In an online video that has gone viral, a Harvard professor takes on the popular food coconut oil, calling it “pure poison.”
Is it really that bad for you?
The lecture, by Karin Michels, a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, was delivered in German and is called “Coconut Oil and Other Nutritional Errors.” While not everyone takes such a harsh view against coconut oil, many experts are skeptical about its rising popularity as a purported health food. The New York Times health writer Roni Rabin and food writer Sophie Egan both answered readers’ questions about the health benefits of coconut oil. Here’s what they had to say.
Q. Why is coconut oil suddenly considered healthy after being declared unhealthy for three decades?
A. Coconut oil’s image has gotten a makeover in recent years, and many natural food stores stock the product. But despite “a lot of hype about it,” said Dr. Alice H. Lichtenstein, a Tufts University professor of nutrition science and policy who is vice chair of the federal government’s dietary guidelines advisory committee, “there’s virtually no data to support the hype.”
Coconut oil is high in saturated fatty acids, and saturated fat has been linked to high cholesterol levels and heart disease. Though critics have recently raised questions about the scientific evidence for the link, longstanding dietary guidelines urge Americans to reduce saturated fat intake to less than 10 percent of daily calories, or about 20 grams for a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet.
There is little research on the health effects in people of coconut oil, Dr. Lichtenstein said, but “there appears to be no independent benefit of consuming it.”
That said, there are different kinds of coconut oil, and virgin coconut oil, which is gently processed, may not have the same harmful effects as highly processed oils, even though the fatty acid composition is similar, said Dr. Tom Brenna, a professor of human nutrition at Cornell University. Refined, bleached and deodorized, or R.B.D., coconut oil, which has been treated with solvents and subjected to intense heat, raises cholesterol so reliably that scientists have used it as a control when running experiments on different fats. The harsh processing may destroy some of the good essential fatty acids and antioxidants, such as lauric acid, a medium chain fatty acid believed to raise good H.D.L. cholesterol.
“If you’re going to use coconut oil, make sure you get virgin oil,” Dr. Brenna said. “And, of course, everything in moderation.”
By Roni Caryn Rabin. Originally published Dec. 24, 2015
Q. Is it better to cook with coconut oil or olive oil?
A. In terms of health impacts, it is better to cook with olive oil.
Compared to a tablespoon of olive oil, a tablespoon of coconut oil contains about six times the amount of saturated fat, nearly meeting the daily limit of about 13 grams that the American Heart Association recommends. High saturated fat intake has been tied to increased levels of LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol, which raises the risk of heart disease.
Furthermore, olive oil, a main component of the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet, contains beneficial polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats.
“Between the two, olive oil is a better choice, since monounsaturated fats can have a beneficial effect on your heart when eaten in moderation and when used to replace saturated and trans fats in your diet,” said Annessa Chumbley, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the A.H.A., in an email. Earlier this year, the organization issued an advisory that firmly reiterated its guidance to consumers to replace saturated fats with unsaturated fats to help prevent heart disease. Consumers were also urged to keep in mind the bigger picture of an overall healthy eating pattern.
While some research has linked the main type of saturated fatty acid in coconut oil, lauric acid, to increased levels of HDL, or “good,” cholesterol, it still appears to raise LDL cholesterol. Yet, coconut oil may be a better choice than some other sources of saturated fat. A large, recent study found that lauric acid didn’t appear to raise heart disease risk quite as much as other types of saturated fatty acids, such as palmitic acid, which is substantial in butter.
Proponents of coconut oil point out that it is rich in phytochemicals that have healthful antioxidant properties. While it’s true that extra-virgin coconut oil, like extra-virgin olive oil, contains phytochemicals, most of the coconut oil on the market is refined and provides few of those antioxidants, said Dr. Qi Sun, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. But even if the coconut oil you are using is extra-virgin, “the saturated fat effects outweigh any beneficial effects of the antioxidants,” he said.
