dietary myths, eggs, cholesterol, coconut oil, fats

Dietary Myths: A Little Bit of Knowledge . . .

Dietary Myths: A Little Bit of Knowledge . . .

© 2006 Wellness Clubs of


I received a quotation from an anonymous source recently. It read, “When it comes to butter vs. margarine, I trust cows over scientists.”

My father-in-law would have been in hearty agreement. He was a dairy farmer who occasionally had a bit of bread with his butter. When margarine began to be promoted as a healthier choice he scoffed and continued to enjoy the spread his herd helped produce.

Margarines and vegetable shortenings are produced by changing mono or poly unsaturated oils to hydrogenated fats. Hydrogenated fats are created when an oil that is normally liquid at room temperature is exposed to hydrogen gas at high temperatures in the presence of a catalyst such as zinc or copper. In this process hydrogen atoms are added to the molecule. When hydrogen atoms are attached to or flip to the opposite side of the molecule, trans-fats are created.

The hydrogenation process was developed to stabilize vegetable oils and make them less prone to rancidity. That the resulting fat was solid at room temperature and could be used as a spread was an added bonus. It was heralded as a major scientific advance that would allow “healthy” vegetable oils to be used in place of “unhealthy” animal fat in the diet.

Because of their ability to avoid turning rancid over time, hydrogenated fats are found in almost every processed food on supermarket shelves. Soups, crackers, chips, cookies, pies, and meal mixes all contain hydrogenated or trans-fats. They are even found in many frozen foods such as pizza or frozen dinners. Deep-fried foods are laced with hydrogenated fats from the vegetable shortenings in which they are prepared.

Consumers were quickly sold on the convenience of using hydrogenated fat. Rather than purchasing peanut butter in which the oil had separated and floated to the top, mothers turned to brands that were smooth and creamy from the first to the last dip of the knife.

Unfortunately, the marketing advantages of hydrogenated fats have not translated into health advantages. Dr. Dean Ornish, who has achieved tremendous success using diet and other lifestyle changes to treat heart disease, put it like this, “Unfortunately, a longer life for the product may mean a shorter life for you.”

We now know that the epidemic of atherosclerosis we are seeing in the United States is due in part to the body’s inability to deal with hydrogenated fats and trans-fatty acids. Since trans-fats do not have a chemical structure that is found in nature, the body has difficulty metabolizing them. They are also difficult to excrete and tend to accumulate in the fatty tissues of the body.

The idea that margarine is healthier than butter is clearly a myth. It is not the only instance in which nutritional scientists have erred, however. Several years ago, movie theater owners were roundly criticized for seasoning popcorn with coconut oil. Nutritional experts pointed out that coconut oil is high in saturated fat, which, as everyone knows, is BAD.

It is now known that coconut oil is made up predominantly of lauric oil containing what are referred to as medium chain triglycerides. These fats are very similar to those found in human breast milk. They possess antiviral, antibacterial, and antiprotozoal properties. Coconut oil has been used medicinally for over 4,000 years and has been shown to protect against infections, enhance weight loss, reduce the risk of heart disease, and improve diabetic conditions. Used topically, it is helpful in rejuvenating skin and hair.

Coconut oil is but one of many foods that have been mistakenly denounced as health hazards by nutritional experts. Egg consumption has been discouraged because the yolk has a high cholesterol content. The suggestion that eggs have an adverse effect on health is another dietary myth.

Dietary intake of cholesterol has little or no effect on blood cholesterol levels. That point was driven home to me while I was still in medical school, when a group of medical students were fed twelve egg omelets in an attempt to influence their cholesterol levels. Blood drawn before and after eating a dozen eggs showed no change in cholesterol readings.

While dieticians focused on the cholesterol content of egg yolks, another substance, lecithin, was ignored. Lecithin has an amazing effect. The melting point of cholesterol is normally 180 degrees, nearly twice that of the human body. Cholesterol, therefore, has a tendency to solidify as gallstones or as arterial plaque. In the presence of lecithin, however, the melting point of cholesterol drops to 60 degrees, well below body temperature. Egg yolks are one of the richest sources of lecithin in the diet. Could this be mere coincidence? I prefer to believe that cholesterol and lecithin were designed to coexist.

Thus, when I received a question recently about the dangers of eating whole grains because of their phytic acid content I sensed that another dietary myth had been created. The questioner had been told that all grains should be soaked in a mixture of lemon juice and vinegar for seven hours before they are eaten so that the phytic acid is removed. She was advised that serving cereals, legumes, or grains that had not been presoaked would cause her family to become deficient in needed minerals.

A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing. It is true that phytic acid makes minerals less bioavailable and that people in underdeveloped countries eating diets consisting solely of legumes and cereal grains have been found to have mineral deficiencies. Similar deficiencies have not been found when legumes and grains are consumed as part of a balanced diet.

Far from being a dangerous substance, phytic acid is an excellent antioxidant. It is also a potent antiproliferant, meaning that it blocks the growth of cancer cells. It has been observed that the cancer incidence decreases as the intake of grains increases. This phenomenon has been ascribed to the grain’s fiber content, but studies are now suggesting that the cancer protective effect of grains is due, at least in part, to their phytic acid content.

In our pride we believe that we can improve upon how God designed food substances. Those efforts are proving to be ineffective at best. In most cases, our food modification techniques actually place us at greater risk of disease than had we consumed the food in its natural state.

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