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Nuts Over Coconut: Is It Really Heart Healthy?

All photos courtesy of Alexa AguiarAm I the only one who feels bombarded by coconut lately? It seems that coconut has replaced kale in the past year as a foodie favorite. People are eating it as coconut oil, drinking it as coconut milk or coconut water, and even wearing it...to moisturize hair and skin. I can't escape it as coconut posts flood Pinterest, Instagram and Facebook friends' recipes. Ironically, my lovely contributor Alexa who is a creative talent with food also just sent me a recipe for coconut, which I'll show you in a bit.

I've resisted adding coconut to my daily diet. Not that I don't love it—coconut cream is my favorite chocolate filling and I adore Almond Joys as well as coconut cakes, but I wonder about its saturated fat content. I know that loyals say it's a different type of saturated fat that lowers blood cholesterol, promotes weight loss by increasing metabolism and burning fat, and boosts immunity. Well, all of this sounds too good to be true for such a high calorie food, so I researched coconut oil from biochemistry websites and here's what I found:

  • The type of fat in coconut oil is 86% saturated (even higher for the less processed virgin coconut oil), with the rest being unsaturated; compare that with butter which is 63% saturated fat.
  • The saturated fat in coconut oil is composed of 4 different types of fatty acids: lauric, myristic, palmitic and stearic acid. Lauric acid is the most prevalent fatty acid in coconut oil (47%), which has been shown to raise total blood cholesterol but more notably it raises "good" HDL cholesterol (which helps carry fat away from cells and arteries). This is why proponents say it's heart healthy, but personally I don't classify any food that raises your total cholesterol as making your heart healthier. Furthermore, coconut oil also contains myristic and palmitic acids in smaller amounts that raise "bad" LDL cholesterol. Small amounts of coconut oil are likely fine for the heart because of this negating effect of good/bad cholesterol ratio, and small amounts won't cause weight gain (keep in mind that all fats have the same amount of calories at about 120 per tablespoon). But if you're drinking coconut milk by the glassful, using coconut oil as your main fat in cooking, and smearing coconut oil on toast every day, you may eat too many of those "bad" fatty acids that raise your blood cholesterol and calories that inflate your waistline!
  • Lauric acid, the main type of fatty acid in coconut oil, is a medium chain triglyceride (MCT). MCTs are more quickly digested and better absorbed by the body, so they're a useful source of calories for people who have problems digesting fat (Celiac disease, gallbladder disease, stomach or intestinal surgery, severe diarrhea). MCTs are also being researched to help treat Alzheimer's disease and seizures as part of a ketogenic diet. But it's not clear that MCTs are more beneficial for the average healthy person than other types of recommended fats like olive oil or flaxseed oil.

So, with all that said, why am I sharing a recipe by Alexa for coconut butter? Because I'm a plant food promoter and believe that pure coconut can be part of a healthful plant-based diet. Look for virgin coconut oil, which retains more of its natural vitamin, mineral and antioxidant content than regular coconut oil. If you're eating a plant-rich diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes, I'd suggest allowing 2-3 tablespoons of full fat oil daily, whether from olive, canola, flaxseed, virgin coconut oil or other plant oil. Coconut oil is great to cook with as it has a high smoke point that resists burning at high temperatures, and offers a unique enjoyable flavor. Coconut butter is pureed coconut meat so it has slightly more fiber than the oil alone. Alexa's recipe is basically a homemade version of Coconut Manna, available in health food stores.

Alexa's Coconut Butter


8 cups unsweetened coconut

Pinch of salt

Pinch of sugar

Fill your blender with half of the coconut, salt and sugar. Blend until "snow" like. Add, in increments, the remaining coconut and keep blending. You may need to turn the blender off and scrape the sides a few times. As it continues to blend, the natural oils will come out of the coconut, creating a smooth and creamy consistency. It reminds me of the coconut flavor in an Almond Joy! Store at room temperature (it is safe and will not spoil) or in the refrigerator.


  • This is a great alternative to butter and can be used as a spread on toast or to stir-fry either sweet or savory dishes.
  • I used a Blendtec blender, which is stronger than a food processor so the consistency came out creamy. If you use a regular blender or food processor, the texture may be slightly chunkier.
  • Storing at room temp will keep it from hardening. If you choose to store it in the fridge, you may microwave it for 10-20 seconds to soften it.


Black Rice with Edamame, Sweet Potato and Cashews

Have you checked out the whole grains section of your supermarket? No more will you only see brown or white rice, but quinoa, millet, farro, freekeh and even black rice. My Asian parents have mentioned black rice but never cooked with it because of the higher cost. This black-purplish rice is also called "forbidden rice" because only the richest of society in ancient China (i.e., emperors) were allowed to eat it.

