Nutrition Talk: Coconut Oil
Coconut oil, and all things coconut have been touted as being amazingly healthy lately. I even have clients tell me they are supplementing their diets with pure coconut oil to help with weight loss. This involves adding spoonfuls of coconut oil to smoothies, coffee, using large amounts in cooking and other foods.
But is there merit to the hype? This image shows the different fat profiles of various oils. You'll notice that coconut has the biggest red line, meaning the most saturated fat content.
The recent hype about coconut is based on a couple of things:
1. Recent attention given to flaws in 1980's studies that linked saturated fat with heart disease; and
2. The fact that part of (note: not all of) the fat in coconut is MCT (medium chain fats) that are metabolized differently in our bodies.
Now, the next question is does any of this matter? Does the fact that there were some errors in the classic studies in the 80's mean that saturated fat is actually good for us, or that we should eat more of it? Well, the easy answer is no. The real answer is that diet is complicated and that no one food or nutrient is responsible for the state of our health and well-being.
I'm going to share a piece of a post by Helen from Food and Nonsense, one of my favourite blogs, because I think the way she puts it is hard to beat:
I do want to highlight her point about replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats. This is backed by good evidence. Studies have shown that replacing saturated fats with unsaturated ones in our diets lowers cardiovascular disease risk. This research is one of the reasons our dietary guidelines still say to limit saturated fats in our diets. Here's the link to Helen's post on Saturated Fat. It's so well written and worth the read, as are all of her posts (I love the one about Bulletproof Coffee too)!
As for the MCT (medium chain fats) thing - it's important to note that only about half of the saturated fat in coconut oil is actually MCT. The rest is just regular old long-chain saturated fat, so the claims about MCTs only really don't apply to the oil as a whole. Yes, we absorb MCTs differently and yes, we burn them more easily for energy, but they still contribute energy (calories) to our diets. They are not calorie-free or a source of "instant energy", and contribute to overall calorie intake. Calories above what you need are still stored as fat, regardless of the source. Studies that have shown benefits with MCT oil have been done using pure MCT oil, not the combination of various saturated fats found in coconut oil. The other half of the fats in coconut oil are the kind that have been linked with higher LDL (bad cholesterol) levels. MCT oil is particularly useful for people who have a difficult time absorbing fat from their diets, but there isn't enough evidence to actually confirm any health benefits in people who don't need to consume MCTs for this reason at this point. Because of this mix, the American Dietetic Association doesn't recommend consuming coconut oil at this time. Of course, the reality is that it's not as simple as consume or don't - so many other factors apply. See this post from Eat Right Ontario for more info.
So after all of that, what's the bottom line?
Can coconut oil be part of a healthful diet? Yes, absolutely, but it's a fat like any other and should be used in moderation - buy the good stuff (virgin) and use it as the fat when you want to take advantage of the flavour it provides.
Should you go crazy and start adding coconut oil to everything, or using it as a substitute for all other fats? No. It's an oil like any other, and there is still some evidence saying that replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats (like olive or canola oil) may have a positive impact on health. Also, oil is a dense source of calories - 1 Tbsp of coconut oil, like any other oil has 120 calories. It makes no sense that adding tablespoons of oil and extra calories to your diet will help you lose weight!