Hot Topic: Coconut Oil
Over the past several years, coconut oil has emerged as a “healthier” alternative to oils such as olive oil, canola oil, and lard. But is there any substantial evidence to back up these claims?
Let’s start by establishing what the majority of all oils are: fat. “Fat” is not the enemy when it comes to healthy eating. In fact, 20-35% of our diets should be coming from fat. This is less than carbohydrates at 55-65% but even more than protein, which comes in around 10-15% of the diet. We need fat in our diets in order to properly function. Read that again. We need fat in order for our bodies to function the way they were created to work. Fat is good! It plays a role in vitamin absorption, protection, insulation, slowing of digestion, and satiety (fullness) after a meal just to name a few.
Now that we have established the importance of fat, let’s look at the different types:
- Saturated fats have no double bond between carbon molecules because they are saturated with hydrogen molecules. They are usually solid at room temperature. Take butter for example. If you leave butter on the table for a couple hours it will remain mostly solid. Too much saturated fat can raise cholesterol levels.
- Trans fats. Few trans fats occur naturally in foods (meat and dairy products), but the majority are man made. Hydrogen is added to vegetable oil during processing, making this fat solid at room temperature. This process results in “partially hydrogenated oil.” Not only does trans fat raise LDL (“bad”) cholesterol but it also lowers HDL (“good”) cholesterol.
- Monounsaturated fats have one unsaturated double bond. These fats are typically liquid at room temperature, for example, olive oil. Monounsaturated fats can lower LDL cholesterol and also contribute to vitamin E consumption.
- Polyunsaturated fats have more than one unsaturated carbon bond (double bond). Polyunsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature but begin to solidify slightly when chilled. Examples of these fats are soybean oil, corn oil, and oil from fatty fish like salmon.
If this was all we knew about fats we can easily tell that large amounts saturated and trans fats have a negative impact on the body while monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats have positive benefits. Where does coconut oil fall on this spectrum? Click on this chart:
Coconut oil is often marketed as a better alternative to every other oil. However, it contains the highest amount of saturated fat compared to other oils, coming in at 91% saturated fat. Compare that to lard which weighs in at 43%. Lard! And yet consumers are rushing to the store to purchase coconut oil because it is “healthier” and more “natural.”
I am not here to bash coconut oil. As with most foods, it can have a place as part of a healthy, balanced diet. We are also just looking at a small piece of a much larger puzzle. I mostly want to warn you against jumping on the latest bandwagon because a product pops up on Google or the news as a healthier and better alternative to something else.
Facts don’t lie. We know that saturated fat has a place but must be consumed in moderation. But if someone is changing to make the majority of their fat source to come from coconut oil, it will not take much to exceed the daily limit of saturated fat. Lard is 43% saturated fat. Coconut oil is 91%. Need I say more?
Yes, I will say more. Be informed. Just because something sounds good doesn’t mean it is. And if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. It is easy to fall prey to the latest fad. I have a background in nutrition and still have to stop and truly evaluate what is being said. When the next greatest, magic bullet that comes along in the wellness world, stop and think. Without doing any research I would bet that there is part of it that is true and part of it that is false. Enjoy a balanced view and you won’t be tossed here and there by the latest cure all in health. Freedom will surely follow.