By Simone Jennings, Registered Dietitian, Interior Health
Coconut oil has gained a lot of attention in recent years. It has a reputation of being the new ‘super food’ protecting against cancer and heart disease, improving digestion, curing Alzheimer’s disease, promoting weight loss, the list goes on. Yet major health organizations are not on board with the health claims as they are not well supported by scientific studies, but then why the hype? I thought I’d dig a little deeper into the topic of coconut oil to try to better understand why health professionals are at odds with popular internet health claims.
What makes coconut oil unique? First of all, coconut oil is about 90% saturated fat. For comparison sake, butter contains about 64% saturated fat, olive oil 13% and canola oil 7%. Saturated fat is considered the ‘bad fat’ that increases risks for heart disease and is primarily found in animal foods.
It turns out not all saturated fat is created equally. Our bodies metabolize the fat from coconuts differently because it is high in something called medium chain triglycerides (MCTs). MCTs are transported directly from the intestines to the liver where they are burned as fuel and cause a slight rise in metabolic rate. This has given coconut oil the reputation of promoting weight loss. Unfortunately there are few studies done on coconut oil and weight loss and significant weight loss benefits have not been seen. Maybe more research is needed? Or maybe we can’t count on one single food to cause significant weight loss.
The big question is if we know it is high in saturated fat will adding coconut oil to the diet do more harm than good in regards to heart health? Coconut oil increases both good and bad cholesterol levels. We know that increasing bad cholesterol increases the risk for heart disease, but it is not clear if increasing good cholesterol at the same time will counteract or lower that risk. This is why many major organizations including the World Health Organization, American Heart Association, and Dietitians of Canada still recommend against using significant amounts of coconut oil.
However, personally I cannot ignore the fact that fresh coconuts and unrefined coconut oil has been part of traditional diets in tropical countries around the world for many, many years. When studies were done in Polynesian islands where people consume most of their fat from coconuts there were no findings that heart disease was a significant problem. A physician from the Harvard School of Public Health points out that plant based oils, including coconut oil, contain more than just fat. They also contain antioxidants and other nutrients so their overall effects can’t be predicted just by changes in cholesterol. Yet, he still recommends using sparingly.
My thoughts are if you use coconut oil choose a virgin oil and use in moderation along with a variety of heart healthy fats such as olive oil, nuts and avocados. I have coconut oil in my cupboard, right next to a whole variety of other plant based oils. I think coconut oil tastes delicious, has a longer shelf life than other oils, and is good for cooking at high temperatures. I sometimes use it when making a stir fry, or add it to my rice or oatmeal to give a yummy coconut flavour. I’ve even used it when making stove top popcorn. It also works well for moisturizing dry skin! A ‘cure all’? I need more proof, but versatile and tasty? Yes!