Fantastic food 1: Coconut

Coconut. I had no idea it was so delicious! When I first started looking for meal ideas, I couldn’t believe the number of coconut recipes that kept popping up on MDA or paleo websites. An entire cookbook devoted to coconuts, even! Coconut was a fruit to be revered. I’d never really enjoyed coconut… except the tanning oil I would steal from my sister Shelley during the summer holidays, or the coconut covered Snowballs from Cadbury. I didn’t really get the excitement. Particularly as I’ve been advocating for years that people should avoid it due to its saturated fat content. And some of the claims seemed outlandish:

  • Coconut burns fat, therefore helps you lose weight!
  • Coconut is antimicrobial, therefore is great for fighting bacteria!
  • Coconut has anti-inflammatory properties, therefore good for recovery from heavy training and overall health!
  • Coconut can’t be stored as fat, therefore when we eat coconut, it is directly used for energy and can promote ketosis!

Wow. Coconut must be some kind of Superfood. But, actually, I’m not a big believer in Superfoods. I’m much more about Superdiets and Superlifestyles. Also, I think it’s a good idea to be sceptical about things, and as a lot of these claims come from the Coconut Research Center, or, I thought I’d try a more academic-style search. After a bit of searching on Scopus and Pubmed, I came across some research that suggests there is (at least) some grain of truth to the seemingly outlandish claims. From what I have found:

1. I would say it’s probably overstating it that ‘coconut will help you lose weight by speeding up metabolism.’ Coconut contains medium chained triglycerides (MCTs) which aren’t stored as fat and end up increasing metabolism through thermogenesis (digestion) and increasing energy expenditure in the short term. Though studies show this is statistically significant, this appears to be short term. Statistical significance in science does not necessarily make something that meaningful in real life. Thermogenesis contributes a small amount to overall energy expenditure, and if you go to town and consume more than you need, then (like anything) coconut could also promote weight gain.

2. Yes, coconut does have bacteria-fighting properties. The medium chained triglycerides (MCTs) in coconut are antimicrobial, including oral bacteria. It appears to be the case. Awesome. I’m all about dental hygiene. (As an aside, if you are a consumer of sports drinks, please always take a swig of water after each drink of your sports drink – teeth are important, people.) Benefits have also been found when applied topically for skin conditions.

3. Extra virgin coconut oil has been found to reduce inflammation in cells. This is primarily from Lauric acid, an MCT that is also found in breast milk. The anti-inflammatory effects of Lauric acid have been found in test tube studies and in animal models, and I couldn’t find any human studies. The mechanism is there for it to work, but like most things, more research has to be completed.

4. As coconut oil is made up of 66% MCTs, these are in fat used by the body for energy as opposed to stored. As they don’t require bile for digestion, they are metabolised easily by the body. I couldn’t find any study that directly tested coconut (and not MCT oil) as being able to promote ketosis. There are plenty of studies investigating the use of MCTs in sports performance, which largely show no additional benefit in the doses that could be tolerated before gastrointestinal distress kicked in. If you have seen some research around coconut oil and ketosis, I’d definitely be interested.

And… what about the whole saturated fat deal?

Well, despite what is ‘common knowledge’ in the public sphere regarding saturated fat, cholesterol and heart disease,  there is no good evidence to show that saturated fat is related to heart disease. Saturated fats don’t promote inflammation in the body and, as mentioned above, Lauric acid is involved in processes that exert an anti-inflammatory response in the body. As inflammation is the underlying cause of metabolic disorder, it’s safe to say that this is not an issue for most people. In addition, Lauric acid has been found effective at raising HDL-cholesterol, thus improving blood lipid profile overall.

Should some people NOT eat coconut??

People with familial hypercholesterolaemia should try and minimise saturated fat in general in the diet. This is a genetic disorder where the gene responsible for removing LDL cholesterol from the blood stream. This can accelerate plaque deposits in arterial walls, increasing cardiovascular disease risk. For these people, it’s a good idea to try and lower cholesterol overall.

