Coconut Oil – The Honest Truth

According to supporters, it can help you lose weight, improve your cardiovascular health, boost your immune system, prevent Alzheimer’s and seizures, and kill off a variety of microorganisms – all while giving your skin and hair a healthy luster. But is coconut oil really this panacea that it’s proponents (and merchants) would have us believe?

The short answer: Maybe.

But let’s look at some of the research to expand on that conclusion.


What Makes It So Special?

In general, most of the proposed benefits of coconut oil come from a very unique type of fat that the fruit contains in unusually high doses called medium-chain triglycerides (MCT). While all fats are extremely calorie dense, MCTs  have a much simpler chemical structure than their long-chain counterparts. This allows your body to metabolize MCTs quickly and use them as an almost immediate source of fuel – similar to the way that it uses carbohydrates – instead of packing them away as body fat.

The key difference between using MCTs and carbs for fuel, though, is that the simple fats have a lot more too offer in the way of energy. Each gram of carbohydrates that you eat gives you about 4 calories. A single gram of MCTs, however, delivers a whopping 8 calories – double the amount of fuel packed into the same rapid-release dose. Based on these properties alone, it seems logical that MCT supplementation would be a great idea for athletes looking for a solid source of energy.

And some animal studies have shown promise in this respect. Unfortunately, the human trials have all been too small to be reliable and have produced frustratingly conflicting results.

Human studies have, on the other hand, suggested that MCTs have promise in improving body composition and increasing insulin sensitivity. The special fats could also be helpful in improving your overall cholesterol profile. Keep in mind, though, that we’re talking about complete coconut oil here – not just MCTs. There’s a lot more to consider.


The Flip Side

First of all, let’s talk about calories. Any excess calories, regardless of their source, will get stored as body fat. That means that if you take in any calories and don’t use them almost immediately, you’re going to gain weight – even if they’re of the medium-chain variety. So while this sort of rocket-fuel might be beneficial for athletes, it’s likely just extra calories to the average person.

And, the sad truth is that coconut oil isn’t actually all that great a source of MCTs. In fact, it has the same concentration as butter – about 15 percent. If you would like to give MCTs a try then, you’re better off getting a purified form than using plain old coconut oil.

Then there’s the fact that the vast majority, 90 percent, of the fat in coconut oil is saturated. And, while modern research has shown that saturated fat isn’t the dietary villain we once believed, it’s still not the greatest thing in the world. As mentioned, it is incredibly high in calories which can lead to weight gain – a precursor to diabetes, stroke and heart disease.

While we’re on the topic of heart disease, it’s worth briefly revisiting the topic of cholesterol. According to Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, DrPH, of Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health, the research into coconut oil’s effect on cholesterol is interesting – but not conclusive.

The bottom line, then, is this: Coconut oil does have some potential benefits when used in moderation. Despite having a very unique blend of fats, coconut oil is still extremely high in calories and should be treated just like any other calorie dense food. If you do decide to use it, make sure that you get a virgin coconut oil that has not been hydrogenated. Athletes looking to give MCT a go as an extra source of energy should consider purified MCT supplements rather than coconut oil


A Word On Brain Health

Apart from the proposed uses mentioned above, coconut oil has also been suggested as being useful in increasing mental clarity and preventing Alzheimer’s disease. While there has been some interesting laboratory results, no quality study has ever proven this theory in humans. Much of the evidence for this use is strictly anecdotal.


Topical Uses

But the claims about coconut oil go beyond it’s dietary function and extend to using it on the skin and hair. Happily, it seems to work well in this both these applications. Studies have shown that coconut oil can be helpful in treating a variety of skin conditions and helps to prevent hair damage caused by standard hair-related activities like combing.





Polar Circle Marathon

greenland 16Yesterday I finished a tough marathon near the North Pole in Greenland. Perfectly named the Polar Circle Marathon, it’s held within the Arctic Circle. To say the temperatures felt freezing would be an understatement. Here are the top reasons to consider a race at the top of the world:

1. Running on an ice cap. I don’t know of any marathon in the world in which part of the course traverses over a complete ice sheet. It’s like running on a skating rink surrounded by powdery snow and glaciers. The impressive views help offset the challenge of running on ice and you must wear spikes or coils on the bottom of your running shoes to help with the slipperiness. But it’s worth every slip and slide you make.

2. Running in the frozen tundras and next to glacier lakes. Spectacular scenery surrounds you and you even must wear sunglasses because of the sheer whiteness.

greenland 103. The hills. Runners meet some of the toughest hills  and hardest terrain even after you survived the ice cap at the beginning of the course. You’ll work your glutes and hamstrings and come back with a much more toned body (well, at least you can tell yourself.)