But of course, we don’t eat fats or cholesterol or antioxidants — we eat food. So while coconut oil certainly isn’t the magic bullet some claim, there’s no need to avoid it completely, especially if it is used instead of butter or shortening in baked goods or to impart flavor in something like a curry dish. As a general rule, though, cooking with olive oil is the better choice for overall health.
By Sophie Egan. Originally published Dec. 22, 2017
Is It Really That Bad to Eat Non-Organic Produce?
Yes, they are bad, but it’s way more important to include a wide variety of fruits and vegetables in your diet than to avoid them because of pesticide concerns. Here’s a tip: If you thoroughly wash your produce with cold water and throw away the outer leaves of leafy vegetables (like romaine), you will remove most of the pesticide residue.
If you’re still worried about ingesting chemicals, buy organic varieties of the produce on the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” list, which highlights the conventionally grown foods that tend to have the most pesticide contamination, like strawberries, spinach, apples, and tomatoes. Load up on more foods from their “Clean Fifteen” list too, like avocados (yes!), broccoli, kiwis, and mangoes. You can find both lists on their website. As a general rule, fruits that you eat after removing the outer covering—like bananas—are less prone to pesticide contamination. And whatever you do, focus more on getting as many fruits and veggies into your diet as possible: Organic or not, these types of foods are associated with countless important health benefits, like a decreased risk of cancer, heart disease, and overall mortality.
Health’s medical editor, Roshini Rajapaksa, MD, is an associate professor of medicine at the NYU School of Medicine and a cofounder of TULA Skincare.
6 Things This Nutritionist Wishes She Knew About Food Years Ago
I’ve been a practicing dietitian for more than two decades, which is a l-o-n-g time. Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to work with so many wonderful clients with nutrition-related concerns, including pregnant women, children, amateur and professional athletes, overweight and obese adults, and the elderly.
I’ve learned so much during the years, and while new guidelines and recommendations will come and go, there are six core principles I wish I had realized years ago–and they apply to everyone.
Healthy food isn't all-you-can-eat food
Studies show that people will subconsciously eat more food if they believe it’s healthy. More often than not, clients I see struggling with their weight have high-quality diets. Their food journals reveal they’re eating lots of fruits and veggies, lean protein, healthy fats, and quality carbs.
So what gives? They eat too much–period. With today’s oversized portions, it’s easy to overeat without realizing it. And even the healthiest foods can contribute to weight gain if you're taking in too many calories daily. If you can relate, perfect your portions by paying more attention to how much you’re eating compared to what’s recommended.
Think progress, not perfection
Healthy eating is a lifelong journey, so it’s important to have a plan to navigate the bumps and detours that you will eventually encounter in the road. As a dietitian, I can attest that everyone slips up on their diet and fitness routines at some point. If you overdo it on pizza or ice cream every now and again, don’t freak. It’s going to be okay; life happens!
Those who eat well and maintain a healthy weight for life are most likely to get back on track after they’ve had a setback. They don’t give in or give up, they move on. Heart disease or type 2 diabetes won’t develop from what you ate on a specific day, week, or month; these and other conditions progress from the cumulative effects of behaviors like unhealthy eating, lack of exercise, tobacco use, and more. Take a big-picture look at eating, with the ultimate goal of living the longest and healthiest life that you can.
Use mental tricks to keep you on track
Did you know you make more than 200 food-related decisions every day? If you leave those choices up to chance, you’ll deplete your daily willpower—and you’ll be more likely to overeat. But if you have a plan for what and when you’re going to eat, you will limit the number of times you tap into your willpower reserve.
New weight-loss research is focusing on removing many food-related decisions or making healthier options the easiest choice, so your willpower stays strong all day long. To do this, researchers recommend the following: Get adequate sleep (without enough Zz’s, your willpower is weakened, and you’ll be more likely to make less nutritious decisions), and keep your kitchen tidy (store the healthiest foods front-and-center so you’re reminded how convenient they are to eat).
