Coconut Oil Confusion and Clarifications
Coconut oil made its way to center stage in summer 2017 as our hero-turned-villain. An article published by USA Today claimed coconut oil wasn’t healthy, and apparently never was (1). Unfortunately, this media buzz only caused confusion and concern.
Before I go further, let me state unequivocally: Yes, coconut oil is safe, healthy, and ok to eat. No, really. It’s good!
Now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s find out why this controversy keeps popping up. Simply put, health “experts” can’t seem to agree on whether saturated fats are healthy. But, if you look into who these “experts” are, you’ll find the naysayers (namely the American Heart Association) receive funding from sugar-laden cereal and cheap oil companies. Thus, we will always have a hard time getting the “real” story.
So, what are the two sides of this oil argument?
The argument against coconut oil says that coconut oil contains mostly saturated fats (solid at room temperature) and eating it increases LDL (bad) cholesterol. For years, scientists have used high LDL cholesterol as a surrogate marker for heart disease risk.
But, what is rarely discussed is that LDL cholesterol, by itself, is not inherently bad. It can, however, be dangerous in a couple instances:
1) when LDL cholesterol is oxidized (damaged by free radicals that float around our bodies and in our environment). This is why you want to eat lots of colorful plants (veggies, herbs, etc.)
2) when LDL cholesterol is small and dense it can cause more damage to your blood vessels. In fact, high levels of small dense LDL cholesterol is a good predictor of heart disease risk (2).
The arguments for using coconut oil are more compelling and practical:
- Better “good cholesterol”: In addition to raising LDL cholesterol, coconut oil also raises levels of our good HDL cholesterol.
- Metabolism: Coconut oil is made up of a combination of different sizes and types of fats: medium and long chain triglycerides. You may have heard of MCT oils (medium chain triglycerides). These are beneficial for us because MCTs can bypass normal circulation and go straight into energy production. Thus, it can improve metabolism by increasing “post-prandial (post-meal) thermogenesis.”
- Healthy gut: Coconut oil contains a combination of fatty acids, including caprylic, lauric and capric acids. Some of these fatty acids have antimicrobial activity that can help you get, and maintain, a healthy balance of gut bacteria (3).
- Unrefined coconut oil: the less processed an oil is, the better. You maintain the phytonutrients (plant nutrients) that are natural in the food, and you maintain the integrity of the oil (those good medium chain fats).
So, coconut oil will likely stay on a media rollercoaster, but now you have the resources to remind yourself why coconut oil is great on you dinner plate. Also, a final note: remember that using coconut oil in a high sugar brownie mix is different than sautéing coconut oil with veggies and a side of salmon.