Thankfully times have changed; I easily found it at Trader Joe's and a client Patrick had bought it at Ocean State Job Lot! Patrick first inspired me to cook with it. He had come to me moderately overweight with cholesterol levels in the 300s and said that despite drinking green smoothies from a Magic Bullet and walking more, his cholesterol wouldn't budge, which he wrote off as being genetically inherited. He refused to take a statin so we tweaked his diet to increase the fiber with more whole fruits, vegetables, nuts/seeds and whole grains while avoiding saturated fat and excess cholesterol. He started a regular exercise regimen (he chose P90X which could be done at home). After 4-5 months, his cholesterol dropped to 165better than mine! Patrick is just one of several folks I've counseled who were convinced their genes caused the bad numbers...but were proven wrong when adjusting their diet and exercise level. Some but not all were also using medication. Food is healing!

Black rice is colored by its anthocyanin content, an antioxidant that also pigments blueberries, purple grapes, red wine, tart cherries, plums and eggplant. Black rice, similar to brown, retains the outer high fiber bran layer so its texture is chewier and nuttier than white. Research shows that anthocyanins can decrease inflammation in the body, and therefore may reduce the risk of inflammatory conditions such as cancer and heart disease. Nutrition-wise it's comparable to brown rice with more fiber, protein and iron than white rice. I simply love the taste! 

Patrick shared this favorite cholesterol-lowering recipe for Forbidden Rice Salad by the Get Off Your Tush & Cook blog, which I made today as you can see in the photos. Very easy to prepare with a quick dressing. The only things I changed were using canola instead of sesame oil, and adding cashews instead of sesame seeds. Also, though I would have loved the flavor of roasted sweet potato, I didn't feel like turning on the oven so I microwaved them for 6 minutes. The edamame, crispy bell peppers and green onion rounded out the flavors and textures. The dish tasted great warm, chilled or at room temperature. 

A few notes about preparing the black rice: Because the package didn't specify to rinse the rice, I only rinsed quickly before cooking. I noticed the water immediately turned purple throughout cooking. I used a ratio of 2 parts water to 1 part rice. After the 30-minute cook time, the texture was perfect but it looked gloppy. So I rinsed off the excess glop and it was fine. In the future I plan to rinse the rice well before cooking and reduce the cooking water (1 3/4 water to 1 cup rice). Try out the recipe if you enjoy brown rice, I'm sure you will love it!


Creamy Peanut Noodles with Tofu

One of my Mom's favorite Chinese appetizers is peanut sesame noodles served cold. I always thought it a strange combination but it's really just nuts and starch, the Asian equivalent to an American peanut butter sandwich or peanut butter swirled into breakfast oatmeal. Really a fantastic duo! So as my Mom is now recovering from major shoulder surgery and to celebrate a belated Chinese New Year, I recreated this recipe for her. 

It's super easy...just mix up the sauce ingredients in one bowl or a blender, then toss with cooked noodles. The sauce is a creamy blend of rich, salty, sweet and tart (and spice if you like). There may be some scallions or vegetables added but traditionally not much else.

My twist on this classic recipe was to use Pasta Zero shirataki spaghetti from Nasoya, and add baked tofu and spinach. Nasoya sent over samples of their new, improved Pasta Zero noodles. I had worked with Nasoya a few years ago when I first tested their shirataki noodles, a very low carb and low calorie blend of potato starch, konjac flour, and chickpea flour (just 30 calories per 8 oz. serving!). There's no cooking needed; after removing the noodles from the package and rinsing, they're ready to eat. My recipe then was very similar to this one, except this recipe is much creamier and richer tasting because of the peanut butter. 

These revamped Pasta Zero noodles do taste better! Once I added the peanut sauce, the shirataki noodles became soft and velvety—heaven! So dreamy delicious, the perfect comfort food. What I love about this recipe is that though it's not a low calorie dish with the peanut butter, you drastically lower the calories by substituting the shirataki spaghetti, without sacrificing any flavor whatsoever.

Creamy Peanut Noodles with Tofu (makes 2 servings)


8 oz. package Nasoya Pasta Zero Shirataki Spaghetti

Generous 1/4 cup crunchy peanut butter (or smooth if preferred)

2 T soy sauce

2 T rice wine vinegar

1 T canola oil

2 T honey or agave nectar

1 tsp sesame oil (if desired)

1 tsp ground ginger

1 tsp red pepper flakes (optional)

1/2 cup baked tofu (I used Nasoya Sesame Ginger Baked Tofu), diced into cubes

1/2 cup baby spinach


  1. Remove and rinse well the shirataki noodles under cool water. Drain well and set aside. 
  2. Microwave peanut butter in microwave-safe bowl for about 15-30 seconds until slightly melted. Add the next seven ingredients and stir well to combine.  
  3. Add diced tofu and baby spinach and mix again until well incorporated (note that I microwaved the spinach for 20 seconds to soften it).
  4. Serve warm or at room temperature. Enjoy!

Per serving: 400 calories, 30 grams carbohydrate, 12 grams protein 

Disclosure: I received free samples of Pasta Zero Shirataki Spaghetti to help facilitate this post. The recipe, thoughts and opinions expressed are my own.