Bad Fads

Cracking the coconut oil craze

Posted April 10, 2017, 10:00 am

Julie Corliss, Executive Editor, Harvard Heart Letter

If you Google “coconut oil,” you’ll see a slew of stories touting the alleged health benefits of this solid white fat, which is easy to find in supermarkets these days. But how can something that’s chock-full of saturated fat — a known culprit in raising heart disease risk — be good for you?

Coconut does have some unique qualities that enthusiasts cite to explain its alleged health benefits. But the evidence to support those claims is very thin, says Dr. Qi Sun, assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

“If you want to lower your risk of heart disease, coconut oil is not a good choice,” he says. It’s true that coconut oil tends to raise beneficial HDL cholesterol more than other fats do, possibly because coconut oil is rich in lauric acid, a fatty acid that the body processes slightly differently than it does other saturated fats.

Coconut oil’s effect on cholesterol

But there’s no evidence that consuming coconut oil can lower the risk of heart disease, according to an article in the April 2016 Nutrition Reviews. The study, titled “Coconut Oil Consumption and Cardiovascular Risk Factors in Humans,” reviewed findings from 21 studies, most of which examined the effects of coconut oil or coconut products on cholesterol levels. Eight were clinical trials, in which volunteers consumed different types of fats, including coconut oil, butter, and unsaturated vegetable oils (such as olive, sunflower, safflower, and corn oil) for short periods of time. Compared with the unsaturated oils, coconut oil raised total, HDL, and LDL cholesterol levels, although not as much as butter did.

These findings jibe with results from a study by Dr. Sun and colleagues in the Nov. 23, 2016, issue of The BMJ, which examined the links between different types of saturated fatty acids and heart disease. Compared with other saturated fats (like palmitic acid, which is abundant in butter), lauric acid didn’t appear to raise heart risk quite as much. But that’s likely because American diets typically don’t include very much lauric acid, so it’s harder to detect any effect, Dr. Sun notes.

Tropical diets are different

Coconut oil proponents point to studies of indigenous populations in parts of India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Polynesia, whose diets include copious amounts of coconut. But their traditional diets also include more fish, fruits, and vegetables than typical American diets, so this comparison isn’t valid, says Harvard Medical School professor Dr. Bruce Bistrian, who is chief of clinical nutrition at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

Some of the coconut oil available in stores is labeled “virgin,” meaning that it’s made by pressing the liquid from coconut meat and then separating out the oil. It tastes and smells of coconut, unlike the refined, bleached, and deodorized coconut oil made from the dried coconut meat used in some processed foods and cosmetics. Virgin coconut oil contains small amounts of antioxidant compounds that may help curb inflammation, a harmful process thought to worsen heart disease. But to date, proof of any possible benefit is limited to small studies in rats and mice, says Dr. Bistrian.

Unsaturated fats

In contrast, there’s a wealth of data showing that diets rich in unsaturated fat, especially olive oil, may lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, Dr. Sun points out. The evidence comes not only from many observational studies (like those in the aforementioned BMJ report) but also a landmark clinical trial from Spain, which found that people who ate a Mediterranean-style diet enhanced with extra-virgin olive oil or nuts had a lower risk of heart attack, stroke, and death from heart disease than people who followed a low-fat diet.

Of course, there’s no need to completely avoid coconut oil if you like the flavor. Some bakers use coconut oil instead of butter in baked goods, and coconut milk is a key ingredient in Thai cooking and some Indian curry dishes. Just be sure to consider these foods occasional treats, not everyday fare.


Opinion: Three nutrition trends to stay away from — based on best evidence

Dylan MacKay
Published on: April 15, 2017 | Last Updated: April 15, 2017 1:00 AM PDT

A chef cuts fresh and delicious vegetables for cooking. Evidence tells us that healthy eating involves vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans and not too much food.fotoedu / Getty Images/iStockphoto

If you follow health tips in the media, you’d think the nutritional sciences are a mess: Is butter good for you or is it bad? Should I eat breakfast or skip it? Should I eat like a caveman? Or maybe should I eat more like a bird?

“Alternative facts” aren’t a new concept in the field of nutritional science. Too bad so many people fall for them. 

Fortunately, it’s still possible to use scientific evidence to separate the wheat (safe to eat, unless you have celiac disease) from the garbage. So, here are three popular nutrition diet trends to steer clear of — based on best evidence:

      1. Skip the ‘detox’ or ‘cleanse.’

Anyone selling a diet, juice or anything else to help you ‘detox’ or ‘cleanse’ is going beyond the bounds of good evidence.

The concept of ‘detoxes’ or ‘cleanses’ hinges on the idea that our bodies are being filled up with ‘toxins’ that are making us sick and need to be removed. But just ask “what toxins?” and you get crickets chirp.

Scientists have long understood that our bodies have developed sophisticated pathways that naturally detoxify and then excrete unwanted substances. Some of the substances that we need to get rid of are created by our normal bodily functions (bilirubin, urea), some we ingest on purpose (drugs, alcohol) and others come from our environment (pollutants, heavy metals).

The detoxication pathways depend on the substance, but typically include conversion to a less toxic form, or involve binding with proteins, making them easier to excrete in the urine or gastrointestinal tract. 

      1. Skip the alkaline/pH diet.

One of the biggest proponents of pH diets is currently in jail for practising medicine without a licence — and these diets, which are often promoted to cancer patients, simply don’t work.

pH or alkaline diets promote eating foods that are “alkaline” and limiting acidic foods, with the idea that acidity can accumulate and is harmful to the body.

