Loco For Coco(nut oil)

Is coconut oil healthy?

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After the most recent advisory report released by the American Heart Association (which addressed a wide array of dietary fats, not just coconut oil), you or your friends might be rethinking your assumptions when it comes to the buttery tropical fat.

I’ve already seen many people simply rejecting the newly released statement because it is pretty shocking and very much NOT what the health food industry has been selling us for years.

Coconut oil is supposed to be a miracle food – keeping us young, our skin glowing, and our arteries inflammation-free. Right?!

While the American Heart Association has come under scrutiny for its demonization of saturated fat that was largely behind our catastrophic adoption of trans fat, margarine and sugar-filled (but fat free!) processed foods, it is still one of the biggest, most highly regarded and influential health organizations in the country. Respect the information it makes public.

Critics of the article will complain that it does not contain any new research. This is not itself really a weakness in the article as much as it’s a weakness in what we’ve let the health food industry ignore. Coconut oil has always been shown to increase cholesterol. (Source, Source) It has always had more saturated fat than butter.

But now we do have a bit more of a nuanced understanding of the role of fat, particularly saturated fat, in our diets and how it affects our bodies. It is, unfortunately, not simple.

Some saturated fat, it seems, is not so bad.

Most of the time, eating other types of fat instead of saturated fat is better.

Usually, when we are avoiding saturated fat we are eating refined carbohydrates, which might be worse.

Quick lesson on fats:

Fat exists in molecules containing three fatty acids: so-called triglycerides. The fatty acids on each triglyceride range in length from short, to medium, to long. When the fatty acids are bendy because of double bonds in the carbon chain (the part that can be either long or short) they are called unsaturated and don’t fit tightly together. This is why we find oils, filled with unsaturated fat, liquid at room temperature. When fatty acids contain no double bonds, the carbons are bonded in a straight line and it’s easier for them to stack together in a sturdy piece – this is saturated fat and it’s why butter, beef fat, and cheese is solid.

Now what about chain length? Well, it all relates to how those fatty acids are absorbed into our body and used. Our bodies use fat for MANY reasons: cell membrane structure (hello skin), hormone production, happy environments for our neurons, transport and storage of essential nutrients like vitamin A, D, E and K, and production of energy (all those carbons!). Before they can do any of these things, they must get into our blood stream. Short (we don’t get many short chain fats from our diet, mostly these are produced by bacteria in our gut from fiber!) and medium chain fats are directly absorbed through the intestinal lining, and can be shuttled directly for use in the cells. Long chain fatty acids must be incorporated into a transport molecule called a chylomicron (a predecessor to cholesterol), and delivered to the liver first. It is this distinction that has isolated coconut oil as a potentially “healthier” fat, because of it’s higher-than-average concentration of medium chain fats.

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But, coconut oil isn’t 100% medium chain fatty acids. Most of the studies looking at the different health effects of medium chain fats have used MCT (medium chain triglyceride) oil, which does not contain any of the other types of saturated fatty acids that coconut oil does.

There is definitely a lack of research looking at the use of coconut oil as a fat in the diet, specifically. If there were more to look at, it would likely be as inconclusive as much other nutrition research looking at the effects of single foods, because at the end of the day, it’s about the bigger picture (read: what else you’re eating with your coconut oil).

But the stuff that IS out there is pretty clear –> coconut oil seems to raise LDL cholesterol like other saturated fats. LDL has been the target of cardiologists for decades because of its apparent association for the risk of heart disease. LDL is more inflammatory than HDL cholesterol, and the more LDL you have, combined with other sources of inflammation (stress, poor insulin sensitivity/high blood sugar, allergies and illness), the worse off your arteries will be.

That’s definitely a simplification, and there is still a lot we are discovering about the nuances of cholesterol and if it is truly a good predictor of heart disease. We still know that high HDL seems to be a good thing, and high triglycerides seem to be a bad thing, but high LDL doesn’t seem to always predict heart disease like we thought it did for so long.

In the mean time, we need to understand that we aren’t eating fats in isolation. A fat in and of itself is neither healthy nor unhealthy. WE are either healthy or unhealthy. We can choose to protect our health by thinking about the bigger picture.

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Dried coconut on a super-satisfying bowl of sweet potato porridge with nuts, seeds and berries

What does our whole diet look like? We can choose to eat butter on top of vegetables or on top of pancakes. We can top a veggie scramble with cheese or drown our pasta in Alfredo sauce. We can put coconut oil in our black bean brownies.

Populations that consume coconut oil regularly are also usually those with a largely vegetable-based diet, low in animal fats and dairy. The more plants in your diet, the better your health, research shows. So this in itself is protective of health, and the amount of saturated fat in the coconut oil doesn’t seem to be enough to counteract that effect. Zip over to Western civilization and you will not find the same plant-based diet. Adding coconut oil to your coffee in the morning, unfortunately, probably won’t offset the cheese on your hamburger at lunch or your pepperoni pizza at dinner.

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Dried coconut on a warming bowl of breakfast quinoa with alllll the berries and almonds from Mother Juice

If you enjoy coconut oil, no need to cut it out entirely. Just realize you are eating a saturated fat. I’m all for everything in moderation. All foods fit, including coconut oil and butter and cheese. Personally, I don’t typically include coconut oil in my diet. I find it expensive and I prefer whole milk yogurt, cheese, nuts & seeds and avocados. Eat whatever makes your food more satisfying and enjoyable – fats like coconut oil might make you feel more full during the day. Eat them with your whole grains, your starchy vegetables, your rainbow of fresh produce and your proteins of choice. Just like no one food is going to be the root of all of our problems, no one food will cure us of them either. While I’m not wholly against or for the AHA report on coconut oil, I am thankful that it is out there. Let us be reminded that foods are not healthy or unhealthy – we are made better or worse off because of the ways we eat them, and balance, while unsexy, is k-e-y.