Coconut oil…The story continues

The fat and sugar debate is a prominent one because these two factors have the power to wreak havoc in our lives. Too much fat or sugar is definitely bad and I suppose that is why we keep on searching for answers on how best to deal with these two and maintain a healthy lifestyle. One of my previous posts focused on canola oil and in this post, I would like to look at another popular oil which I happen to use – coconut oil.

Stories

Coconut oil’s popularity has grown for a number of reasons and the general word out is that the oil is a great choice. Several celebrities have fueled the growth of coconut oil (celebrities can really get people devoted to something), and the oil has even been dubbed the best butter replacement in vegan cooking. Personally, I have cooked with virgin coconut oil for a little over a year, and I have used it in my hair and as part of my skincare regime for nearly as long. I have to say I love the results both in the kitchen and on my body.

I admit that I am one of those people who started using coconut oil for cooking and for beauty reasons because I read of its many wonderful benefits. I never really took the time to see if there was another side to the oil because I was blown away by all the facts in support of it.

I have now established that not everyone thinks that coconut oil is that great, in fact, one Harvard professor labeled it ‘pure poison’. Not everyone takes such a harsh stand against coconut oil, but many nutritionists agree that research on the oil is not extensive enough to support all its supposed health benefits. This finding piqued my interest and got me searching for the facts behind the stories. I hope the facts I managed to pick up will shed some light on how good coconut oil is and how you can use it as part of a healthy diet.

Facts

chinese wok with vegetables and pot with lid on the stovetop
Coconut oil has a fairly high smoke point.

Pros

  • Coconut oil is a great choice for cooking because of its stability and ability to resist heat-induced damage. This makes it a better choice over other oils with low smoking points or those more susceptible to oxidative damage. Coconut oil is suitable for most mid-temperature cooking and it is slow to oxidize because of its high saturated fat content. The saturated fat also makes it highly resistant to rancidity and gives it a relatively long life.
  • The trade-off between the proportions of fatty acids in oil is important. Coconut oil has both omega 6 and 9 fatty acids but in very low proportions. So where is the benefit in that? High levels of omega 6 fatty acids may cause reactions that damage body protein and increase the risk of health problems like heart attacks, hypertension, and stroke. The benefit of coconut oil lies in its composition which consists of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) and not long-chain triglycerides (LCTs). MCTs are easily digested by the body unlike LCTs, and this makes it highly unlikely for MCTs to be stored as fat. On the other hand, LCTs are more difficult to break down and they increase the body’s toxic burden.

Cons

  • The same saturated fat that makes coconut oil resistant to rancidification is the same element that has been the center of most of the debate surrounding how healthy the oil is. About 90% of coconut oil is saturated fat.  Nutritionists and organizations like the American Heart Society advise that coconut oil is best avoided because it promotes high levels of cholesterol. We now know that many claims against saturated fat are unsubstantial, but I think it is important to understand this point further. 
chart showing fat acid proportions of several diet fat varieties
Coconut oil is mainly ‘healthy’ saturated fat.

Research has shown that LDL cholesterol, the ‘bad’ cholesterol, is not necessarily bad because it does not exist as on type. LDL cholesterol exists as large LDL and small, dense LDL. The large LDL cholesterol particles cannot penetrate the arteries easily, but the small ones can. Results indicate that it is the small LDL which increases the risk of heart disease. Additionally, another study showed that consuming more saturated fat changes the small particles into larger ones, and this reduces the heart disease risk factor.

I also read through an interesting study which showed the effect of low-carb and low-fat diets on LDL cholesterol. It looks like the low-carb diet, which tends to be higher in saturated fat, resulted in lower LDL levels probably because the low-fat diet has high sugar levels which are terrible for health. No conclusive long-term link has been established between saturated fat and heart disease, although it has been shown that polyunsaturated fat can lower heart disease risk. The National Institutes of Health says that most cases of high cholesterol are a result of leading an unhealthy lifestyle. You see, it is not just about the oil, it is about the overall effort you put into taking care of your health.

  • The major problem I have with most of the coconut oil I come across is the processing bit. This is the same problem I have with canola oil – too much processing ruins a good thing. Businesses are after high profit margins and the fact that the oil is exposed to harsh processing is likely a secondary issue. Coconut oil contains phytochemicals which have antioxidant benefits, but the processing probably strips the oil of these antioxidants and other fatty acids. I think it is best to go for virgin or extra virgin coconut oil if possible, and even then, use the oil cautiously because labels are just pieces of paper that are potentially misleading.

Fact vs. Assumption

large bowl of lettuce surrounded by small bowls of fruit
Create that balance…

I do think that coconut oil is better than other oils, like say, sunflower oil, but ultimately, the focus should not just be on the oil. The focus needs to shift to aiming for overall good healthy eating patterns. When you think of it, any fat in excess is bad news, period. It is better to use small amounts of coconut oil than excessive olive oil regardless of the latter probably being the best oil we have, all things considered.

I use coconut oil and it works for me. If you can get your hands on some virgin or extra virgin, cold-pressed coconut oil, then that is great, but you can still use the ‘average’ coconut oil sparingly and remain healthy. You just need moderation to create a balance.  I have said it before and I will repeat it again now – focus on incorporating unprocessed foods into your eating plan and pay attention to the cooking methods you use.

Think fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meat, organic produce, and cooking that requires little to no fat. Be concerned about being healthy rather than spending too much time obsessing over which oil is best. You will probably never find anything that ticks all the boxes, but with a bit of diligence and the right amount of knowledge, living healthy is not so difficult; it is just a matter of choice. What do you choose today? A holistic approach to health, or a narrow-minded one that is more concerned about one food component and not the rest. I choose the full picture, do you?

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