But our body’s pH range isn’t influenced by what we eat or we’d all be dead; our proteins would denature and critical enzymes in our body would stop.

Fortunately, our bodies can maintain a tightly controlled pH range (~7.35-7.45). This is a process referred to as acid-base homeostasis. Values outside of this range are caused by serious health problems, like diabetic acidosis or kidney disease, not by eating too much fruit.

People promoting pH or alkaline diets are full of something, not shame. They can be ignored because taking health advice from someone who would fail basic biochemistry is a bad idea.

      1. Skip the intravenous vitamins and nutrients.

Intravenous (IV) nutritional therapies, which deliver vitamins, minerals and amino acids, are marketed for just about anything — hangovers, the immune system, athletic ability and cancer (nope).

Such IV therapies have been endorsed by celebrities and athletes and are happily sold by your nearest ‘alternative’ health-provider. The problem is, there is no evidence that they work, and they may actually be dangerous.

IVs have an inherent risk of infection, and may even cause potential toxicity as a result of bypassing the normal digestion process. 

There is a place in medicine for receiving nutrition by IV — it’s called total parenteral nutrition, but only if you are very ill or have a condition that prevents you from absorbing nutrients properly.

Scientists know that nutrients or foods should be eaten and not hooked directly to our veins — yes even coffee. Also, speaking of coffee, we should stick to drinking it with our mouths. 

So what’s good for us? What should we eat?

Evidence tells us that healthy eating involves vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans and not too much food. There are many things you can do to help your body stay healthy that don’t involve paying anyone. Start by not smoking, being physically active and getting enough sleep.

I know, pretty boring compared with magic juice.

One final suggestion for staying healthy: Don’t go to service-providers that sell detoxes, cleanses or IV nutritional therapies. Don’t visit their websites, don’t like or share their posts and don’t buy their books.

Friends don’t let friends get taken advantage of by “fake nutrition.”

Dylan MacKay PhD is an expert adviser with and a nutritional biochemist at The Richardson Centre for Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals in the Department of Human Nutritional Sciences at the University of Manitoba.

Nutrition Tip of the Week:
Telltale signs of bad nutrition advice

Posted Mar 2, 2016 at 11:00 AM
By Anita Marlay, R.D., L.D. / Lake Regional Health System

There are more ways than ever to get nutritional advice: Internet searches, blogs, gyms, manufacturers, celebrities, TV talk show hosts and even well-intentioned friends. How can you separate good nutrition advice from bad?
Following are seven red flags to help you spot and avoid nutrition misinformation.

      1. Lack of science.
        Check the information for signs of sound science. The strongest studies are published in peer-reviewed journals. Most reliable studies are conducted over several months or even years. Look for a large sample size of at least 100 to eliminate the possibility of a one-time fluke. See who is funding the study. If it is an organization, company or individual that could profit from the results, the information is likely not reliable.
      2. Strong, defensive claims without proof.
        These claims are often anecdotal or based on individual testimonies. Many times, these claims come from celebrities or TV personalities who have been paid for their testimony. Be cautious of these claims, and remember that what works for one person might not work for you. A common tactic is to headline nonsense nutrition claims with such titles as “Discover the Real Truth,” “Hidden Secret” or “What They Don’t Want You to Know.”
      3. Miracle or cure-all.
        Nothing screams “scam” more than advice claiming that one particular food will cure or reverse an illness or disease. Coconut oil will not cure Alzheimer’s, a raw diet will not reverse diabetes, and eating only alkaline foods will not cure cancer. Most diseases are the result of a complex mix of behavioral and environmental factors, and one food is not the cure. If it were, there would be a huge study to back it up, and everyone would know about it.
      4. Promise of quick results.
        Any diet or supplement that promises rapid weight loss or that claims you don’t have to make any diet changes to lose weight is simply too good to be true. A healthy rate of weight loss is one to two pounds per week and will require eating less and moving more.
      5. Elimination of an entire food group.
        Anyone who suggests eliminating an entire food group doesn’t understand human nutrition. Every food group contains certain nutrients that enable our bodies to function normally, and eliminating an entire group isn’t healthy.
      6. Quirky advice or promises.
        You’ve seen the claims, but the truth is that humans can digest wheat and GMOs do not cause birth defects. Don’t believe that you need a hair analysis to assess your diet. Your body doesn’t need a regular “detox” or colon cleanse.
      7. Requiring a supplement.
        If someone is trying to sell you a diet supplement, they are looking to make money. There is no magic pill that will solve your weight problem. These supplements can be dangerous to your health — and to your bank account.

Those are seven red flags of bad information. There are also signs that indicate a reliable source.

      1. Proper credentials.
        You see a cardiologist for heart problems. You take your dog to a veterinarian. Shouldn’t you get nutrition advice from a qualified expert? A registered dietitian is the logical first choice for sound nutrition information. Be wary of anyone calling him or herself a nutritionist. A nutritionist is not the same as a dietitian. You can become a “certified nutritionist” online with little effort. A dietitian has years of schooling and keeps current with continuous education.
      2. Website addresses ending in .gov, .edu or .org.
        These domains indicate the website is a government, education or organization website — and not a commercial site with something to sell.

Above all, keep a healthy skepticism: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Anita Marlay, R.D., L.D., is a dietitian in the Cardiopulmonary Rehab department at Lake Regional Health System in Osage Beach, Mo.

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