Eat lower on the food chain
Eating low on the food chain means eating more plant-based foods. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), around 90% of Americans don’t meet the daily recommended servings for fruits and veggies, which is 1.5 to 2 cups of fruit and 2 to 3 cups of veggies a day. A plant-forward menu will naturally have plenty of filling fiber and a range of vitamins and nutrients, plus it keeps calories, sugar, and saturated fat in check. No matter what type of eating plan you follow, strive to fill half your plate with produce for all (or most) of your meals.
A well-stocked pantry, with plenty of canned produce like tomatoes and beans, can help ensure that you hit those targets. Canned produce has similar—and sometimes even more!—nutritional value than fresh varieties.
Supplements aren't cure-alls
It’s estimated that more than half of all Americans take at least one dietary supplement to improve their health. However, according to the National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements, there’s not always sufficient evidence that supplements improve health–and in some cases, supplements may increase risk for disease.
Throughout my career, I’ve seen a lot of "must-have" supplements that claim to increase energy, burn off belly fat, keep your brain sharp, or fend off (or even cure) any number of chronic conditions. Since manufacturers don’t have to prove that dietary supplements work before they are sold, there’s no guarantee they’ll be effective.
If you fit one of these specific cases, you may benefit from a certain supplement. Otherwise, focus on eating a plant-rich, balanced diet based on the foundation of wholesome, real foods that provide a complex matrix of nutrients.
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Eat quality carbs, not low-carb
If you eat according to what’s trending on your social feeds, you might be avoiding carbs at all cost. However, what I’ve learned through the years is that low-carb diets are hard to follow long-term, and eating quality carbs is better than cutting them out. (The body needs a minimum daily amount of carbohydrates to fuel your muscles and brain, after all.)
However, the types of carbs in, say, soda or cookies are metabolically different than the carbs in beans or brown rice. Enjoy wholesome carbohydrates present in real foods like fruits, veggies, whole grains, and legumes to help you maintain a healthy weight and live longer.
Two bitten by rabid raccoon that was living in Kennebunkport home
A Kennebunkport woman and a game warden were bitten last week by an injured rabid raccoon that the resident had illegally taken into her house.
Game warden Eric Blanchard was bitten as he tried to remove the wild animal from a house in town. The woman had taken in the injured animal illegally and could face charges, according to officials.
It was the first confirmed case of rabies in Kennebunkport this year, police said. Blanchard and the woman are both undergoing treatment for rabies.
“This is kind of a worst-case scenario,” said Cpl. John MacDonald of the Maine Warden Service. “It’s a real reminder that this is the reason why it’s not a safe thing to do.”
MacDonald said it is not uncommon for people to take in wild animals, but said they should not do so because it is both illegal and dangerous.
“People have an instinct to want to take care of animals. Most people understand the risk involved with taking a wild animal into their home,” he said. “They think they’re doing the animal a favor, but wild animals can be very dangerous and unpredictable, especially one prone to rabies.”
Blanchard, the 2017 game warden of the year, was wearing a thick, rabies glove similar to ones used to handle raptors with talons when the raccoon tried to bite through the thumb. Blanchard did not believe the raccoon had broken through his skin, but was advised to go through treatment for rabies exposure as a precaution, MacDonald said.
MacDonald said the Warden Service would not make Blanchard available to speak to a reporter about the incident.
In Maine, it is illegal to keep wildlife in captivity without a proper permit, MacDonald said. Permits and licenses are issued to people who regularly come into contact with wild animals, including wildlife rehabilitators and people who relocate nuisance animals. Possessing wildlife without a permit is a Class E crime punishable with a minimum fine of $50 per day the animal was in a person’s possession.
MacDonald said he is not yet releasing the name of the woman because it is likely she will face charges.
Police said in a Facebook post that wild animals should be left alone outside. Local police or the Maine Warden Service should be contacted when wild animals appear injured or have become a nuisance.
“In no circumstances do we tell people to take (wild animals) into their homes or even touch them,” MacDonald said.
The attack in Kennebunkport follows a number of high-profile rabies incidents this year in Brunswick, where seven people have been bitten by rabid animals.
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