Recent news reports have touted coconut oil as having a bunch of “surprising” health benefits.
It seems that some “experts” are claiming that coconut oil can boost immunity, influence hormonal health, control blood sugar, help with weight control, slow aging, and reduce your need for antioxidants.
When something sounds too good to be true, use your coconut and ask questions. I can’t help but wonder why coconut oil would possess these magical properties that reduce the risk of disease.
It turns out that in this case the marketing behind coconut oil focuses on a single nutrient rather than overall nutrition.
According to Wikipedia, the coconut is an amazingly versatile fruit because of its domestic, commercial and industrial value. It’s a popular ingredient in beauty products that range from skin creams to hair conditioners. Its husk is used for skin exfoliation.
There is somewhat of a health connection. Coconut oil is rich in saturated fats that include a small percentage of the “medium chain triglycerides” which can affect your LDL or “bad” cholesterol. However, this recommendation to add fat to your food for health reasons isn’t backed by clinical evidence.
Diets that are high in saturated fat are linked to higher rate of heart disease. Epidemiological studies link “prudent” Mediterranean-type diet patterns—those including lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and unsaturated fats from vegetable oils including olive oil—to lower rates of heart disease and stroke.
Coconut oil is extracted from the kernel or meat of the coconut and is comprised of 90% saturated fat. Much like hydrogenated fat, or trans fat, coconut oil is slow to oxidize. It can remain usable for up to two years without becoming rancid.
Trans fat has been shown to not only have negative effects on your HDL or “healthy” cholesterol, but to also increase your LDL cholesterol.
After trans fat was banned in some circles, many food manufacturers switched to coconut oil to produce processed items that maintain a long shelf life. This includes crackers and other baked goods.
Coconut is naturally low in sugar. A satisfying 3.5-ounce portion packs just 6 grams of sugar and 9 grams of fiber. But unless you’re buying fresh coconut, it’s hard to find unsweetened coconut. The shredded varieties are usually sweetened with sugar.
Savvy dieters know that when you add extra fat and sugar to your diet you’re adding calories—and little else as far as nutritional value is concerned.
Fat is the most nutrient-dense food around. Like all oils, just one tablespoon of coconut oil packs over 100 calories. Since coconut oil does not contain any protein, carbohydrate, vitamins, minerals or fiber, you’re basically ingesting empty calories—and calories count.
Jeff Novick is a registered dietitian who has become adept at sniffing out the hype surrounding “miracle foods.” After reviewing some of the scientific studies that coconut oil promoters use to justify their health claims, Jeff concluded that many of the proponents referred to studies involving the traditional diets of the Polynesian people who tend to have relatively low rates of heart disease despite their high intake of coconut and a higher level of blood cholesterol.
Novick notes there is more to the story.
There are other aspects of the traditional Polynesian diet and lifestyle that counteract the negative effects of the coconut. For example, the traditional Polynesian diet is very high in fiber thanks to the locally grown fresh fruits, veggies and root vegetables. This provides a high dose of plant sterols and protective Omega-3 fats. The diet is also very low in sodium.
In a traditional Polynesian diet, the main source of calories and fat comes from eating coconut. True. But despite taking in so much saturated fat, diet followers had a very low intake of dietary cholesterol. What this means is that claim of coconut oil as a disease-prevention supplement is fairly unsubstantiated.
Health expert Walter Willet of the Harvard School of Public Health says that most of the research on coconut oil and its affect on lowering cholesterol are inconclusive. He also emphasizes that the 90% saturated fat content of coconut oil is much higher than butter (64%), beef fat (40%) and even lard (also 40%).
Truth and Consequences
Coconut oil is mainly comprised of saturated fat. There’s no substantiated research to link consumption to better health for the average consumer.
It’s important to eat FOODS, not nutrients. Whole foods are comprised of a smorgasbord of unique ingredients that in concert with a satisfying meal provide you with extra energy and better health.
I totally agree with Dr. Willet’s observation that coconut is a wonderful flavor and there's no problem using coconut oil occasionally.
Novick, meanwhile, recommends that on days that you’re using coconut oil or eating coconut you should keep the rest of your foods low in saturated fat.
Saturated fat should never exceed 7% of your daily calories.
Susan Burke March is Registered and Licensed Dietitian Nutritionist and Certified Diabetes Educator, who as eDiet's Chief Nutritionist promotes the dietary health and well being of consumers worldwide.