4. Running in temperatures with a negative sign in front of the number. Want to race in cold conditions? It’s too cold to even stand outside for a few minutes. Luckily, the running helps warm you up (a bit).

greenland 125. The gratitude and euphoria you feel at the end. Finishing an adventurous marathon and one that involves a significant increase in your finishing time gives you an even greater satisfaction.

More Benefits of a Healthy Breakfast

There are certain things that I expect to be controversial in the fitness world: alcohol, chocolate and supplements are all pretty predictable sources of contention. But breakfast? This unassuming meal has been the certain of a fairly heated dietary debate for some time now, both in the lab and the gym.

For years, breakfast was touted by moms and doctors alike as “the most important meal of the day.” Then intermittent fasting came along and turned on the concept, challenging it’s followers to do something that was previously considered an unforgivable dietary sin: skip breakfast. But studies continue to roll out that highlight various benefits of eating a healthy breakfast. The problem, though, is that most people don’t eat a healthy breakfast.


Controlling Cravings

One of the most popular reasons people give for supporting breaking the nightly fast is to stop you from eating poorly the rest of the day. And numerous studies have backed this up, showing that a healthy breakfast sets a dietary tone for the day and helps you to avoid needless snacking.

A recent study, published in the Nutrition Journal, people who eat breakfast have reduced cravings for sweets throughout the day. Specifically, the researchers working on this study looked at the effects of breakfast on dopamine levels – a “feel-good” chemical that your brain releases to reward you for doing something good. Generally speaking, dopamine is released in varying levels after every eating session throughout the day which certain foods having a greater impact then others.

The study found that the dopamine release in breakfasters helps them to avoid binging later on. This was not the case with those that skipped this all-important meal. In fact, the paper explains that overweight and obese individuals develop an insensitivity to dopamine which requires them to eat more food, releasing more dopamine, the feel the same effects. The situation was the essentially same in those that skipped breakfast; they developed a resistance to dopamine and, as a result, craved more food.

But, you may have noticed, up to this point I haven’t defined a “healthy” breakfast. Let’s get into that.


Doing It Right

All of these oft-cited studies, including the one mentioned above, do not use the traditional American breakfast. Pancakes, cereal and all of their sugary ilk are not what we’re talking about here. Instead, all of these benefits have been found with high-protein meals. To be fair, though, I have to say that this more recent study did find craving-reducing benefits with any breakfast. The longest-lasting and widest reaching effects, though, were seen with high-protein meals.

So, while having a healthy meal to start your day does appear to have some absolutely undeniable benefits, it’s important to do it right. Start off with high-protein foods, like eggs, yogurt and bacon – yes, bacon – that will leave you feeling full and satisfied throughout the day.





Is It True That Grapefruit Juice Helps Weight Loss?

In my years of writing on health and fitness topics, I’ve covered my fair share of fad diets and frankly ridiculous ideas that have permeated my realm. One that keeps coming back, however, is the thinking that grapefruit juice helps weight loss. And I will readily admit that I have been critical of this idea in the past. Thanks to some new research, though, it seems like I might have to be a little more open-minded.

First, though, I’m going to stubbornly defend my previous stance.


What Was Wrong

Over the past several years, grapefruit juice has been touted by a huge number of celebrity and fad diets as a weight loss miracle. And I have vehemently disagreed. My primary objection, though, has been directed at the way these diets were designed and how proponents claimed grapefruit juiced worked.

First, the diets were often extreme fasts or cleanses that required you to eat nothing but grapefruits for several days. Of course you’re going to lose weight, you’re at a massive caloric deficit. The infamous “Twinkie Diet” dramatically demonstrated that even if you were to eat nothing but junk food you would lose weight as long as you restricted your calorie intake.

Then there’s the issue of rebound. These grapefruit-centric crash diets were only designed to be followed for a few days and do not sustain lasting weight loss. Statistically, once you return to eating real food, you’re extremely likely to not only regain the weight you lost but also gain a few extra pounds as well.

My second cause for complaint is the supposed mechanism by which grapefruit was claimed to help with weight loss: Acid. In the past, supporters asserted that the high acid content of grapefruit literally burned your fat away. This is both impossible and wrong.

So, how does grapefruit help to reduce body weight according to this new body of research?


What’s Really Going On

For this study, conducted at the University of California – Berkeley, mice were divided into six different groups. The control group was given water that had been modified to have the same amount of calories and sugar as grapefruit juice. The juice used in the study was diluted and sweetened.

