I’m back on a coconut oil kick since I found a great sale and bought a few jars. I do love anything coconut!
Once maligned as a cholesterol-raising, artery-clogging, waist-widening ingredient to be avoided, coconut oil has made a surprising comeback among health enthusiasts.
While the science of nutrition has long been recognized as volatile and fluid (e.g., Are eggs healthy or not? Is soy good or bad? Margarine or butter?), there’s been an unexpected change of coconut oil from a demonized “bad” food to the purported “cure-all” for a variety of health ailments. The nutritional composition of coconut oil remains the same, namely, about 90 percent saturated fat, so I started wondering why it was back in favor.
The growing interest in coconut oil seems due to at least two factors. First, scientific understanding has evolved regarding the effects of saturated fat (the main ingredient in coconut oil) on heart health. And second, a growing number of people who either avoid animal fats or are looking for a new flavor have discovered that coconut oil, among its other purported benefits, can transform a bland dish or baked food into a culinary masterpiece.
As science has evolved, the villains have become less villainous!
The next few paragraphs contain some thorough scientific information. If you just want the bottom line, skip ahead and go to the key recommendation section.
The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the American Heart Association recommendations for optimal heart health advise consumers to avoid saturated fats and restrict intake to less than 10 percent of total calories consumed. Physicians, nutritionists and other health experts have long warned patients and clients of the risks of a diet that contains too much saturated fat. Primarily, they are talking about a sharp rise in low-density lipoprotein (LDL), also known as the “bad” cholesterol.
As a reminder, saturated fats typically are solid at room temperature. Saturated fat comes in primarily four forms in the food supply: lauric acid, myristic acid, palmitic acid and stearic acid. Animal fats such as red meat and full-fat dairy products contain mostly palmitic and stearic acids, while tropical vegetable oils such as palm and coconut oils contain primarily lauric and myristic acids.
As you might imagine, the different types of saturated fat have different effects on cholesterol. Compared to other saturated fats, stearic acid exerts a beneficial effect on cholesterol, in that it decreases LDL cholesterol and decreases the ratio of total cholesterol to high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. Lauric acid and myristic acid cause a much greater increase in total cholesterol than palmitic acid.
While lauric acid, the main saturated fat in coconut oil, causes a large increase in cholesterol, the increase comes mostly from increasing the high-density lipoprotein (HDL), the so-called “good” cholesterol. This differential elevation in “good” cholesterol (and thus a decrease in the total cholesterol:HDL cholesterol ratio) is one reason that many health enthusiasts are embracing coconut oil with such enthusiasm.
While coconut oil is mostly comprised of lauric acid, it does contain other types of saturated fat that raise the “bad” LDL cholesterol level.
However, even though saturated fat raises LDL levels, a growing body of scientific evidence suggests that saturated fats may not be quite as bad as previously believed.
Last year, the Journal of the American Dietetic Association published a series of short articles written by leading nutrition experts that summarized what they called “The Great Fat Debate” (Zelman, 2011). Overall, the debate provided these key recommendations and findings:
- It is not the amount of fat intake, but rather the type of fat that is important for health. With that said, fat is more calorically dense than carbohydrates and proteins, and consumers should be careful to balance calories consumed with calories expended.
- The evidence against saturated fat is “not as strong as the dietary guidelines may have interpreted,” but polyunsaturated (especially) and monounsaturated fats are clearly healthy.
- Saturated fats should not be viewed as “good for you,” but a healthy, balanced diet can include saturated fats.
- Replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat (like omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids) is beneficial for overall health and cardiovascular disease-risk reduction.
- Trans fats are unhealthy and should be avoided.
- Remember that dietary fats are never purely one type of fat, and thus the goal should be to eat a balance of food types, rather than focus on specific nutrients.
So what does all of this mean in the case for or against coconut oil?
Virgin coconut oil may exert a modestly beneficial effect on blood lipids (through elevation of HDL cholesterol) and its regular consumption probably will not lead to harmful cardiovascular health outcomes.
However, oils that are high in polyunsaturated fatty acids (e.g., safflower, poppyseed, flaxseed and grapeseed oils) and monounsaturated fatty acids (almond, avocado and olive oils) probably provide greater health benefits. Note that partially hydrogenated coconut oil is detrimental to health due to its high trans-fatty acid content.
Of course, coconut-oil lovers like me value it for much more than its health profile. While some mono- and polyunsaturated fats may be healthier, they do not have the same desirable cooking characteristics of coconut oil, such as the stability to withstand high temperatures, the sweet texture or the rich taste, all of which make it ideal for cooking.
While many of the purported benefits of coconut oil have not been rigorously studied, some people report improvements in weight, diabetes, chronic fatigue, Crohns disease, irritable bowel syndrome, thyroid conditions, and skin health. One of my favorite uses for coconut oil is on my skin. It feels great to moisturize my face with coconut oil. As research evolves, these claims may be substantiated or proven incorrect. We’ll wait and see.
In the meantime, it may be time to give the illustrious coconut oil a try.