Some tips and tricks with coconut

I’d heard of people having coconut butter (much as you do almond butter), and went to my local health food/organic vegetable store to buy a jar: $36.95 for 454g Hmm. Pricey. I looked online at iHerb for the same brand to be delivered to NZ: $NZ14. I ordered it in. Delicious. Then I thought I’d try and make it myself from coconut threads.  $2.80 for 250g? My kind of product. Note: not all coconut is created equal. Spot the difference:

The two coconut products (top) blended to make coconut butter, and the end results below. Needless to say, I binned the one on the right.

The two coconut products (top) blended to make coconut butter, and the end results below. Needless to say, I binned the one on the right.

The coconut on the left took about 8 min to blend down to a liquid and has a beautiful sweet flavour. The one on the right took 25 min, didn’t get quite as smooth, wasn’t quite as sweet, and I don’t need to point out the colour difference.

Other ideas:

  1. Scramble eggs in coconut oil, it gives a really yummy flavour. Use coconut oil when you roast any vegetables: pumpkin and kumara are particularly nice.
  2. Mix 200g cottage cheese with 2t organic cocoa powder and 1T creamed coconut, melted. Yummy dessert like treat with no sugar.
  3. Coconut milk smoothie: with ½ c coconut milk, ½ c unsweetened almond milk, ½ c berries and a banana. That and a couple of eggs for breakfast would be perfect.
  4. Added to this yummy pumpkin bake, inspired by Melissa at WellFed.
  5. Vegan ‘yoghurt’ (don’t be a hater, vegan’s are people too): ½ c coconut milk, 2T cashew butter, ½ c unsweetened milk + 1 ½ T chia seeds
  6. Thai curry (obviously)
  7. And this from coconut mama: 25 other ways with creamed coconut.
Tasty coconut treats. Smoothie (L) and vegan 'yohurt' (R).

Tasty coconut treats. Smoothie (L) and vegan ‘yohurt’ (R).

There are obviously many many other things you can do with coconut, and it is natural, delicious, and very versatile. The most obvious thing to do is to get a whole coconut and use that. I’m sure it’s amazing, but have yet to get a kitchen gadget that can help me successfully open the nut. Anyway. Dig in.

So…have you gone all paleo? (part 3)

So, back to the original question… have I gone all paleo? Yes I have….but by default.  When I stripped my diet of all of the ‘food like substances’ I was eating, all that was left was lean meat, fruits, low sugar dairy, vegetables and eggs. Because of the inclusion of fruits and dairy, I didn’t view it as a ‘paleo diet’. It wasn’t until I started googling some information around recipes and meal ideas for minimally processed foods, and kept landing on websites advocating a paleo approach to eating, that I realised that what I thought was ‘paleo’ was wrong. Paleo wasn’t just Cross Fit and pork chops. It wasn’t just a ‘diet’ – it was a lifestyle; applying the principles of how our ancestors lived to our modern lives in order to optimise health. My preconceived notions (as stated below) were, as it turns out, uninformed and just not true:

  1. It’s restrictive: I am almost embarrassed that I had this view of the diet. By removing most processed food from my diet, I have actually opened my palate up to so many new foods, recipes, and flavours that I never would have tried before.
  2. It’s high in saturated fat therefore increases risk of heart disease: As a University educated nutritionist, it was confronting to learn that the evidence to support the theory that saturated fat (in food) causes heart disease is lacking. I thought this was a certainty; like death and taxes (and always getting wet when changing the water cooler at work). Not so. A paleo approach to eating encourages eating fat from naturally occurring sources like butter, coconut oil, fat from animal products along with nutrient dense vegetables, as these contain long chain saturated fatty acids that don’t break down into toxic byproducts in the body (as omega-6 fatty acids can) for people who have good glycemic control.
  3. It lacks vegetables and fruits: Some people with a paleo approach to diet could be classed as 80% vegetarian. Combining these with good fats (and not a fat-free dressing) helps us absorb the fat soluble nutrients in these vegetables. And for athletes and healthy individuals, fruit and starchy vegetables are part of a paleo approach to eating. Some people choose a low carbohydrate diet for health or other reasons, but that’s not the premise of a paleo approach. This was a major misconception I had about it.
  4. There are no wholegrains! What about your B vitamins people?? Though bread and cereals are touted as the best source of B vitamins (important for energy metabolism), in fact it’s just because they are prevalent in our modern diet. B vitamins occur naturally in whole, unprocessed foods such as eggs, organ meats, poultry, meat, beans and vegetables.
  5. It involves burpees: Not compulsory.
  6. Hello, there is no ‘one paleo’ diet: Yep, that’s right. There is no one paleo diet. It’s a template from which you can individualise to find out what works for you. From Primal Blueprint and Paleo Solution to Wild Diet and Whole 9… the principles are the same, the whole food approach is the same; but how the diet is devised depends on a whole host of individual factors.

