Coconut Oil: What’s the Verdict?

Coconut Oil has been a hot item for the past few years, yet its health benefits are very much in debate. One Harvard professor calls coconut oil ‘pure poison,’ while other groups call it a ‘superfood.’ What gives?

The question centers around coconut oil’s fat content. Coconut oil is high in saturated fat, which we’ve all been told can lead to cardiovascular disease. Saturated fat has been shown to raise LDL (the bad) cholesterol, and approximately 80% of coconut oil is saturated fat. That’s a pretty high percentage, compared to 50% in butter and 60% in beef fat.

However, the TYPE of saturated fat in something matters, too. First of all, saturated fats are found in animal products, like beef, butter, cheese and cream, as well as a few plant sources, such as coconut and palm kernel oil. Fats, both saturated and unsaturated, are made up of fatty-acid ‘chains,’ and are of varying lengths based on how many carbon atoms they contain. These fatty acids can be short-, medium- and long-chain fatty acids, and each have different properties.

Medium-chain fatty acids, also known as medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), are shorter than the long-chain fatty acids and are broken down differently in our bodies than longer-chain fatty acids. They are metabolized more easily and may have beneficial effects on weight-loss, diabetes and even seizures. Coconut oil is made up of 60-65% of medium-chain fatty acids, which means that while it’s high in a more beneficial type of saturated fat than other fat sources.

For example, lauric acid, which contains 12 carbon atoms and is the longest of the ‘medium-chain fatty acids,’ raises total cholesterol largely because it increases the HDL (the good) cholesterol. This would seem to have a ‘protective,’ or at least neutral, effect on overall heart-health.

Additionally, it turns out that dietary intake of saturated fats may not be as detrimental to our health as we once believed. While some saturated fats can raise LDL cholesterol, some other fatty acids may not, and even others may have a protective effect, such as omega-3 fatty acids.   Also, other dietary factors, such as carbohydrate intake, and non-dietary factors, such as exercise and genetics, have direct effects on heart health as well.

So, because coconut oil is unique in that it’s made up of medium-chain fatty acids (and not long-chain fatty acids), it probably isn’t the ‘poison’ some people may make it out to be. However, just because its fatty-acid profile isn’t as ‘bad’ as a typical saturated fat doesn’t mean it’s a ‘superfood.’

As a fat source, coconut oil is just that—high in fat. We need fats in our diet, and they help us stay feeling full and satiated the longest. Fats also help us metabolize other nutrients, such as vitamins and minerals. Practicing moderation with coconut oil is likely the most healthy approach, such as adding a tablespoon to your smoothie or using a little to cook with as part of a balanced diet.

Coconut oil is touted by some groups to cure everything from Alzheimer’s and cavities to obesity and seizures.   Coconut oil, or any other single food, isn’t a cure-all. While some studies are showing beneficial effects of adding coconut oil to the diet, there isn’t enough evidence for it to be put on a pedestal with the likes of salmon or almonds or blueberries…at least not yet.

What’s more important for overall health is to eat a balanced diet, high in fruits and vegetables, lean sources of protein and healthy fats (more unsaturated than saturated), and drink lots of water. In addition, get exercise daily, sufficient sleep and keep your stress level in check, rather than relying on one ‘superfood’ to keep the doctor away (and that includes apples)!

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