Week of April 9, 2012
Contact: Alice Bender, (202) 328-7744

AICR HealthTalk
Karen Collins, MS, RD, CDN
American Institute for Cancer Research

Q: Is it true that coconut oil can help prevent dementia such as Alzheimer's disease?

A: It's too early to know whether coconut oil plays a role in preventing dementia. You can easily find articles promoting coconut oil to prevent or battle dementia, as well as diabetes, heart disease and other chronic diseases. Although individual stories can generate a lot of hope, according to the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database, one of the "gold standard" references for foods and supplements like this, we simply do not have enough evidence to evaluate potential effectiveness of this oil for dementia. Coconut oil is high in saturated fat. Research is far less clear about the cholesterol-raising effects of saturated fat than it once seemed, but the particular saturated fatty acids in coconut oil seem to pose heart health risk. Studies are conflicting on whether coconut oil raises HDL (good) cholesterol. Some coconut oil fans favor it as an anti-inflammatory food. Preliminary research suggests virgin coconut oil, which is oil not treated with chemicals or heat processing, could have anti-inflammatory properties, but results are mixed and more studies are needed. Meanwhile, a wide range of foods and eating patterns are linked more consistently in studies with reduced risk for dementia and other health benefits. A study that followed mid-life adults for 14 years found that those with highest scores for an overall healthy diet were 86 to 90 percent less likely to develop dementia in later adult life. That came down to the same choices that reduce risk of cancer and heart disease and promote a healthy weight: eating plenty of vegetables, fruit and fish; cooking with unsaturated oils; avoiding candy and sugar-sweetened drinks and limiting added sugar; keeping alcohol to moderate use (one or two drinks per week in women and one to five in men in this study); and limiting sausage and saturated fat. Keep mindful of emerging research, but for now, the safer bets for reducing dementia are a Mediterranean or other eating pattern that focuses on whole plant foods, along with regular exercise.

Q: If someone switches to only unprocessed and low-sodium foods, is there a risk they won't get enough sodium?

A:You'll almost surely get plenty of sodium in your diet even if you eat only unprocessed and low-sodium foods. The most recent national recommendations call for keeping sodium to no more than 1500-2300 milligrams (mg) daily (depending on age and other factors). Those are the amounts we should not exceed. Some low-sodium foods contain up to 140 mg of sodium per serving, and even if you eat only special low-sodium bread, cereal, vegetables, soups and condiments and salt-free fats, you'll still total at least 250 to 500 mg of sodium per day. That's more than we really need, as people can survive with even less than 200 mg daily. The major exception to this would be people who sweat excessively from extremely hard labor in heat, such as might be experienced by foundry workers or elite athletes. Some medical conditions can also cause large sodium losses, but these are quite unusual. For most of us, lack of enough sodium is just not an issue.

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