I found it really interesting after relying on certain foods for half my life, how easy I found it to ditch them. It was a non-issue. It was such a strong feeling that it was almost like my taste buds changed overnight. Suddenly trim milk tasted insipid, and light cottage cheese lacked any sort of flavour. A friend gave me Lindt 85% chocolate a couple of years ago and I had to give it away, it was so bitter. But, after a week of having it, suddenly Whitakers Dark Ghana tasted cloyingly sweet. These experiences really drove home to me the power of the mind. I’m no geneticist, but my taste buds didn’t change overnight; my taste preferences, however, did.

After half a lifetime of avoiding fat, the biggest challenge for me was adding it back in to my diet. While I didn’t actively go in search of the highest fat products I could find, I didn’t choose to buy low fat either. The addition of extra fat was an adjustment over the first couple of months. However, as I previously relied on fat-free, processed condiments and sauces for flavour, I was forced to look elsewhere to make tasty food. And, in addition to spices and herbs, the obvious other component missing from my meals was fat. I have to say, I truly believed that I didn’t enjoy the flavour of butter, cream, oil, or nuts. But, actually, I just don’t think I had eaten them with any regularity over the last 20 years, so I  didn’t know what they tasted like.

The most important thing I have learnt during this process of changing the foods I eat, is how it wasn’t really about the food. It was about the beliefs that had been instilled in me about myself, my health, and my confidence. I had been living within a set of rules which I didn’t have the confidence to step out of. But when those rules were removed, it had a profound and positive effect on my overall health and wellbeing (something as a nutritionist I’ve been touting for years but not actually living!) So, yep, I’ve gone ‘paleo’ – at first by default, and now by choice. It’s no fad diet; it’s a practical, sustainable, nutrient-dense, flavour-rich way to eat. But you have to try it to believe it. Over the last six months I’ve been doing it, and seeing others do it, and hence why I believe it. I highly recommend you jump on board and “see” it too. You don’t know what your missing….and it won’t be the bread!

(However, if you do want something to toast, here’s an easy recipe for a carrot and banana loaf with no added sugar, inspired by George, the Civilised Caveman, and his banana loaf.)

So…have you gone all Paleo? (part 2)

Throughout my teenage years I was on the spectrum of body weight from under weight to overweight, until my mid 20s really when I finally felt like I’d gained control over my food choices and eating behaviour. I certainly didn’t feel like I had a perfect diet, but I had reached a point where I could relax and enjoy food, for the most part. I was still very wary of eating anything outside of my ‘Mikki-friendly’ foods. This diminished as I got older and I settled into what I thought was a good healthy diet, and a good, healthy lifestyle. As I said in my previous post, 80% of my diet was great; the other 20% looked a little like this:

It took about 25 min to find these foods, take a picture, then put them back. I got a few funny looks from the Countdown staff.

It took about 25 min to find these foods, take a picture, then put them back. I got a few funny looks from the Countdown staff.

  • All the light/low fat options where at all possible
  • Baking spray to roast vegetables
  • Hummus/cottage cheese as major sources of protein
  • With condiments. I was the condiment queen
  • Low calorie, artificially sweetened
  • Protein bars to snack on (I couldn’t go 3h without feeling like I would fall into a coma if I didn’t have something to eat.)
  • Wrigley’s Extra Gum. In quantities large enough to warrant its own bullet point.