Other groups were given either an isolated form of naringin – a compound found in grapefruit juice – or a prescription glucose-lowering drug called metformin.

The mice were placed on either a high-fat (30 percent) or low-fat(10 percent) diet throughout the 100-day study. At the end of the study, two interesting findings surfaced. Most noticeably, the mice that were fed a high-fat diet and given grapefruit juice gained the least amount of weight when compared to the other groups.

Of course, it could also have been that the benefits were present in the low-fat group but simply more subtle. More research is needed to fully understand this connection.

The researchers also noticed that grapefruit juice had the same beneficial effects on blood sugar that the prescription drug.

It is very important to note, though, that grapefruit juice didn’t help the mice actually lose any weight; The juice simply stopped them from gaining as much. This means that grapefruit juice is not a magic bullet but could have it’s place in an otherwise healthy routine.


Cautions and Such

Although grapefruit juice showed a lot of potential when it comes to controlling blood sugar, you should never self-medicate if you have a condition. You also should not combine grapefruit juice with a prescription medication without talking to your doctor.

It is also worth mentioning that this study was funded by the California Grapefruit Growers Cooperative. Despite this, the researchers asserted that the backers had no influence on the design or outcome of the study.




Foods to Add to Your Runner’s Diet

indexThis morning I headed out for an early morning run and finally felt a nip in the air. I must awake early enough to get it, as the daytime still lingers with an extra touch of heat. But I loved zipping up a running jacket and actually shedding it at some point on the run–usually I’m hot even starting the run. It’s the time of year when I also love to change up my diet with new flavors and foods. I found some good alternatives for runners this autumn season:

1. Parsnips
While you normally see pumpkin splashed across all the restaurant menus this time of year, aim to incorporate parsnips into your diet as an alternative vegetable to mix it up. Parsnips contain a healthy dosing of potassium–one of the most vital nutrients for runners. They help with cramping and add fiber into your diet, making your digestive organs work properly (and we all know the challenges when those organs don’t work).

2. Squash
If you have a sweet tooth, try switching out the standard pumpkin pie for squash pie. Squash is low in calorie and can be stored for a long time. If you want a healthy dessert, bake squash until its really tender and sprinkle some cinnamon on top.

3. Pumpkin
If you can’t ignore pumpkin and tried the previous two options, head right back to this fall staple. It’s also rich in potassium for runners. Even the seeds are good for roasting and could work as an alternative for nutrition when out on a trail run.

4. Dates
Sweet and juicy, these can be mixed with nuts to create your own running trail mix.

5. Kiwis
While the autumn typically focuses on vegetables, some fruits are harvested during this time. Kiwis are in abundance from September through March and can be used in your morning green juices for tartness.


Benefits of Real-World Visualizations for Runners

Using visualizations for runners – or any athlete – is really nothing new. No matter what your sport is, you’ve more than likely been told to “see the win” at some point in your career. This motivational tool is usually used during the training phases to help you prepare for competition and primarily happens inside your head. According to new research, though, physically staying focused on the finish line could make a large difference in how you perform.


Eyes On The Prize

Specifically, the research looked at what was termed “attentional narrowing” – the physical act of focusing your vision on a specific target. The team working on the paper, which appeared in the journal Motivation and Emotion, were spurred on by earlier research that found that overweight individuals perceived distances are being longer than people of average weight did. Based on this, the researchers theorized that focusing your eyes on the finish line would make it seem closer, increase your walking speed and even reduce feelings of exertion.

To test their theory, the researchers came up with two different experiments – both of which included in the one paper.

In the first experiment, 66 adult volunteers were taken to a park in the heat of summer and placed 12 feet away from an open cooler than contained cold drinks and ice. The subjects were then split into two groups: One that focused their attention strictly on the cooler, and another that was allowed to let their attention wander around the area. Both groups walked to the cooler and were then asked to estimate the distance. The group that stayed focused on the cooler thought it was closer than the other group did.

For the second trial, 73 participants were asked to walk 20 feet while wearing ankle weights that equaled 15 percent of their body weight. Again, the subjects were split into the same groups. This time, though, the experimenters timed the walk and then asked the participants to estimate how far they had walked, as well as report how difficult the activity was.

The focused group thought that the finish line was 28 percent closer and walked 23 percent faster than their unfocused counterparts, in addition to finding the whole thing less challenging.

Examined together, these two studies support the team’s original hypothesis the literally keeping your eyes on the prize can reduce your feelings of exertion and actually make you move faster.


Finding Application

So how can you actually use this information on your runs?

