Which Oil Loves Your Heart More?

In the hospital where I work, I cover two floors that treat patients specifically for heart disease and its related comorbidities. Therefore, a fair percentage of my patients ask questions pertaining to diet and what they “should” and “should not” be eating. A big question that’s been asked many times lately is what the best type of oil is to use while cooking. More specifically, is coconut oil better than olive oil? It’s a valid question, considering coconut oil has been recently touted in the media as a superfood with many multi-faceted health benefits.

I personally use both coconut oil and extra virgin olive oil, but for different purposes. For instance, I like to use a teaspoon of coconut oil when sauteing vegetables, because I feel as though it can take to higher heat a little better. Meanwhile, I like to drizzle olive oil over proteins and vegetables when roasting them in the oven, and to dress up my salads and pastas.

The truth is, you can Google “coconut oil benefits and uses,” and a million pages from unreliable blogs and websites will pop up. But, when doing a brief search through scientific publications, I found that straightforward human studies comparing the health benefits of coconut oil consumption to olive oil consumption is limited. One review article I found reported that virgin coconut oil (less processed than refined coconut oil), does have some heart healthy benefits secondary to its medium-chain fatty acid (MCFA) content. A little background: MCFAs are absorbed in the intestine faster than long or short-chain fatty acids, and are used up for energy more quickly in the liver, reducing fatty acid levels circulating in the blood. Virgin coconut oil also has antioxidant properties, which can lead to improved cardiovascular health and reduced inflammation. Studies examined in this article found that MCFA supplementation helped promote weight loss and healthy cholesterol levels. This all sounds great, but the authors were unable to make a conclusive statement that coconut oil was actually better than olive oil, because coconut oil is also rich in saturated fatty acids (which cause it to be solid at room temperature, like butter). Saturated fatty acids are more greatly associated with inflammation and high cholesterol, which can worsen your overall risk for cardiovascular disease. So clearly, there’s no conclusive evidence here that coconut oil consumption may actually be amazing for your heart health or if it deserves to be lauded as a superfood.

If you want a simple, straightforward, side-by-side comparison between coconut oil and olive oil, I found this infographic from the Cleveland Clinic that breaks down the main differences between olive oil and coconut oil. The conclusions are to stick with olive oil, because it is higher in monounsaturated fats (or MUFAs, which allow it to be liquid at room temperature as opposed to solid. I know, there are SO MANY KINDS of fats). MUFAs have been extensively studied and are known to decrease overall inflammation and cardiovascular disease (even more so than medium chain fatty acids). Other good sources of MUFAs include salmon, almonds, and avocados. You can check it out below, and find the full article here.

The Cleveland Clnic. http://health.clevelandclinic.org/2013/10/olive-oil-vs-coconut-oil-which-is-heart-healthier/

Bottom line: If a patient with heart disease were to ask me which oil they should use, I would recommend olive oil, and to use coconut oil sparingly due to the saturated fatty acid content. What else have you heard about coconut oil? Sound off in the comments!

Source: Babu AS, Veluswamy SK, Arena R, Guazzi M, Lavie CJ. Virgin Coconut Oil and Its Potential Cardiac Effects. Postgrad Med. 2014 Nov;126(7):76-83. doi: 10.3810/pgm.2014.11.2835.

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CookSmarts, A Review

So, I just completed a three-month run of this program called CookSmarts, a service that puts together weekly menus with recipes and grocery lists. I found out about it through a blog on MyFitnessPal and decided to sign up the day after Thanksgiving with a Black Friday special – 3 months worth of recipes and meal planning for only $12.60. Not too bad! In addition to weekly menus, recipes, and grocery lists, CookSmarts provides a large library of videos that teach you how to cut, chop, dice, and prepare different kinds of vegetables, fruits, and proteins. Not only that, but each week includes weekend prep directions for your recipes that will make assembling and putting together a meal on a weeknight that much quicker. Each recipe also comes with a vegetarian, gluten-free, or paleo modification. I wanted to try CookSmarts because I wanted to get in the habit of cooking more and eating out less. I accomplished this goal, and I actually learned a lot about food and cooking. I may be a dietitian, but that doesn’t mean I’m a stellar cook by any means. However through Cooksmarts, I learned how to pair different flavor profiles and learned what works well together. Examples: Miso, maple syrup, panko, and butter – delicious. Fish sauce, coconut milk, and thai curry paste – divine. Balsamic vinegar, bacon, Brussels sprouts, and brown sugar – there’s nothing better. I also learned cooking techniques that have made me a better home-chef in general, like the proper ratios of a vinaigrette, thickening sauces (which I learned about in college, but have rarely practiced since), how to build flavors by cutting in with acid, etc. etc. Where can I find the application for Chopped because I’m starting to sound super fancy.

