or pasta dishes
  • Replace mayonnaise in recipes such as meat, potato, or pasta salads with Miracle Whip or plain yogurt
  • Replace half the butter or shortening in a recipe with applesauce or pureed prunes.  This will provide the necessary moisture without all the fat.  When this tactic is used, it may be necessary to reduce the cooking time by 25%
  • Replace half of the eggs  in a recipe such as cake, quiche, or brownies with 3 egg whites.  You may also replace egg with egg substitute, at a ratio of ¼ cup egg substitute for each egg the recipe calls for
  • Drain visible fat  from cooked ground meat and then squeeze remaining fat out of it with paper towels.  It helps to move the meat mixture to a colander lined with paper towels after the visible oil is drained from the pan, and then use additional paper towels to squeeze the heck out of it.  You may want to let the meat cool for a couple minutes before attempting this!
  • Use 90+% lean beef instead of regular ground beef.  You may still use the above tactic to remove some of the fat that is still present
  • Use lowfat (3g of fat or less per serving) milk, cheese , and yogurt or plain soymilk in recipes that call for these items
  • Steam veggies and then flavor with herbs rather than adding butter.  Or, add just a dab of margarine that is trans-fat-free
  • Use a margarine free of trans fats in recipes such as cookies, brownies, and pie crust instead of butter
  • Use evaporated skim milk instead of cream in soups, casseroles, and sauces
  • Add water-packed tuna to casseroles, salads, and sandwiches instead of oil-packed tuna
  • Use lowfat cream cheese instead of sour cream in recipes such as soup, casseroles, or dips to reduce fat and add calcium
  • Replace baking chocolate with 3 Tbsp cocoa powder + 1 Tbsp canola oil per oz of baking chocolate called for
  • Sautee foods in cooking spray, vegetable or chicken stock, or wine instead of oil
  • Make your own lowfat salad dressing by mixing 1 part oil with 2 parts water along with your favorite seasonings
  • Use lowfat whipped topping instead of whipped cream
  • Use mashed firm tofu or part-skim ricotta instead of regular ricotta cheese
  • Skim fat off gravies
  • Put raisins and dried fruit in desserts, baked goods, or cereal instead of chocolate chips
  • To thicken soups, stews, or gravies with using cream:
    • Stir or blend cornstarch or flour  into a cup of cold water and then add liquid mixture slowly as you stir
    • Add powdered potatoes (from dried mashed potato mix is okay) to thicken soups or stews


Cutting Back on Sugar

Reducing the amount of sugar in our diets helps us cut calories and can assist in weight loss or the maintenance of a healthy weight.  Refined sugar is an empty source of calories, meaning it provides calories but contains no other nutrition value.  For this reason, we must eat mostly healthy foods in order to meet our daily nutritional requirements and therefore have limited space in our diets for refined sugar (approximately 100-200 calories from added sugar per day).  To reduce the amount of sugar in your foods, try the following suggestions.

  • Dust baked goods such as pastries, cupcakes, and brownies with powdered sugar instead of frosting them
  • Reduce the amount of white or brown sugar used in baking by 1/3.  You may add some or extra vanilla or almond extract and/or cinnamon to add the flavor of sweetness.  Or, you may use Splenda, (1 cup sugar =1 cup Splenda) which also has a brown sugar version
  • Choose fruit canned in its own juice instead of fruit canned with heavy or light syrup.
  • Choose frozen fruit with no added sugar.  To determine this, read the ingredient list to see if sugar was added.  The label will automatically indicate there is sugar because there is naturally-occurring sugar in the fruit itself, so check the ingredient list and it should pretty much just list the fruit, without mention of sugar or corn syrup.
  • Use no sugar added or sugar free puddings or Jell-O instead of regular pudding or Jell-O in recipes that call for these items, such as desserts and pies

Increasing Fiber by Using Healthier Grains

  • Use whole grain or whole wheat pastas, crackers, cereals, and breads instead of white or enriched versions.
  • Use brown rice instead of white rice
  • Replace 50-100% of white flour in recipes such as breads, muffins, and cookies with whole-wheat flour



Choose low-sodium versions of high-sodium ingredients such as bouillon, stock, or soy sauce.  Beware of seasoning mixes that contain salt (check ingredient list) and if they do,  use less.  A good general rule is to use herbs and spices instead of salt.  In most recipes, the salt can be completely omitted as recipes usually contain other ingredients that have enough salt to enhance the flavor of the recipe.  If you have trouble getting used to the taste of less salt, reduce the amount of salt you cook with gradually over time and your taste buds will adjust.  When you do reduce the amount of salt you use, make sure to add adequate seasoning to the dish using peppers, herbs, spices, onion, and garlic so the food does not taste bland.

What are two of the foods suggested above that you prepare on a regular basis?  What might you use to substitute some of the high fat, sugar, refined grain, or sodium in that recipe?  What might you do to replace bad fats with healthier fats?