Of course, there’s the obvious application that you should simply keep looking at the finish line instead of glancing all over your environment. This can be a little tricky, though, especially on long runs when you might get bored or distracted.

In that case, the solution is frustratingly simple: Will power.

But during long runs, or on tracks that meander, you might not be able to physically see the finish line. What then? Set your own markers and progressively lead yourself to the finish line. This segmented approach isn’t new and is actually one of the reasons that many runners enjoy fartlek training so much. Instead of thinking about having to complete 5 miles, focus on getting to that stop sign, then to that mangled tree and so on. In idea is give yourself a series of checkpoints that gradually bring you to your ultimate finish line.

Have you been able to use attentional narrowing in your training? Please share your experience in the comments.





Do Wearable Activity Monitors Work?

Believe it or not, there was a time when people actually memorized important phone numbers. Barbaric, I know. But cell phones have quickly progressed beyond the point of simply storing numbers and allowing you to play rudimentary forms of classic arcade games. In fact, we are becoming more and more dependent on our phones for just about everything. They plan our days, map out our drives, entertain us and – increasingly – coach use through our workouts.

What began with a few simple apps on our phones that followed our runs with GPS or acted as a workout log, has advanced to the the point that we can now wear a companion device that expands your phone’s built-in senses. Depending on the wearable activity monitors that you’re looking it, you can receive a wide range of feedback and coaching on any type of activity. In fact, many people simply wear the sensor all day to motivate them to keep moving. This rapid rise in popularity begs an obvious question: Do wearable activity monitors actually work?


Defining Your Expectations

As is often the case with matters of fitness, whether or not a device “works” depends on what you expect it to do. Generally, people hope to do get at least one of the following perks out of their use of wearable activity monitors:

  • Calorie Expenditure Reports
  • Motivation
  • Sleep Quality Reports

So, let’s deal these one at a time.


Calorie Expenditure

The accuracy of consumer level calorie-counting devices has been under scrutiny for a long time and has been called into question by many studies. Depending on where on your body the device is placed and what sort of activity you’re doing, your calorie expenditure could be totally over- or under-estimated. For instance, one study found that wristband style monitors (by far the most common for personal use) overestimated the amount of calories it took the wearer to type but misunderstood cleaning for just standing around.

A more recent study, in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, looked specifically at the margin of error of some of the most popular wearable activity monitors. The following is what they found, ranked from most accurate (lowest percentage of error) to least (highest error rate):

  1. BodyMedia FIT: 9.3 percent
  2. Fitbit Zip: 10.1 percent
  3. Fitbit One: 10.4 percent
  4. Jawbone Up: 12.2 percent
  5. ActiGraph: 12.6 percent
  6. Directlife: 12.8 percent
  7. Nike FuelBand: 13 percent
  8. Basis Band: 23.5 percent

It should be noted, though, that these monitors are constantly getting better and more accurate. But, even if the the reports are a little off, these devices could serve another purpose.



For many people, it doesn’t actually matter how accurate the calorie expenditure reports are, as long as they see some hard evidence that they’re doing something. And, in that respect, wearable activity monitors can be very useful.

The exact strategies used will differ from product to product but a recent study published in the Journal of Internet Medical Research found that these monitors typically make good use of proven motivational tools. Very often, some form of social support and reward system is included, in addition to the expected feedback about heart rate and calorie burn.

The study did note, though, that the effectiveness of the monitors is reduced to nothing if they aren’t being used. For that reason, it’s important for you to pick one that you like to use and can easily understand. You should also take into account the needs of your activity. If you’re a swimming, for example, you’re going to need a water-proof monitor.


Sleep Quality Reports

This may not seems like something you would care about on an activity monitor but the feature is becoming increasingly common. The idea behind it is that quality sleep is key to the recovery process and lack of sleep can make it harder for you to reach your goals. By providing feedback about the quality of your sleep and your various sleep cycles, these monitors claim to be able to help you improve your sleep patterns.

In various studies, these monitors have been found to both under- and over-estimate the amount of sleep the wearer got. When it comes to measuring sleep stages, such as REM sleep, there really is no way for these devices to do that accurately without monitoring brain waves, eye movement and muscle tone. A few monitors, such as Basis, claims to be able to track sleep stages by monitoring your heart rate but experts are skeptical about this technique and no independent research has been published on it’s accuracy.


The Bottom Line

So, do wearable activity monitors work? Sort of.

If you’re looking for a tool to help keep you motivated and give you a decent idea of your calorie expenditure, wearble monitors could be your answer. However, if you’re trying to improve your sleep routine, they probably won’t do you much good at this stage in the game.