Did you know that coconuts are not actually nuts, but fruits? For you botany buffs out there, the coconut is actually a drupe (from the pitted fruit family) of the coconut palm tree. Coconuts find their origin story in the Indo-Pacific region where they have been consumed for centuries. Today, it is quite apparent that we have taken note of this historically important fruit and its products, seeing there has been an increasing popularity of edible coconut products on the market.
Over the last few decades, the spotlight has focused in on coconut oil, and its numerous purported health benefits. Health claims on coconut oil range from boosting metabolism, increasing satiety, improving cognitive function, cardioprotective benefits, antioxidant, to antimicrobial activities. One would think that consuming coconut oil is safe, because it has stood the test of time for centuries, where indigenous populations in India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Polynesia and the Philippines consumed large amounts (up to 60% of their diet) of this edible oil, without detriment to health. However, recently, this oil’s health food status has been challenged by The American Heart Association (AHA), who recently released a new guideline on the consumption of dietary saturated fats, and their role in increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease. This advisory, has since been the focus of many media headlines, and has renewed the dialogue in medical offices across North America about whether the consumption of coconut oil, high in saturated fats, is heart healthy. Before you go and throw away that tub of coconut oil sitting in your pantry, let’s review the evidence.
First things first – not all coconut oils are created equally. Virgin coconut oil, (unlike the refined, processed coconut oil used in commercial baking) is extracted from the fresh and mature coconut kernel, via a pressing method that ensures the oil retains its antioxidant and nutrient content. Because of its unique biochemistry and low melting point, coconut oil can exist comfortably in two phases – solid at room temperature, and liquid in warmer temperatures. Coconut oil’s resistance to rancidity, shelf stability, and mild taste make this an excellent oil of choice for sautéing and pan-frying.
Coconut oil is mostly comprised of saturated fats – up to 92%! This is because it contains a high content of medium chain triglycerides (MCTs). These medium-length fatty chains are uniquely processed by our bodies; they are rapidly absorbed in the intestines, quickly transported to the liver, and converted into energy by our bodies. In comparison, longer length fatty chains require more extensive metabolic processing, packaging, and are directly involved in cholesterol formation and transport. MCTs are easy to digest, and have been proven to increase metabolic activity, reduce appetite, and improve satiety throughout the day. Coconut oil also contains lauric acid (40%) – which has been demonstrated to possess excellent anti-microbial abilities, thus makes it a very unique oil to not only consume, but apply topically onto the skin for various ailments, including acne!
Studies have repeatedly demonstrated that saturated fats in the diet (including coconut oil saturated fats) have been linked to elevated LDL cholesterol values. LDL cholesterol is often identified as the small, “bad” cholesterol that causes the formation of fatty buildups in arteries, and a predictor of heart disease. However, zeroing in on LDL in isolation, is like trying to solve a puzzle without all of the pieces. LDL particle size is an even stronger predictor of future cardiovascular events; smaller, more dense particles are detrimental to our heart health, more so than larger ones. Coconut oil and saturated fats have been linked to increases in larger, “fluffier”, benign LDL particles; whereas diets associated with lower saturated fat intake were more significantly associated with the bad, smaller LDL particles. Furthermore, coconut oil has also been demonstrated to raise heart healthy HDL cholesterol, and lower the LDL:HDL ratio – both very important predictors of heart disease. Finally, it is most noteworthy to mention that studies conducted on South Pacific populations demonstrate that they have very low incidences of coronary heart disease, despite their high consumption of coconut oil. Why? These traditional diets have significantly higher amounts of fruits, vegetables, and fish than the average North American Diet.
The AHA’s most recent guideline, reminds us that everything in moderation is best. Consuming anything in excess could be deleterious to your health. The lesson here is that we can safely continue to enjoy cooking and eating coconut or MCT oil, but this is most healthful when complemented by a diet rich in whole-foods, low in sugar, that places great emphasis on consuming a mostly (if not all) high-quality plant-based diet. Coconut oil, or any other fat or oil high in saturated fat (including butter, dairy, and other animal products) should be used sparingly (only 5% of daily calorie intake) in those that consume a diet that more closely resembles the Standard North American Diet.
Please speak to your health care provider if you have any further questions about the safe consumption of coconut oil.
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