As a naturopathic doctor I help my patients choose the best foods for their health. People ask me what they should eat and I make recommendations based on my experience, their symptoms, and current research. Usually the conversation goes something like this
Patient: Hey doc, what should I eat?
Me: Eat whatever you really love to eat – but just remember to brush your teeth.
Patient: Gee thanks!
Me: Don’t mention it!
Okay, it doesn’t really go like that, but sometimes I wish it could. If someone comes in with allergies or digestive upset, I usually discuss food sensitivities, dysbiosis, fibre, healthy fats and/or the negative impact of common foods like wheat, dairy, coffee and sugar. In the end, I often recommend the reduction or even elimination of one or more of these foods for at least a short period of time and encourage people to consume more brown rice, beans, vegetables, whole grains, etc…you get the picture.
Dietary changes are hard, and sometimes it’s our favourite foods that need to go. I can easily feel like the bad guy in such a scenario (Patient: No! No! Not sugar! Me: Mwah ha ha (evil laughter)). There are a few foods that were initially seen as “bad” and are now seen as “good”. I, like many people, love reading those headlines: “Chocolate: New Miracle Health Food” or “Alcohol Saves Lives”. I sure would prefer to “prescribe” these foods. My popularity would soar! But can we trust these headlines? Is it okay to eat these foods? This article will help you decide.
Alcohol (in moderation)
There are many studies showing the health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption. Some highly publicized research shows that people who drink one or two drinks per day have a reduced risk of heart disease over abstainers or heavy drinkers. A Harvard study showed a reduction in death from all causes among moderate drinkers compared to those who don’t drink at all. Not only that, the incidence of strokes, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, heart attacks, even the common cold has been shown to be reduced by moderate drinking…
While some of these studies don’t specify what alcohol is the most beneficial, your best choice remains red wine. Resveratrol is a bioflavinoid responsible for the antioxidant properties of red wine (it’s oxidative cellular damage that is behind heart disease and many other chronic diseases).
But not everyone should run out to the liquor store after reading this article. For many people, alcohol is not a good choice. Alcoholics, obviously. But also, people with dysbiosis – a digestive disorder that is caused by an imbalance of bacteria in the gut – should stay away from even moderate consumption. As well, anyone at risk for breast cancer, as even moderate consumption has been shown to increase the incidence.
Chocolate has transformed from a nutritional demon to everyone’s favourite “health food”. The research that supports the benefits of chocolate is well-publicized. Flavonol, found in the cacao beans are bioflavinoids that act as antioxidants in the body. These antioxidants are cardio-protective and have been shown to lower blood pressure and cholesterol. In addition, flavonol increases nitric oxide activity which helps control insulin sensitivity. In a 2005 Italian study, subjects who consumed one bar of “Ritter Sport” per day lowered their average systolic blood pressure from 136 to 124 mm of mercury; and diastolic blood pressure went from 88 to 80. The increased chocolate consumption also sped up the body’s metabolism of blood sugar – good news for people with diabetes.
But with chocolate, it’s important to be very selective. In most chocolate products, the other stuff (milk, sugar, caramel, etc.) outweighs the benefits. In that same Italian study, the control group who ate white chocolate had no improvements in insulin resistance or blood pressure over the same time period. The darker the chocolate, the higher the flavonol content. Make sure your chocolate choice has at least 60% cocoa content.
Coconut oil was avoided by health enthusiasts for many years. Because of its saturated fat content, it gained a bad reputation for raising cholesterol and increasing the risk of heart disease. This perception was based on one 40-yr old study – a study that used hydrogenated coconut oil, not virgin coconut oil. Harmful trans fats are not present in natural coconut oil. Many studies are showing the health benefits of coconut oil. In fact, a 2004 study showed that coconut oil has potential to improve lipid levels, both lowering total cholesterol and LDL (“bad” cholesterol), and raising HDL or the “good” cholesterol. In addition, the high lauric acid in coconut oil has strong antiviral, antibacterial and antifungal properties, making it important for immune system support
I have no precautionary notes with coconut oil. Unless someone is allergic or sensitive to it, anyone can enjoy its benefits as part of a balanced diet.
Last fall, a Stanford University study compared different diets for weight loss. The infamous low carb Atkins diet came out on top for not only weight loss, but cardiovascular indicators such as blood pressure and cholesterol. What? But don’t people on the Atkins diet eat a LOT of meats and high fat dairy products full of saturated fat and cholesterol? What gives?
It turns out that the evidence linking high meat consumption and cardiovascular disease is practically non-existent. But there is more and more research showing that the opposite may be true. Another recent Harvard study showed that people with the highest saturated fat had the least plaque buildup on their artery walls. In that study, the participants with the most refined carbohydrates and who exercised the least had the highest cholesterol levels.
When recommending red meat to people I do exercise caution. Eating lots of meat may not increase your risk for heart disease, but it may increase your risk for colon cancer. And meats like bacon and cold cuts, have preservatives and excess salt that make it a poor choice. Meat eaters should choose organic, grass-fed meats and remember not to overcook them. Charring meat can produce heterocyclic amines which have been shown to increase the risk of cancer.
If your body is out of balance, then you may not be able to eat these foods. But if you exercise regularly, practice stress management techniques, eat a diet rich in whole foods, and take time out for yourself to have fun, then many foods, including the ones listed above, can be a regular part of a balanced lifestyle.
 Camargo, C. A., et al. Prospective study of moderate alcohol consumption and mortality in US male physicians. Archives of Internal Medicine, 1997, 157, 79-85
 Klatsky, Arthur. Presentation at the European Cancer Conference, Barcelona, Spain. September 27, 2007.
 Grassi, D. . . . J.B. Blumberg and C. Ferri. 2005. Cocoa reduces blood pressure and insulin resistance and improves endothelium-dependent vasodilation in hypertensives. Hypertension 46(August):398-405.
 Nevin, KG, Rajamohan T. Beneficial effects of virgin coconut oil on lipid parameters and in vitro LDL oxidation. Clinical Biochemistry. 2004. Sep; 37(9): 830-5
 Gardner, CD; Kiazand, A; Alhassan, S; Kim, S; Stafford, RS; Balise, RR; Kraemer, HC; King AC. Comparison of the Atkins, Zone, Ornish, and LEARN Diets for Change in Weight and Related Risk Factors Among Overweight Premenopausal Women. In JAMA, 2007; 297: 969-977.
 Mozaffarian D., E.B. Rimm, D.M Herrington. 2004. Dietary fats, carbohydrate, and progression of coronary atherosclerosis in postmenopausal women. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 80(November):1175-1184.
 Zheng W., et al. Report: Well-done meat intake and the risk of breast cancer. Journal of the National Cancer Institute 1998 Nov 18