However, my beliefs around the ‘calorie is just a calorie’ theory were starting to shift, in relation to the carbohydrate/insulin research we were beginning to get interested in at work (the idea that fat didn’t make you fat, but your body’s response to carbohydrate could). This was merely proving what I’d already thought for years: that carbohydrates, in the amounts usually recommended, were too high for general health for a growing portion of the population who were struggling with their energy levels, weight, sleep and other health problems. Further, consuming easily digested carbohydrate foods could drive those susceptible people to consume more. While the modern food environment makes these foods widely available, our behaviour in the environment is at least in part due to our physiological response. The other part of the research though, that fat didn’t make you fat, I still didn’t buy. However, it wasn’t the research at work that caused a lightbulb moment for me; it was my own health scare.

I had a routine mole check up that resulted in two moles being removed, but I wasn’t overly concerned; I’d had a couple removed previously with no major issues and had no reason to suspect this would be any different as the doctor wasn’t too concerned either. So it was a complete shock to get a message from the surgery to tell me to ring and make an appointment to ‘discuss my results’. I got through to the nurses office who informed me that one of the moles was melanoma. While it might not seem like a big deal to you, for me, it was the longest 18 hours of my life; from getting the phone call on Wednesday afternoon, to seeing the doctor on Thursday morning to get the prognosis. I was lucky, it was caught early, ‘in situ’; all cancer cells contained into the mole). However, a little bit of information can be deadly. So in the small time window between the phone call and the prognosis, naturally I had given myself about 6 months, tops. And I felt really f%$&*d off (when I wasn’t feeling an overwhelming surge of fear course through my body). I was fit, I didn’t smoke, ate heaps of fruit and vegetables, didn’t drink to excess, never sunbathed, wasn’t a ginga (sorry! But that’s a risk factor!) and grew up in Dunedin. There was no sun. How did I end up with this? Yes, melodramatic, but I don’t believe for a second that I would be alone in my reaction. Over the next few months it was never far from my mind. I didn’t spend time dwelling on it, but was much more aware of articles and information related to skin cancer, cancer, and health in general.

The lightbulb moment came mid December. I was waiting around at the airport, having lunch (Sumo salad, no dressing, Coke Zero) and happened to be reading Sarah Wilson’s “I quit Sugar” book, when I had one of those moments where something just clicked. I was reading her week by week guide to quitting sugar and one of the recommendations was to also kick artificial sweeteners. The sweet sensation would drive a taste for sweet food and, while you weren’t consuming sugar, you were still feeding an undesirable habit and not retraining your palate to enjoy the natural sweet flavour of food. And just how nasty are those artificial sweeteners? I literally looked at the Coke Zero I had in my hand, turned to see the Wrigley’s gum packet in my bag and thought ‘what the hell have I been doing??’ For the past 18 years I’ve been consuming ‘diet’ everything; Coke, Sprite, yoghurt, gum, the lowest fat options available. I had developed this absolute fear of eating fat that had stemmed from my own childhood diet and body image experiences. This had set me up for almost two decades of eating behaviour that had been partly endorsed by what I had learned in my degree and what we all are told is healthy. As a result, I had a diet full of substitutes instead of real food. While melanoma is a skin cancer, there has to be some ‘cancer-promoting’ environment in which it can grow. While, obviously, I don’t know that the addition of what my friend Nicky calls ‘rat poison’ (aka artificial sweetener) increased my risk of developing melanoma, it certainly wouldn’t have been protective.

This lightbulb moment propelled me into action from the moment it happened. I grabbed the protein bar I had in my bag, the Coke bottle that was half finished and the two packets of spearmint flavoured Wrigley’s and dumped them in the nearest bin. Sounds dramatic I know, but there was no question in my mind that something had to change, and it had to change now.

