Coconut Oil: The Great Debate

Coconut oil is a hot topic, which prompted me to do some digging. As I gathered the facts about coconut oil’s health claims, I found it daunting because it seems half the information I read is pro-coconut oil and the other half is anti-coconut oil. This obviously makes it difficult to draw a conclusion on whether or not to incorporate it into your diet.

Back in the day when I went through my nutrition training, coconut oil was a heart-health “no-no” thanks to its 90% saturated fat content, which is a type of fat we’ve been told to avoid for decades. However, get this…it seems the claim to reduce dietary saturated fat to improve cardiovascular health may be incorrect

From what I’ve seen, recommendations to reduce saturated fat came from one study in 1958, which was potentially faulty, but the USDA went with it, the US dietary guidelines were established, and the recommendation snowballed from there. This probably explains why people on the Atkins’s diet don’t typically end up with high cholesterol levels. It seems sugars and starches are probably more to blame for heart issues than saturated fat. Crazy, huh?! I digress…back to coconut oil, but as you can see, fat may not be as “bad” as we were once taught.

How Medium-Chain Fatty Acids Effect Our Health (Lauric Acid in Coconut)

There are different types of saturated fat: short-chain, medium-chain, and long-chain fatty acids. Of the fat in coconut oil, 65% is medium-chain fatty acids, and this fat is metabolized differently than long-chain fatty acids. Medium chain fatty acids are absorbed and shuttled directly to the liver, where they are oxidized (burned) for energy. Medium-chain fatty acids help lower the risk of both atherosclerosis and heart disease. It is primarily due to the medium-chain fatty acids in coconut oil that makes it so special and so beneficial.

Half of the medium-chain fatty acids found in a coconut is Lauric acid, which appears to have antiviral and antifungal properties, and support immune function. Lauric acid is actually present in breast milk; infants convert it to a substance called monolaurin that protects them from infections.  

Cooking With Coconut Oil and Other Fats

For those who avoid animal products, such as vegetarians or vegans, coconut oil is a great option.

I suggest continuing to use a variety of fats as part of a healthy diet, but in limited portions. Too much of any fat in the diet, regardless of the type, can cause weight gain and contribute to diabetes and heart disease. One tablespoon of coconut oil contains 117 calories, 14 grams of fat, 12 grams of saturated fat, and no vitamins or minerals.

The cooking fats I recommend are coconut oil, organic pasture butter, ghee (clarified butter), avocado oil and grapeseed oil. I especially recommend using pasture butter with kids because it is a great source of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which contains omega-3 fats and is anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, and pro-muscle building.

Smoke Point of Coconut Oil

For cooking, you want to use an oil with a higher smoke point. Smoke point is an important consideration if you’re planning to cook at high heat, such as when you’re frying or grilling. At an oil’s smoke point, nutrients are destroyed and potentially health-harming compounds are formed. Coconut oil has a decently high smoke point.

Coconut oil smoke point (virgin, unrefined)              350°F             177°C

Coconut oil smoke point (refined with stabilizers)     450°F             232°C

I will also point out, don’t confuse higher fat, nutrient rich diets with high fat, nutrient deprived diets. Eat the “real food” version of something. For example, meat from naturally fed animals vs. processed meat. Big difference!

To conclude, it seems the debate over coconut oil lies in a gray area, rather than black or white. As I mentioned previously, include a variety of fats as part of a healthy diet, and in limited quantities.

In Health and Happiness,

Kelly Harrington, MS, RDN

Registered Dietitian Nutritionist for Healthy Goods

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