coconut oil

The coconut oil debate: Is it a healthy or harmful fat?

True or False: Fats are bad for us and should be avoided as much as possible for optimal health?

Answer: False.
With all the "fat free" products being advertised, a person may think that any and all fats are bad. The fact is, fats are needed for our bodies to function properly. Fats enable us to create energy, form cell membranes, absorb oil-soluble vitamins, produce hormones, regulate blood pressure, support immune response, cushion internal organs, keep the body warm and properly develop children's brain and nervous systems. One reason that fats get a bad rap, however, is that they contain lots of calories -- which can contribute to weight-gain and obesity (which increases our risk of diabetes and high blood pressure), cancer and heart diseases.

With the exception of most fruits and vegetables, almost all foods contain a combination of dietary fats (also called fatty acids) -- some of which nutritionists consider to be healthier for us than others:

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"Good" (or, at least, "Better") fats
When used in place of "bad" fats, unsaturated fats may help to lower blood cholesterol levels and our risk of heart disease. (According to the American Heart Association, these fats can be used interchangeably.)

The two categories of unsaturated fats include:

  • monounsaturated: primary sources include nuts, vegetable oils, olive oil, avocado
  • polyunsaturated: consists of omega-6 polyunsaturated fats (found primarily in soybean, corn and safflower oil) and omega-3 polyunsaturated fats (found primarily in cold-water fatty fish, flax seed, walnuts and soybean and canola oil).

"Bad" fats
These fats tend to increase LDL cholesterol (the bad cholesterol) which may contribute to atherosclerosis (plaque buildup in the arteries) and increase a person's risk for developing heart disease and stroke.

  • saturated: primarily found in animal products but also in the tropical vegetable oils: coconut, palm kernel, and palm oil
  • trans fats: found naturally in animal meats and dairy foods, the majority of trans fats we eat are created synthetically, during processing, to affect (improve) food texture, shelf life and cooking ease. You will often see these listed on product labels as hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats.

... and each of these 4 dietary fat groups (mono, poly, saturated and trans) can be broken down further into types (coconut oil is especially high in one type of saturated fat called lauric acid which we'll discuss in a few minutes.)

What's special about coconut oil?

As mentioned above, most foods contain a combination of the "good" and "bad" fats but lean more toward one end of the scale. Virgin olive oil, for example, contains approximately 14% saturated fats, 73% monounsaturated fats and 11% polyunsaturated fats -- so it is considered to be a good source of monounsaturated fats. Coconut oil, on the other hand, contains 87% saturated fats, 6% monounsaturated fats and 2% polyunsaturated fats so it is obviously high in saturated fats (especially when you consider that beef fat is 40% saturated fat). So, it is little wonder that most medical experts categorize coconut oil as a harmful fat that should be consumed in minimal amounts or avoided entirely.

As with most health issues, however, coconut oil may be more complicated than it appears at first glance.

In India, which for thousands of years, has been cooking with fats like ghee (clarified butter that's about 50% saturated fat), coconut oil and mustard oil (a source of monounsaturated fat) transitioned in recent years to "healthier" alternatives like sunflower and safflower oil (both high in polyunsaturated fatty acids), heart disease attributed to atherosclerosis and type-2 diabetes increased dramatically -- which is opposite of what one would expect. And a medical paper from Sri Lanka, where coconut products have been an important part of the diet for centuries, argues that coconut fats have been the subject of much misinformation and that coconut oil consumption may, in fact, be helpful in the prevention of heart disease, atherosclerosis, obesity and at lowering cholesterol levels.

Despite the fact that coconut oil is obviously extremely high in saturated fats, here are a few reasons why it may be an exception to the "all saturated fats are equally bad" argument:

Like any fat, coconut oil is high in calories so almost everyone agrees that it should be consumed in moderation. Because it appears to be unlike other saturated fats, however, some medical experts feel that it may be included as part of a heart-healthy diet.

Note: when shopping for coconut oil, always buy extra virgin or expeller-pressed and avoid refined, bleached and deodorized (RBD), or chemically extracted varieties which come from copra or dried coconut kernel and offer no lauric acid benefit. Also avoid hydrogenated coconut oil which has been altered to prevent it from melting and is common in chocolate candies. Also note that unrefined coconut oil has a relatively low smoke point so may not be a good choice for frying purposes.

Sources, accessed July 8, 2012

http://www.cdc.gov/nutrition/everyone/basics/fat/unsaturatedfat.html
http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/fat/NU00262/METHOD=print
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lauric_acid
http://kidshealth.org/kid/stay_healthy/food/fat.html
http://pods.dasnr.okstate.edu/docushare/dsweb/Get/Document-2388/T-3153web.pdf
http://www.vegetariantimes.com/article/oil-change/
http://idiva.com/opinion-health/which-cooking-oil-is-healthy/1938
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coconut_oil
http://www.dshs.state.tx.us/wichd/gi/wicnews_text_mar-apr.shtm#Coconuts
http://www.med.umich.edu/umim/food-pyramid/fats.htm

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Showing comment(s)
Shelby
July 16, 2013
A doctor I listen to on the radio mentioned that, just like saturated fat from red meats, coconut oil is an inflammatory and, he said, "it inhibits the clearance of amaloid protein from the brain" -- which can result in memory disfunction. Do you know anything about this?
Kim at Oklahoma City Health
July 19, 2013
Thank you for your question, Shelby. Amyloid proteins have a villanous reputation but a new study at Stanford University suggests just the opposite may be possible, that amyloids may be trying to protect the brain against Alzheimers, MS and other diseases rather than playing a causitive role. You can learn more about this study at http://www.npr.org/2013/04/05/176339692/amyloid-proteins-help-paralyzed-mice-walk-again
Karen
February 18, 2015
I love to spread a little coconut oil on toast for a quick snack and think it is a wonderful food (when eaten in moderation of course, because it has quite a lot of calories). Here is an article in US News that suggests it as a good source of quick energy: http://health.usnews.com/health-news/blogs/eat-run/2015/02/19/10-foods-that-boost-your-energy?int=986d08
Thanks!
 
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