So…have you gone all Paleo? (part 1)

I didn’t mean to. It wasn’t some conscious decision that I was going to jump on board the paleo bandwagon. In fact I was throwing stones at that wagon with the best of them. I totally didn’t get it. It would annoy me that people would exalt the benefits of the ‘paleo lifestyle’ Monday to Friday then derail into some pizza and beer binge on the weekend. Or bake a ‘sugar free, dairy free, wheat free’ cheesecake and claim it to be a health food.  This is what I ‘knew’ about the paleo approach to eating:

  1. It’s restrictive
  2. It’s high in saturated fat (cooking with lard!) therefore increases risk of heart disease
  3. It lacks vegetables, and fruits
  4. There are no wholegrains! What about your B vitamins people??
  5. It involves burpees.
  6. And, hello, there is no ‘one paleo’ diet; geographical location of different cultures meant there was different food available at the time. The whole theory, much like the Blood Type Diet*, is flawed! Did these people not know anything about evolution??

Until about six months ago, I was firmly entrenched in the ‘everything in moderation’ approach and rolled my eyes at the thought of going ‘all natural, process free.’ Don’t get me wrong, I would say that 80% of what I advised clients to do was fresh, whole food options. But I was a realist as well; life is busy. Why would you try to create a meal from scratch when there is nothing wrong with some of those tasty packet options? As many of my clients come to me for advice on weight loss and/or sports performance, my eyes would briefly flick over the ingredients list and head straight to the nutrition information panel (the important bit!). Relatively low in kilojoules, you can certainly find plenty that are low in fat, and there are also some low sodium options for those who are worried about salt intake. Yes, a closer look at the ingredient list might have revealed about 7-8 different ingredients that kept it fresher for longer and/or lowered the energy content; I didn’t necessarily know what they were but I wasn’t overly concerned. Hey, I did a nutrition degree; if there really was an issue with preservatives and additives in our food then I’d have heard about it. Right? Either weight loss or weight gain; it is all about energy in, energy out, period. A calorie really is just a calorie.

For myself, I reckon my diet was 80% awesome. I did sometimes wonder whether I could be more ‘natural’ like my friends Rebecca, Sal and Ash. But I would always come back to: “but I like Coke Zero. And those protein bars are great for a snack, and those dessert yoghurts; well I don’t have them in large amounts” It was the 80:20 rule right? ;No point fixing what’s not broken. And in the back of my mind was this little voice saying that if I did eat differently, and forgo the artificial sweeteners and the low fat options, then I could end up in the place I was in 15 years ago…..overweight and overeating.

Laurie and I. For some reason I have always thought we've worn ties in this picture.

Laurie and I. For some reason I have always thought we’ve worn ties in this picture.

Not that I was always overweight as a teenager/young adult, far from it. But as the ‘bigger twin’, I was conscious growing up that I was no way near as skinny as my sister. I am 10 minutes older and was 10 times bossier than her – first out, first to the food, always asking for things on our behalf. Growing up I was also way less active. You’d find me reading a book or (in my pre-teen years) typing screenplays on my 2nd hand electric typewriter (coolest Christmas present ever) to send to the directors of MacGyver when Laurie and my older brother Jarod were out running riot in the neighbourhood. I would go outside under duress. So it was no accident that I was labelled the chubby twin in our early teens. It bothered me that I couldn’t eat lollies the way Laurie could and still be skinny, but it wasn’t until my PE teacher in 3rd form told me that I’d never be any good at basketball that it began to bug me. That, and well meaning comments comparing me to my mum (when previously similarities were drawn with my rail thin dad) spurred the diet revolution. Or, rather,

Rosemary and her impossibly thin waist.

Rosemary and her impossibly thin waist.

Rosemary Conley’s Inch Loss Plan. Eat what you want, as long as it was fat free. Made sense. Eat less fat, lose your fat. And, hey presto, when teamed with a couple of runs per week to the end of Ravensbourne Road and back (and 100 lengths of pool running) it worked! And so the foundation that formed my nutrition beliefs was laid.

* Did you know the creator of the Blood Type Diet actually got it wrong from the start? D’Adamo proposed that Type  O was the first blood type when in fact it was Type A… listen here for more critique