Coconut oil is the main fat in every diet and ‘wholefood’ cookbook. Every new recipe has it in and health gurus everywhere are recommending the curative properties of this super-food. There are even wellness advocates out there recommending that we add a teaspoon or two into morning coffee (yuk). But does coconut oil really live up to all those claims about lowering cholesterol, protecting against insulin resistance and boosting metabolism?
Coconut Oil: The truth
Coconut oil isn’t really an oil, it’s a fat, and it’s 90% saturated fat. Saturated fat is the villain in the fat story. It increases bad blood cholesterol (LDL) which increases your risk of blocked arteries and heart disease. This is why we want to choose lean meats and avoid deep-fried takeaways. What is interesting though, is that some of the saturated fat in coconut oil (lauric acid) might actually be beneficial. Some early evidence is suggesting that it might raise good blood cholesterol (HDL). Some research has indicated that it might also be neutral, in that it doesn’t affect blood cholesterol either way too. But it’s important to note all of those ‘mights’. We don’t actually have enough good quality studies yet to know for sure. Even if these medium-chain triglycerides do have some health boosting properties, they only make up a small percentage of the total saturated fat. The rest is the long-chain bad guys, raising bad blood cholesterol.
Olive Oil: The forgotten hero
What I find really interesting about the coconut oil craze, is that we’ve forgotten about good old olive oil. Olive oil is a lot lower in saturated fats, and is over 70% monounsaturated fats. If saturated fats are the bad guys, then monounsaturated fats are the superheroes. They help reduce our bad blood cholesterol which can decrease your risk of having a heart attack or stroke. Other good sources of monounsaturated fats are nuts, avocados and canola oil. Olive oil has a lot of good quality evidence supporting it’s health benefits from these monounsaturated fats. Unlike coconut oil, it also contains some vitamins and polyphenols. These polyphenols can reduce inflammation (and are also in olives, grapes, spices, nuts, berries, apples, spinach and broccoli).
Don’t put all your eggs in one basket
As with anything nutrition – variety is the key. There is no such thing as a super-food and you can have too much of a good thing. All oils are fats, they are processed and they are energy dense (36 kJ in every gram, in fact). So keep your portions small and stick to whole foods where possible. Remember that you get fats from dairy, nuts, fish, olives and other real foods too. If you’re going to add any processed foods to your diet, olive oil would be on of the good ones.
Whichever oils or butter you use, If your household is going through a jar/bottle/tub a week – it’s too much. Try using a mister to decant your cooking oil into, get a good quality non stick pan, and try different sandwich spreads like avocado, dips or nut butters. Instead of coconut oil for flavour, try adding real coconut flakes to your cooking.
If you’ve got a jar of coconut oil at home and you don’t want to throw it out (because it cost $12) use it sparingly. It will last a long time thanks to those saturated fats keeping it from going rancid.
Are the foods in your pantry doing your health any favours? Get in touch and I can show you what to look for when choosing healthy foods for the family. And how to spot a bogus food trend.
Sarah Moore is a Registered Nutritionist in Perth Western Australia. She offers private consults in the privacy of your own home and specialises in weight loss, family nutrition and switching to a whole foods approach.