Things I liked about CookSmarts:

  • The weekly recipes arrived the Thursday before, giving you enough time to plan and prepare your week ahead.
  • The recipes were super easy, none were too involved or took longer than an hour to make.
  • The recipes often incorporated ingredients I wouldn’t normally jump to use, and weren’t intimidating (like radishes, shallots, or parsnips), that now I like to cook with often.
  • A lot of the recipes in a week use similar ingredients, so your grocery lists aren’t too crazy.
  • It forced me to learn how to meal plan! Which is such an important tool in general healthy eating and weight loss.
  • It built up my pantry with ingredients that are found in a lot of different recipes, like balsamic vinegar, rice vinegar, soy sauce, fish sauce, chicken stock, maple syrup, honey, dijon mustard, flour, brown sugar, Panko breadcrumbs, and various spices. Now whenever I look up a recipe in a cookbook or online, I usually have a majority of the ingredients because I have those standard pantry items that I just never believed I needed to have before.
  • There’s a very supportive community of fellow users on Facebook (it has its own Facebook group specifically for subscribers) where people ask questions and share meal ideas and pictures of their culinary creations.
  • A new feature that was added throughout my three months with CookSmarts was an “Add It” button to MyFitnessPal, which I use daily. You can modify the ingredients to what you used in the recipes and add it right to your food diary for the day.

Things I didn’t like:

  • While it was fun to work with new ingredients, some of them and their associated recipes were just too out there for me. There was one week that had an Indian dish, and while I like Indian food, I didn’t want to hunt down and buy a whole container of Harissa paste.
  • While the good recipes were really good, I found that the bad recipes were really bad. But, it should be noted that there were maybe 4-5 recipes that I considered bad throughout the entire three months. There was one recipe that consisted of cabbage and some type of chicken, and the whole plate was beige. And it tasted beige. And I just couldn’t bring myself to eat it. There was another crockpot recipe that was so acidic and soupy, I had to disappointingly scrap that as well.
  • The recipes include nutrition facts, and while a lot of the recipes were pretty healthy, I found that a good amount of them were super high in either fat or sodium, or both. A lot of the recipes called for multiple tablespoons of cooking oil (I usually set the limit at two tablespoons), which drove up the fat content, and there is a lot of salt being liberally added. While I don’t technically need to be watching my sodium intake (I don’t have high blood pressure), and typically like saltier foods, it was just too much. I would feel super thirsty for days after eating some meals, despite rarely adding extra salt while cooking (a frequent instruction in many recipes) and using low sodium versions of ingredients like chicken stock and soy sauce.

A sampling of some meals that I made:

1. Red Curry Shrimp Stir Fry with Cauliflower Rice (I always made this with brown rice instead of cauliflower rice. The brown rice seems to soak up the heavy sauce much better than cauliflower, and I honestly love rice with Thai).

2. Spice Roasted Fish Tacos

3. Kale Salad with Roasted Root Vegetables and Lentils (and goat cheese!)

4. Stir Fried Udon Noodles

At the end of the day, would I recommend CookSmarts? Absolutely. It lit a creative fire under my butt (and on my stovetop) and got me to try new things and learn new skills. I now have a lot more confidence in the kitchen and I learned a lot about myself, such as that I find a lot of comfort and serenity in chopping vegetables and putting together a meal from scratch. However, as I commence half marathon training, I don’t think I will be able to keep up with it, as now I have to devote more of my time on getting into shape for running 13.1 miles. But more on that to follow… In the meantime, I will definitely carry on with certain tricks that I’ve picked up, like meal planning and prepping ahead, and continue to make quick and easy dinners that I’ve archived.

If you want to check out CookSmarts and sign up, check out their website, and let me know what you think!